Hebrew for Vulcans

(Disclaimer: This entry may sound really dumb to folks who speak Hebrew fluently. I know there are a few of you dovrei Ivrit out there among my readers, so apologies for stating the obvious! And, if I get things wrong, please correct me.)

In my most recent entry about studying prayerbook Hebrew, I promised a follow-up about what I find really cool about Hebrew as a language.

It’s children’s building blocks.

No, I don’t mean literal blocks, although I am sure you can buy some nifty ones in Israeli toy stores.

It’s building blocks as the metaphor I use in my head for thinking about the roots of words in Hebrew.

Every verb in Hebrew is based on a three-consonant root. The verb “to speak,” for instance, is based on dalet-bet-resh (DBR) or דבר. The verb “to learn” is based on lamed-mem-dalet (LMD) or למד.

To conjugate the verbs, or turn them into different tenses, you take those same three consonants and trim them with different stuff — add or subtract vowels, endings etc.

For instance, “I speak” is ani meDaBeRet. “I spoke” is DiBaRti. “He will speak” is yiDaBeR.

I picture the roots of Hebrew verbs as a set of three square alphabet blocks. You can move them around, place them closer together or futher apart, and add smaller blocks at the beginning or end to create all sorts of interesting structures. But the structures are all ultimately built on those same three alphabet blocks.

And it’s not just conjugations of verbs. There are all sorts of nouns built around those same three-consonant roots.

Take the noun DiBuR it has the same three core letters as “I speak” and it means “speech.”  Or DiBeR  means “commandment,” as in ten of them. And DaVaR means “word.” (Uh oh, here’s where it gets complicated; the letter bet can sometimes turn into vet, so a B sound becomes a V sound. But let’s not worry about that now.)

It’s so logical. It’s so geometrical, so spatial. It appeals to the part of me that aspires to the rationality of a Vulcan.

Mr. Spock demonstrates the Hebrew letter "shin"

If you know the basic building blocks, you can figure out the meaning of lots of unfamiliar words. Just look for the root!

You can also make connections. For instance, way back in my teens, I learned the verb “to learn” — it’s one of the first things they teach you in an Ulpan, or modern conversational Hebrew class. Ani lomedet Ivrit— “I am studying Hebrew!” With LMD as the root of “to learn.”

It wasn’t until this winter, when I started thinking about Hebrew in a religious context, that I realized that those same three building blocks are at the root of the word TaLMuD — the collection of rabbinic writings and law that are central to Judaism.

I think about Talmud a little differently now, knowing it is not just an arbitrary name for a set of writings,  but has a literal meaning (“learning”) that shares a root with everyday words like “to learn” and “student.”

It’s not only profound connections like the literal meaning of Talmud. Last week in my prayerbook Hebrew class, I learned the verb BaTaCH — to trust in, or rely on. (As in, “trust in God.”)

And then I realized that this ancient religious word shares the B-T-CH root with two words that are used all the time in modern Hebrew — bitachon (“security,” as in military security or social security) and betach (which means ‘of course” — or more literally, I realized, “for sure.”)

I suppose that for native Hebrew speakers, none of this is a big deal. But for someone learning the language, each connection is an “ah ha!” moment.

I wonder what it would be like to be a native or fluent Hebrew speaker, who without even thinking about it perceives countless connections and connotations of words. When I read a line of prayerbook or Biblical Hebrew, I plod along one word at a time, happy if I can translate each one into an English counterpart. What would it be like not to have to translate, and to automatically perceive all the shadings of each word, the translucent ribbons connecting it to other words?

I don’t know enough languages to have a sense if Hebrew — with its beautifully geometrical building-block roots — is structured more logically than most. It certainly seems to have more of an internal logic than English.

Any linguists out there want to weigh in? Or perhaps some Vulcans?


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4 Responses to “Hebrew for Vulcans”

  1. Lori K Says:

    I don’t know much about Vulcans, and less about Hebrew, but Leonard Nimoy is definitely Jewish. As for other languages, it seems that most of them are more logical and flexible than English, although we seem to delight in mixing up our language and idioms to form slang that varies from year to year.

  2. Elliot Eder Says:

    IDB: I kept waiting in your blog post for the self-awareness part. But it didn’t happen. Your last name coincides with the very Hebrew word you discuss. And your last name was one reason (among many) that you immediately seemed so cool in college: Daber = DeBare = to speak (at least when pronounced by Chicagoans).

    Though we never discussed it. And ‘daber/DBR’ was one of the few Hebrew words/triads I actually retained from survivors-teachers in afternoon Hebrew school in the Midwest (where we’d pretend to attend classes but more often could be found at the bowling alley next door). And if your last name connotes a gift of the gab, where does that leave me, whose last name means, in Hebrew, an enclosure for a flock of sheep/goats (which must need its own word if you’re a semi-nomad in arid zones)? Better just stick to its crossword puzzle clue: “a river in Germany” – E Eder

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Oh God. An “F” in self-awareness from a college classmate. Does it get any lower than this? :-)

      When I lived in Israel, I spelled my last name as dalet-yud-bet-resh (Diber). I occasionally thought about how if I made aliyah, I would be a writer named Ilana Word or Ilana Spoke. It seemed like it would either be way cool or repulsively arrogant; I was never sure which.

      Part of the reason that I never really considered aliyah was I always wanted to write, and couldn’t imagine living in a country where I would be writing in a second, non-native language. I knew Joseph Conrad did it, but I realized I was not Joseph Conrad.

      Re: eder = goat enclosure…

      Elliot, clearly you missed your calling as Speaker of the House.

  3. Gil Friend Says:

    Great piece, Ilana.

    Except DiBeR doesn’t mean “commandment,” as in ten of them.

    “Asseret ha’dibrot” means something more like “the ten utterances”; King Jimmy got it wrong.

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