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  • Teaching English to Hebrew speakers

    By: Israel "izzy" Cohen < Show E-mail >

    Date: Fri, 30 Oct 2009

    Location: Online (Middle East)

    One of my current hobbies is historical linguistics. The following paragraphs indicate how this field can be of value in teaching English to students whose first language is Hebrew.


    It is helpful to identify those idioms that have a Hebraic or Aramaic origin. There are more than a few of these. Some of them are translated Hebrew idioms. For example, (to escape) "by the skin of my teeth" is a translation of B'3or SHinai (using 3 for the letter aiyin) in the book of Job 19:20. It means "barely, hardly, with difficulty" because the Hebrew phrase is a pun on the word B'QoSHi at a time when the aiyin had a G/K-sound, as in 3aZa = Gaza.

    Most idioms (defined narrowly as phrases whose meaning cannot be determined by analyzing the words in them) are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into common words of the target language. For example:

    The "beans" in "spill the beans" and "doesn't know beans about ..." is related to Hebrew BiNah = understanding, intelligence.

    The "bag" in "let the cat out of the bag" and "left holding the bag" is related to Hebrew BaGaD = to betray. The "cat out" is from Aramaic QiSHoT = truth, at a time when the shin had a dental D/T-sound. So, to let the cat out of the bag is to betray the truth, to tell the truth when no one would dream of doing so. If you were left holding the bag, everyone else got away. You got caught because you were betrayed.

    Sometimes both transliteration and translation are involved. For example, "count sheep !" (to help one go to sleep) is the translation of a Hebrew transliteration pun, S'PoR KeVeS, on the Latin phrase sopor quies = sleep quietly, restfully (without moving). A soporific is a drug that makes you sleep. Quiescent means quiet, still or inactive. (U and V are the same letter in Latin.) This idiom has been borrowed back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR K'VaSim, to count sheep (plural).

    Many other English idioms have a Semitic origin. Here are a few of them:

    - kick the bucket - 3aGav B'3aiDen = literally, make love in paradise

    - the Jolly Roger - DeGeLai Ra3a = flag of evil (via Arabic)

    - raining (pole)cats and dogs - maBooL GeSHeM SH'Qi3a > OE DoCGa = 4-legged dog

    - Welsh rabbit = cheese and ale on toast - [W]aLav + SHachaR + PaT lekhem (with an ancient W-sound for the het)

    *Vocabulary Building*

    Knowing the ancient sounds of the Hebrew letters helps build
    vocabulary by providing mnemonic aids based on cognates across languages.

    The *het* usually appears in English as a W (via Germanic) and less often as an X (via classical Greek and Latin). The W in chinaware is the het in kHaR-SiNa (from kHeReS = pottery, clay). Today we have hardware and software but the earliest wares for sale were divrei kheres (things of clay).

    The *aleph* had a het-like GHT/CHS-sound. That explains why the Rashi-script aleph looks like a het + chupchik. If aleph = GHT, the 2nd word in Tanakh (the Old Testament), bet-resh-aleph, is cognate with BRouGHT (forth).

    The *shin*'s ancient T-sound explains why the Rashi-script shin looks like a tet turned 90 deg. clockwise and why today's handwritten shin looks like a closed tet. This makes SHeN = tooth cognate with Latin dent- and LaSHoN cognate with Latin, the tongue of the Romans.

    The ancient *heh* had a dalet+heh sound. This explains why the definite article is heh in Hebrew but "the" in English and makes the Hebrew word ToRaH cognate with truth.

    The consonantal *vav *had an PH / F-sound. For example, the Greek word phasis (phase of the moon) was borrowed into Hebrew as vav-samekh-sof (VeSeT). Giving the het its W-sound and the vav its F-sound means that Adam was calling his wife het-vav-heh WaFath or wife.

    The *yod* is often parallel to a G via Germanic, a K via Greek, and a hard C or CR via Latin. Knowing the ancient sounds of the yod, heh and vav enables one to understand the simple but very meaningful semantics of YHVH. For a full explanation, see


    It is helpful to show that the same semantic concepts often join to form homonyms across languages. For example, the root *tzadi-lamed-lamed* has the meanings:
    1) TZ'LiL = a sound you hear,
    2) TZoLeLet = a submarine that dives deep, and
    3) Talmudic Da:3ah TZ'LooLah = a lucid mind.
    In English, *sound* is also a homonym with the same three meanings:
    1) a sound you hear,
    2) deep, as in the whale sounded = dove deep, to sound the depths of the sea, and
    3) healthy, having a sound mind or body.

    *Place Names*

    Phoenician names for geographic areas are still being used in west Asia and north Africa. Because Phoenician was also a Western Semitic language, these names sound quite Hebraic. These names were derived by configuring the gigantic body of a god or goddess over the surface of the area to be mapped. The name of each part of that body became the name of the area under it. This produced a scale 1:1 map-without-paper ... an ancient GIS (Geographic Information System) ... on which the name of a place indicated its approximate location and direction with
    respect to all other places on the same map whose name was derived in this manner. For more information on this topic, see

    Best regards,