A couple of years ago I started to learn Biblical Hebrew - I still only know the very basics. Lately I've been starting to learn Arabic.

Often when I learn a new word in Arabic, I notice that it is cognate with a Hebrew word that I've already been exposed to. For example, "al-Kitab" and "Ketovim" (the book, books). This happens so often that I'm starting to get suspicious that the two languages are actually dialects of the same language.

On the other hand, I heard that phenomena such as syncretism and cultural influences cause languages to change greatly over even a few centuries. Based on two assumptions/observations -

  1. Modern Arabic is supposed to be close to Classical Arabic, perhaps due in part to the cultural influence of the Quran

  2. Hebrew was dead as a vernacular language between the 4th and 19th century. Modern Hebrew has dropped the distinction between certain tenses or inflections which are separate in Biblical Hebrew

My question - is Modern Hebrew still closer to Biblical Hebrew than is Modern Arabic?

And if the answer is the obvious - "yes" - then, can we salvage the question and ask, is there any significant way in which learning Arabic would benefit a hypothetical student of Biblical Hebrew, who already knows Modern Hebrew?

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Modern Hebrew is closer to Biblical Hebrew than modern standard Arabic is, by almost any measure of closeness. Educated modern Hebrew speakers can read Biblical Hebrew, typically better than educated English speakers can read Old English which was written much later than Biblical Hebrew.

Often when I learn a new word in Arabic, I notice that it is cognate with a Hebrew word that I've already been exposed to. For example, "al-Kitab" and "Ketovim" (the book, books). This happens so often that I'm starting to get suspicious that the two languages are actually dialects of the same language.

Vocabulary is not a good test of this, Kyrgyz and Urdu also have cognates of the same word. Hebrew and Arabic are simply in the same sub-family, like English and Crimean Gothic, and in the same macro-family like English and Urdu.

Also classical Arabic was under heavy Aramaic influence as it expanded to what is now Jordan and Syria, and Aramaic is a Northwest Semitic language like Hebrew, so there are reasons for similarities beyond strict phylogenetics.

And if the answer is the obvious - "yes" - then, can we salvage the question and ask, is there any significant way in which learning Arabic would benefit a hypothetical student of Biblical Hebrew, who already knows Modern Hebrew?

Ashkenazi pronunciation lost some sounds and shifted some others. Modern Hebrew sounds are roughly the intersection of the sounds of the diverse Hebrew pronunciations in the 19th century. The Mizrahi or Sephardic pronunciations would have been more historically accurate but for various linguistic and sociological reasons they did not dominate in modern Israel.

Some of the sounds or contrasts that are not heard in modern Hebrew are heard in many other Semitic languages including modern standard Arabic. So learning Arabic would help with some of those ancient pronunciations, but so would learning Mizrahi pronunciation, or, in the case of rolled r, just learning one of many other languages.

However, there are arguments that Maltese, Lebanese, western Syrian and urban Palestinian variants are not Arabic dialects, but in fact Canaanite languages with Arabic superstratum, ie closer to Hebrew (and Aramaic) than to Arabic, in vocabulary and grammar.

So there would be some benefit to it, like with any related languages, but maybe there are more efficient ways to get that benefit than learning modern standard Arabic.

  • Of course, part of the reason that MH speakers can read BH (but often not MSA), is that it uses the same script. Nevertheless this is an excellent answer. – Keelan Jun 9 at 19:06
  • Hebrew and Arabic belong to the same sub-family (Semitic) of the Afro-Asiatic family. English and Urdu belong to different sub-families (Germanic vs Indo-Iranian) of the Indo-European family. – fdb Jun 12 at 12:43
  • @fdb Yes, but it's tricky to make these comparisons between subfamilies. Is the diversity within say Germanic or Indo-Aryan equivalent to that within Semitic, or Central Semitic, or something else? What is the metric? What if there is one outlier? – A. M. Bittlingmayer Jun 12 at 12:51
  • @fdb I will change the bit "simply within the same macro-family". – A. M. Bittlingmayer Jun 12 at 12:52
  • For the OP: see also everything at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semitic_languages. Both Hebrew (Biblical and Modern) and Arabic are considered 'Central Semitic'. Modern Hebrew was created from Biblical Hebrew, keeping most of it but dropping some annoying grammatical distinctions. Arabic only has historical family similarities to both. – Mitch Jun 18 at 16:19

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