9 Ways in which Hebrew is exactly like Gaelic

FlagOkay, this is a bit of a silly title. I had people tell me, “Don’t try listing all the ways languages are alike; you’ll get bogged down and won’t actually learn the language”. But the truth is, I didn’t set out to make this list.

I won’t do a list like “1001 ways in which Greek is exactly like German”, because that would be basically my entire textbook thus far. I wrote down these notes about Hebrew because the similarities surprised me. I’d expect similarities between Greek and German because they’re reasonably closely-related. They have familiar things like cases, and prepositions which mean slightly different things depending on the case of the following word.

But I wasn’t expecting many similarities between Hebrew and Gaelic, because they are very different languages. They come from different parts of the world. They look very different. At yet, I kept tripping across similarities. So, here they are, in the order I encountered them.

Nouns have singular, dual, and plural forms. These are the only two languages I’ve learnt which have dual forms of nouns, although I’m aware that Cornish, for example, has also. That isn’t to say I’ve actually learnt the dual forms for Gaelic at all.

There is no indefinite article. This isn’t terribly unusual; Greek doesn’t have an indefinite article either. For those who don’t know, in English, the definite article is the, while the indefinite article is a/n. But also, there is only one definite article. By this, I mean that the definite article doesn’t change based on case, number, and gender, as it does in German, Greek, and French. In Gaelic, the article is an, which can mutate to am or a’, depending on the sound which follows immediately after. In Hebrew, the article is הַ (ha), which can mutate to הָ (hā) or הֶ (he), depending on the sound which follows immediately after.

The verb comes first (VSO). Again, this isn’t anything particularly unusual, as there are a number of VSO languages out there. However, in English, the standard form is SVO (subject-verb-object), and this is the form used in French, German, Spanish, Greek, and other European languages except the Celtic ones.

There are different rules for labial consonants. This is pretty universal, again, because it’s easier to pronounce labial consonants if you have slightly different rules for them. However, saying “imprecise” rather than “inprecise” is so natural for English- (and French-, and Spanish-) speakers that we don’t think about it. Have you ever noticed that people say “Camberra” rather than “Canberra”? It’s just because it’s easier to say. However, in Gaelic and Hebrew, these changes for labial consonants (known as “Big Fat Monkey Paws” in Gaelic and “BuMP rules” in Hebrew) are taught as grammar.

Lenition of consonants. This is perhaps stretching for a similarity, but what lenition basically is is the change of a B sound to a V sound, or K to a glottal CH. In the Celtic languages, this mostly occurs at the beginning of words, following things like prepositions and possessives. In Hebrew, lenition can occur anywhere in the word, and is indicated by the use of the daghesh lene in the middle of the letter. For example,  בּ[B] rather than ב [V]. However, according to my teacher, the answer to “What does a daghesh lene do?” of “It shows whether a consonant is lenited” is not right, because “leniting” and “lenition” are not concepts used in English. I was just excited to realise that the word I learn for Gaelic looks exactly like the word “lene” used in Hebrew!

Pluralisation results in vowel changes earlier in the word. This isn’t unusual; changes to the end of the word very often result in changes earlier. For example, in English, compare the pronunciation “nation” to “national”. However, Hebrew and Gaelic take this a step further. In Gaelic, caraid (“friend”) becomes cairdean (“friends”). In Hebrew, נַעַר (na’ar, or “boy”) becomes נְעָרִים (n’āriym, or “boys”).

There are several sorts of guttural consonant sounds. Okay, this one I put in just to be perverse. I’m sick of people not pronouncing the guttural sounds. People in Greek (including the teacher) saying K rather than X. It’s not that hard a sound to make! Anyway, both Hebrew and Gaelic recognise several guttural sounds. In Hebrew, these include ה (kh, also known as the middle letter of my name) and כ (k, which, without the daghesh lene, is aspirated and rendered as kh), and ע (glottal stop). In Gaelic, these include such monster combinations as chd, dh, gh, and ch.

There is an unchanging “infinitive particle” with different positives and negatives. In Gaelic, this occurs with all verbs. However, for comparison:

infinitives

Hebrew, transliteration, Gaelic, and English. “Is” in Gaelic is pronouned “ish”, and the ‘ in “‘ayin” is a glottal stop.

 

Prepositional pronouns. I’m using the Gaelic terminology here, because in Hebrew, they’re called “inseparable prepositions with a pronominal suffix”. Personally, I think the Gaelic term is simpler. Although the official process and terminology is different, the end result is the same: what basically amounts to a conjugated preposition. Here is another comparative chart:

prepositional-pronouns

Hebrew, transliteration, Gaelic, and English. I originally had “aig”, because its meaning is slightly closer to the Hebrew “le”, but there is some overlap of usage between the two “le”s, so I thought I’d use that one for fun.

 

You can ignore the “yez”. That’s a bit of a joke. My Greek textbook actually tells me that, since modern English doesn’t distinguish between you-singular and you-plural, and translating the singular as “thee” is a little awkward, we can translate you-plural as “y’all”. What can you expect from a textbook out of Dallas Seminary? However, not only do I not want to say “y’all” because it’s an Americanism, but it feels awkward both in my mouth and on paper, I translate as “youse” or “yez”. Now, that’s something that I normally shudder about, because it’s considered something of an uneducated thing to say in Australia, but it feels a lot more normal in my mouth that “y’all”, and my (American) lecturer finds it amusing.

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6 thoughts on “9 Ways in which Hebrew is exactly like Gaelic

  1. Shared on facebook, really lieked your Rant. My interestis alchemical as I’m a Jewish Canadian of Scotch extraction and (fingers croassed) someday expat to OZ. So I’m really rather glad to have found this whilst trawlin’ by the internets to-day.Also I found this; https://archive.org/stream/affinitybetweenh00stra/affinitybetweenh00stra_djvu.txt

    • Rachel says:

      Glad you enjoyed it – and thanks for the link. I haven’t read it yet but have saved it for when I have some time!

    • Rachel says:

      I don’t like to make comments like this entire post too loudly, because there is a thing called “British Israelism” which I (and almost everyone else) regards with scepticism, but which posits that the Gaels (or the Celts) were a lost tribe… a lot of literature such as you have linked are written by British Israelists (again, I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know if it was).

      I think there’s definitely too much similarity between Gaelic (and other Celtic languages) and Hebrew (and other Semitic languages) for it to be entirely coincidental, considering that they’re not thought to be related languages – from the grammar to some of the sounds which are present – Celtic languages, and Gaelic in particular, have quite the arsenal of guttural and glottal sounds which aren’t found in any of the languages in between.

      But I think it’s just as likely to be through extensive trade contact than anything else… We know from the book of Jonah that Hebrew-speakers were getting at least to southern Spain during the Kingdom period, and we know that the Celtic maritime culture was well-established in Spain as well. There is also archaeological evidence for Phoenician evidence in Celtic sites in the ancient world, so it seems reasonable to suppose that both Hebrews and Celts travelled further than Spain and had some possibly extensive contact during the Kingdom and Classical periods.

    • Rachel says:

      I’ve just read the article you posted and I’m sorry to say I didn’t find it very convincing. It was a good idea – simply listing the words with similarity in both languages – but most of the words either didn’t sound alike or had very tenuous connections. Which is weird, because I know there are a fair number of words which are similar in both languages (a lot of clear loan-words from Hebrew, too, like “rabaidh” [religious teacher] and “sabhaid” [seventh day])… plus chiad/echad, barakh/beannachd, qanah/ceannaich (although that last is definitely a coincidence, the Gaelic is based on the word for “head”). A lot also had either really obscure or completely made-up meanings for the Gaelic (I don’t know about the Hebrew, I don’t speak it well enough) – or even words I’ve never, ever encountered, with meanings that I’d use two or three other common alternatives for.

      I am interested in seeing if there’s more to the similarity, simply because I found it so unexpected (and apparently there’s an 18th-century theory that the Celtic languages are actually Semitic, or at least had a Semitic sub-stratum), but unfortunately most of the people who have done any research into it seem to be either religious nuts or religious conspiracy theorists, and you’ve got to wade through a tonne of excited, very tenuous nonsense before you get to a bit that is actually sensible and useable.

  2. kev says:

    ‘Thee’ is singular; ‘ye’ is plural.

    • Rachel says:

      Technically, it’s “thou” and “you”, since the subject (nominative) rather than object (accusative and dative) forms of pronouns are typically used as the “dictionary form”. “Thee” and “ye” are object (accusative and dative forms, and the forms which would come after a preposition as in the demonstration), while thy/thine and your/your are the possessive and genitive forms.

      But in the interests of being a descriptive rather than prescriptive linguist, I have to concede that singular pronouns and all those wonderful verb conjugations are no longer used, while “yez” is.

      And as I said anyway, it was put in as a bit of a joke, and I believe I even acknowledged while doing so that the singular should technically be translated as “thee” to show the distinction.

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