Arabic VS Hebrew - How Similar Are The Two Semitic Languages?

avatarMille Larsen
12 mins read

Arabic and Hebrew are two languages from the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family.

They're the two most well-known languages in the Middle-East and they're both the liturgical languages of two important world religions. (That's Judaism and Islam, in case you've been living under a rock!)

And finally, in a way, they were both considered dead languages until very recently being revived by linguists to enter into a new and flourishing role in the world.

But how similar are Arabic and Hebrew really?

While the two languages show a clear common ancestry when you look at the vocabulary, the pronunciation, and grammatical structures, Arabic and Hebrew aren't mutually intelligible. Centuries, if not millennia separate the two tongues which have developed in each one their own direction. A good comparison could be that of German and English, or perhaps French and Romanian. They're close, but they're not that close.

To give you an idea about the differences between the two languages, I'll try looking into some of the things that make the two languages both similar and unique.

Tip: For learning Arabic or Hebrew, I recommend these two resources:

The Hebrew And Arabic Alphabets (Abjads) And How They're Pronounced

The Hebrew and and the Arabic scripts are related. They both evolved from the Aramaic alphabet, an alphabet which existed some 2800 years ago.

Today, Hebrew and Arabic writing look quite different, though. Arabic is cursive and wavy, whereas the Hebrew script seems more geometric. The reason for this difference might be that the Arabic script didn't develop directly from Aramaic, but took a detour by first developing into the Nabataean script, which looks like a more stringent form of Arabic.

But while the Hebrew and the Arabic alphabets look different, they have a lot in common. Hebrew's 22 letters correspond more or less to 22 of Arabic's 28 letters.

They are both written from right to left, and they're both "abjads". An abjad, unlike an alphabet doesn't have static letters for vowels. In Arabic and Hebrew, vowel sounds are instead marked with diacritics (in historical and religious texts) or without vowels at all (in all other texts).

While Arabic has a few more consonants, with the addition of some guttural sounds that don't exist in Modern Hebrew, the Hebrew language has two more vowels than Arabic.

The vowels in both Arabic and Hebrew exist in long and short forms. In Hebrew, these vowels are a, e i, o and u, whereas Arabic only uses a, i and u.

The reason that the Hebrew language lacks the guttural sounds present in Arabic might be because of the fact that, before the revival of Hebrew, the Hebrew language was mostly a liturgical language studied by Jews in Europe, and not a language spoken a lot in everyday situations.

Dialectal Arabic on the other hand, has been continuously spoken as an everyday language (in its colloquial forms) by native speakers since the language came about and thereby preserving more aspects of its pronunciation

These are the letters of the two scrips and how they correspond:

Arabic letterArabic nameHebrew letterHebrew name
كkaafכּ, כkaf

The above comparisons are approximations that don't necessarily correspond 100% with each other. The Hebrew alphabet equally has a few variations of the letters above, which can have other pronunciations.

The letter "בּ" "bet" also exists in the form "ב" where it's pronounced as a v-sound similar to "ו", "vav", and "פ" "pe" which is pronounced like an f-sound also exists in a variant "פּ" which is pronounced like a p-sound, something to which there is no equivalent in Arabic.

Finally, there are quite a few Arabic letters to which there don't exist any equivalents in Hebrew. It seems, however, that a few more letters and sounds used to exist in the Hebrew language, but that they gradually got replaced by other letters.

This replacement of letters is evident when you compare Arabic and Hebrew vocabulary with the same roots. Even when the two languages have differences in pronunciation, these differences often follow predictable patterns.

  • The Arabic ع "ʕayn" and غ "ghayn" have both merged into the Hebrew ע "’ayin". While the Arabic letters represent two very distinct guttoral sounds, the Hebrew "’ayin" has become either a silent letter or a glottal stop much like the Arabic ء "hamza".
  • In Arabic, the letters ز "zaay" and the the soft d ذ "dhaal" have merged into the letter ז "zayin" in Hebrew.
  • The Arabic س "siin" and ث "thaa’" have turned into the Hebrew שׁ "shin" which interesting is pronounced more like the Arabic ش "shiin" (Think of the Arabic "salam" and the Hebrew "shalom").
  • ص "ṣaad", ض "ḍaad" and ظ "ḍhaa’" in Arabic has been converted into צ "tsadi" in Hebrew, which is more of a "ts" sound like in "pizza".

From the above rules, one can easily imagine than the ancestor of both the Hebrew and Arabic language had a lot of sounds that Hebrew lost but Arabic kept. This explains why Hebrew spelling seems to consistently follow more or less predictable patterns when compared to Arabic.

Add to that that Hebrew, unlike Arabic, doesn't have the "n" sound before a consonant. This becomes evident when we compare a few Arabic and Hebrew words. "Anta", "anf" and "khinzir" becomes "attah" "aff" and "khazir" in Hebrew.

Generally, although Arabic and Hebrew compare in terms of vocabulary and despite the fact that changes in pronunciation seem to follow predictable rules, it's the pronunciation differences that first and foremost make the two languages unintelligible between one another.

Hebrew And Arabic Vocabulary - How Similar Are They?

In terms of lexical similarity, Hebrew is about as close to Arabic as German is to English in that around 60% of everyday Hebrew words are clearly related to Arabic (this is roughly the same number for English and German).

This becomes especially clear when comparing the spelling of words from the two languages, and slightly less so when listening to how the languages are pronounced.

But although an English speaker can easily figure out what the German words "Haus", "Mann" and "Grün" means, understanding a whole German sentence, becomes complicated. The same goes for the relationship between Arabic and Hebrew.

To see some examples of Hebrew and Arabic words with common roots, look at this comparison: Common Semitic Roots.

Similarities And Differences Between Hebrew And Arabic Grammar

Hebrew and Arabic have a lot on common grammar-wise, yet there are important differences too.

Both languages, being of the Semitic language family, are based on a triliteral root system, meaning that most words have a root of three consonants that can be modified and declined following specific patterns to form a long list of related words.

A common example of this are the three letters "k-t-b" (Or k-t-v in Hebrew). These three letters are the basis for a large number of words related to "writing" in Arabic. "Kataba" means "he wrote" "kitab" is a book, "maktab" is a library and "katib" is an author.

Other roots follow similar patterns such as "jalasa", "he sat" and "majlis", "sitting room", although all variants of the possible word-formations aren't necessarily used.

This way of forming words is typical for Semitic languages and, and even though all words aren't based 100% off this rule, it still makes for a quite predictable vocabulary system once you know either language.

This applies to verb conjugation as well. While the same rules don't apply across the two languages (specifically in the present tense), it is clear that the system for conjugating verbs is related, and the past and the future tenses show a clear kinship.

Among other similarities, we find that neither language uses the verb "to be" in the present, so in stead of saying "the flower is pretty" you'd say "the flower the pretty".

Personal pronouns are very similar between the two languages as well, and are easily comparable.

Both languages express possession adding suffixes to the end of words. "My cat" is "qatti" in Arabic, where the last "i" is the suffix indicating that the cat belong to me. Similarly "qittana" means "our cat", with the "na" signifying "belonging to us".

In modern Hebrew however, the word "of" (shel) is often used in stead of adding suffixes to the noun. You can say "the cat of I" or "the cat of us" instead of adding suffixes to the base-word, making possession a little simpler to an English speaker.

Finally, there are the plurals. Most Hebrew words follow a regular pattern of adding suffixes to the end of nouns to make them plural. They can either be "eem" and "ot".

In Arabic, the regular plural can be formed by adding "un" "in" or "at" to the noun. But a vast number of nouns don't follow this principle, and use in stead a "broken plural", where the word is "broken up" and modified internally.

A simple example of this is the word "kitab" (book) becoming "kutub" (books). Yet, there are many different patterns of broken plurals in Arabic that apply to different words. The word "ajnabi" (foreigner) becomes "ajanib" (foreigners) when declined in plural.

Likewise, both Arabic and Hebrew have a dual form, which is a separate declension of nouns when there are two of them (as opposed to one or several). While these are quite commonly used in Arabic (although not in all modern dialects) modern Hebrew mostly uses the dual form for saying "a pair of" rather than applying it in all instances when they are speaking of two of something.

Comparison Of A Sample Text In Hebrew And Arabic

Finally, in order to compare Hebrew and Arabic, I wanted to show you two examples of the same text in both languages.

Below you'll find the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in both languages, transliterated into the Latin script.

It does, however, seem like the two are very different, but keep in mind that this might be due to other factors than just the languages themselves.

For one thing, the two versions seem to be translated into their respective languages using very different vocabulary. This doesn't exclude the possibility of more similar words existing in the two languages. An example of this could be the Hebrew "kel beny adem nevledv" (all sons of Adam are born) which compares to "yualid jmye alnass" (are born - the mass - of people) in Arabic.

Secondly, the fact of transliterating the two text examples into the Latin alphabet might obscure certain similarities in the two texts that would be clearer for someone who is able to read both alphabets. (And if you are, here's the Hebrew version and here's the Arabic one).

As mentioned earlier, the two languages have letters that correspond to one another because of similar Semitic roots despite the pronunciation being different. Being able to compare the spelling of words in stead of focusing on the pronunciation would clearly reveal a connection that is not directly obvious from the transliterated examples below.

But here are the examples. First in transliterated Hebrew:

kel beny adem nevledv beny hevreyn veshevveym b'erekm vebzekveyvetyhem. kevlem hevnenv betbevnh vebmetsepven, lepyekk hevbh 'eleyhem lenhevg ayesh ber'ehev bervh shel ahevh.

Article A in the Universal Declaration o Human Rights in transliterated Hebrew

And now in transliterated Arabic:

yualid jmye alnaas ahrarana mutasawin fi alkaramat walhuquqi. waqad wahabuu eqlaan wdmyrana waealayhim 'an yueamal baeduhum bedana biruh al'iikha'.

Article A in the Universal Declaration o Human Rights in transliterated Arabic

And finally, as another way to compare how the two languages match, I encourage you to watch the video below, where a Hebrew speaker and a speaker of (Egyptian) Arabic try to guess the meanings of a few words in each language. The video is quite interesting, especially if you have some knowledge of one of the languages.

Finally: Hebrew VS Arabic - What's The Deal?

Hebrew and Arabic have the same roots. Thousands of years ago, they started evolving and becoming different from their common ancestor "Proto-Semitic".

A lot of time has passed, though, and despite the two languages having many similarities, they're also very different.

The comparison of the German-English relationship seems to fit rather well. Looking at independent words, much of the vocabulary seem to be related, yet, many words are different. Grammar, word order and pronunciation all have slight similarities, but not enough for speakers of each language to be able to intuitively understand the other language.

That being said, if you speak either language, you'll have a clear advantage when it comes to learning the other one.

If you're interested in learning Arabic, for example, go read my article on the subject:

How to learn Arabic by yourself.

And if you have anything to add, don't hesitate to post a comment below!