Hebrew Hacks: Vocabulary

I\’ve long been a fan of the LifeHacker blog.  As a pseud-techie and all-around Applefile, I find their posts very useful in pointing me towards techniques, apps, and approaches that I wouldn\’t have otherwise figured out.  These so-called \”hacks\” are all about saving time, making needlessly difficult things easier, or else giving you a new way to approach an issue.  Do they solve all of your problems?  No.  But they can make managing them easier.

As students/grad students/professors/researchers, we all know that the one thing we have too little of is time.  So I\’ve decided to — as soon as I figure out how to do it on my blog (remember, pseudo-techie) — post a side roll with a bunch of techniques and helps for various academic tasks.  \”Hacks,\” if you will.

Any of us who want to approach the ANE in general, or Old Testament/Tanak/Hebrew Bible will probably have to learn Hebrew.  As you do so, you will learn that Hebrew grammar is relatively simple (as far as these things go).  It\’s the vocab that will kill you.  The amount of vocabulary, and the absolute necessity of having a full knowledge of the vocabulary, is essential to your Hebrew success.  Not knowing a word is bad enough, but attempting to look up \”hollow\” verbs in BDB/HALOT will be extremely time consuming unless you have a few possibilities already in mind.

Now, there are several ways to learn Hebrew vocabulary.  The first is to sit down for X amount of time and learn word lists.  I did this my first year of Elementary Hebrew.  I just sat down with my Weingreen grammar and worked through the exercises using half a sheet of paper to cover up the English.  I can honestly say that was about the worst method ever.  First, Weingreen chooses somewhat random words for students to learn, they\’re not arranged in a logical way, and having to flip through that many pages is time-consuming.  Since then, I\’ve come up with some better alternatives.

1.  Vocabulary Cards:  (You can get them for about 10-15$ on Amazon.) 


Pro: They arrange the order of the cards by word-count in the Tanak, so the words you learn first are the ones you\’re most likely to see.  They are also keyed to several major grammars, so if you\’re using one of those, even better!  They\’re easily portable. They\’re cheap.  Saves you the absolute headache of cutting index cards in half, writing your own Hebrew/English on them, and then loosing them.

Con: They\’re just cards.  You\’re not going to carry the whole box around with you, so you\’re going to be limited on which ones you have with you.  You can\’t re-order them to cover a specific sections/book that you\’re reading.

Recommendation: Stick them in a tin.  I cycle through them, about 75x at a time.  I also realized that they fit perfectly inside of an Altoids tin.  This protects them from being too horribly misshapen, and keeps me from losing them.  I carry the tin around with me and look through them whenever I\’m in traffic, waiting between classes, waiting for a meal, etc.  It works pretty well.

Also, if you\’re a Biblical Studies Student and learning Greek as well, get the red tin for the Hebrew cards and the blue tin for your corresponding Greek vocab cards (It\’ll even match your Mounce/Wallace!)

2. Learn the Roots, not the Words. ($12 on Amazon.)

Pro: It makes learning Hebrew vocab a lot easier if you realize that for every root you learn, you\’re actually learning many different words.  You realize that often-interconnected nature of verbs and nouns (e.g., ילד = to bear (child); יָלֵד = child), and the many variations on a verb based on binion or \”added\” letters.  They\’re arranged by popularity, but there are also a number of other chapter selections, including Weak Verbs, Proper Nouns, etc.  So it\’s easier to learn how you\’d like to learn. It\’s also cheap.

Con: It\’s a book.  It\’s not easy to stick in your pocket and carry around.  Although it\’s somewhat customizable for how you learn, you\’re still stuck to its own format.

3. Computerize it.  (Free – $X.) There are any number of vocabulary programs available on your computer.  However, my personal favorite is Genius.  Sorry, PCs, it\’s just for Macs. 

Pro:  Now, you probably can\’t tell on such a small screen, but those are vocabulary words only from 1 Samuel.  Genius is completely based on your input, and is, because of that, extremely customizable.  All you need to input vocabulary is have access to an unicode font.  You input both the Hebrew word (or what ever language) in question, and then the corresponding English answers.  Because of this, you can arrange them however you\’d like.  You can have multiple files, as well.  Though the customization is neat, there\’s another feature of Genius that really sold it to me.  It\’s based on a rotating system for which words it gives you. There\’s a simple scroll bar on the top left that you can slide based on if you\’re learning new words or reviewing ones you should already know.  You can take notes on your various sessions and words, and  if you look at the yellow dots on the right of the file (and the one red dot). These dots keeps track of how often you get an answer right/wrong (yellow for right, red for wrong), and will show you the words that you\’ve gotten wrong more often than the ones you\’ve gotten right.  It also mixes the words up, it doesn\’t just go in a top-to-bottom approach, but randomly selects which words you see when.  One of the best things about it?  It\’s completely free.

Con: The only thing that I don\’t like Genius is a necessity of one of its strengths: you have to input everything yourself.  To do so, you have to learn your unicode font and then take the time to input everything yourself.  This can take a long time if you\’re wanting to input several hundred words.  The unicode font is one of the most annoying aspects for me, but perhaps I\’m somewhat jaded from the number of Hebrew fonts (and corresponding keyboard layouts) that I\’ve had to learn.  I have to use SHebrew for my school texts, but use Yehudit for Accordance, and Unicode for online programs.  However, maybe you\’re not as picky as me. 

Conclusions:  Really, there are any number of ways that you can use to learn vocabulary.  I personally use all three of these methods.  The main thing is to do it constantly, even if it\’s just for a short amount of time.  15 minutes a day can add up easily, if you can use it to learn 10 new words and review a large number of old ones. If you did that, you\’d very quickly create a working-vocabulary of about 1,000 words, which would set you far above a lot of incoming grad students in terms of their language ability. 

Future Updates:  Unfortunately, I\’ve not tried any of the smart-phone varieties.  I keep on meaning to try some of the possibilities for my iPhone, which would replace the Pratico/Van Pelt vocab cards, but haven\’t gotten around to trying them out. 

What methods do you find effective?

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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