Hebrew Language and Zipf’s Law and–Gawd I’m Exhausted.


I feel like a giant aleph is sitting on my chest. This isn’t a good thing, mind you. I’ve been struggling today with my Hebrew vocabulary which is mostly hook-free. By hooks, I mean those cognate terms that would help me to recognize (and ultimately remember) the stack of Hebrew words.

Rich Israel did it, the stinker, but in Biblical Hebrew which has traditionally had a graduated approach.  First you learn the words that appear 5,000 or more times in the Bible. Then  1,000 times. Then you tackle the ones that appear 750 times or more, and so on. Before you know it, you can recognize huge chunks of the Bible, in Hebrew, with a little grammar and syntactical practice. I was a 50%er in my Hebrew studies; that is, on any given page, I could cobble together half the text thereupon without a lexicon. That is probably good enough for my 9 units of Hebrew study, and most people would salute that as an accomplishment. According to Zipf’s law (it’s amazing the crap I’ve learned in the last 20 years), the most frequent word in a language will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.  I mention this because, well, 50 percenters are practically worthless, or at least not anywhere near a level fluency that will get them a job at National Archive.

But being a 50 percenter doesn’t put bread on the table. The job I’m angling for requires the following: I need to have “demonstrated the ability to perform, supervise, or direct the cataloging of Hebraic and archival materials; cataloging and providing metadata for Hebraic books and documents; translating bibliographic data in the collection materials in Hebrew.”

This is the text of the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew, twisted up and superimposed on a background of clown vomit. It just about describes how I feel right now.

Okay. I am good with that. I’ve spent my life fiddling with languages, but, ok, I’ll say it: I’m scared. What if my Hebrew isn’t good enough when it comes time to interview (if I make it that far)? The Hebrew government requires something called an Ulpan–it’s an intensive study of the Hebrew language, culture, and geography–designed for immigrants. The first year Ulpanim are required to learn roughly 500 words. I want to have these words memorized and be able to read at least substantial hunks of vowel-less text from a website, say Hebrew Wikipedia, before I face the forum and they inevitably slap a copy of Ha-Aretz on the table in front of me, and, with a glare, say “Read, yankee!”

I know it’s silly. Can I learn a year’s worth of Hebrew fundamentals in 3 or 4 weeks? Yeah, I think I can. But I’m rather insane that way. It’s been taking up large amounts of my time as I compare verb tenses and struggle my way through nouns and noun phrases. Hebrew isn’t at all helpful, throwing road blocks up at every turn. I recently found a more “academic” course that was free. This has helped substantially. Most free online stuff is geared toward travelers. If I want to say words like fare, taxi, suitcase, hotel, and airport I’m all set.  But I doubt I’ll be cataloging travel brochures. I’m equally certain I won’t be cataloging from the corpus of Biblical Hebrew words, which, I recall, focused heavily on words like guard, and hearken, manservant, and chariot. There’s gotta be a happy medium that I am missing, and I’m just demoralized and feel like I’m forgetting every single word that I come across, and needed someone to talk to.

Also, I forgot to take my antidepressants this morning. No surprise there. Thank God for my wife, who pointed out that learning a language in 4 weeks nothing short of phenomenal, and I shouldn’t beat myself up over my mistakes. Yeah. I’m a perfectionist. Beating myself up is what I do best!

Well, back to the grind. Maybe a good eight hours’ sleep will do me well. As they say in Hebrew, laylah tov, and lehitra’ot.

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One thought on “Hebrew Language and Zipf’s Law and–Gawd I’m Exhausted.”

  1. And trust me, it’s a lot harder to read Ha’Aretz in Hebrew than you’d think. It would regularly take me an hour to get through a paragraph: and I never did get much better than that. Of course, focusing on it for three weeks straight, 8+ hours a day, is gonna help you make some significant progress: especially with your huge brain. Best of luck.

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