Aug 9, 2019 David Lang

Which is Easier to Learn? Greek or Hebrew?

 

Hebrew vs. Greek

 

I did not originally intend to study Greek and Hebrew in college. I planned to go on to seminary, and I figured I would study the original languages there. But when the professors with whom I tended to argue dismissed my arguments out of hand because I did not know the languages, I thought, “Okay, I’ll go ahead and study Greek and Hebrew now.” Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

My university Religion department offered biblical Hebrew courses, but there were no courses in biblical Greek. My only option was to take classical Greek from the Classics department. Had I known how much more complex classical Greek is, I might have thought twice, but I was blissfully ignorant and brimming with unwarranted confidence.

Since I was already a junior, I had no time to stagger the courses. I dove into classical Greek and biblical Hebrew at the same time. I honestly enjoyed learning both languages, but in my experience, Hebrew was much easier than Greek.

When I got to seminary, I was surprised to discover that everyone there took the opposite view. Hard as it was, Greek was widely regarded as tolerable, but Hebrew seemed to be the bane of every seminarian’s existence. I thought they were all crazy.

So which language really is easier to learn? Is it Greek? Or is it Hebrew? Below, I’ll give you three reasons it could be argued that Hebrew is the easier language, followed by three reasons Greek could be seen as easier.

3 Reasons Hebrew is Easier than Greek

1. Hebrew has FAR Fewer Forms to Learn. Hebrew, like Greek, is an inflected language in which words assume various forms depending on their function in a sentence. However, where Greek seems to have form after form with different endings, augments, etc., Hebrew has far fewer forms to learn. I remember learning the Hebrew noun endings (sus, susah, susim, susot, etc.) in a single class. Try doing that with Greek nouns!

2. Hebrew has a Comparatively Small Vocabulary. Ancient Hebrew had far fewer words than ancient Greek and a tiny fraction of the words in modern English. Many Hebrew vocabulary words have several possible meanings depending on the context, so the vocabulary you learn tends to get repeated over and over again. For example, the word rosh means “head,” but it can refer to a physical head, a chief or ruler, the top of something, the start of something, and so on. It’s like getting half a dozen vocabulary words for the price of memorizing one!

Meanwhile, Greek seems to have at least three or four different words for everything! Quick, what’s the Greek word for “love”?

I rest my case.

3. Hebrew Sentences are Relatively Simple. Hebrew sentences tend to be short and fairly straightforward. Subordinate clauses and other syntactical complexities are quite rare, and word order is relatively predictable. Grasp that the verb typically comes before its subject and you’re in pretty good shape.

When I learned classical Greek, the order in which words were placed was so flexible it seemed almost random, and when I looked at my professors in bewilderment over why a sentence would seem so hopelessly jumbled, I would always get the same answer: “For emphasis!”

Whatever.

3 Reasons Greek is Easier than Hebrew

1. Greek is Less Foreign. Like English, Greek is read from left to right. Many Greek letters are identical, or at least recognizably similar, to their English counterparts. We may even know some of the other letters from mathematics, college fraternity and sorority names, etc. Whether you learn Erasmian or modern Greek pronunciation, the sounds of the Greek language tend to come more naturally to English speakers than Hebrew with all its gutturals. And even though Greek uses a few more letters than English to represent vowel sounds, at least they look like letters. Hebrew vowels look like Braille or Morse code! And when you complain about it to a Hebrew speaker, they only say, “Aw, you don’t need them anyway!”

Oy vey!

2. Greek Vocabulary is More Familiar. Although I was initially bewildered that my seminary colleagues found Greek easier than Hebrew, I soon realized that their experience of the languages was quite different than mine. First, they were learning biblical Greek, which is much simpler than the classical Greek I studied in college. Second, they were already familiar with much of the vocabulary they were learning. Many of these guys had grown up hearing their pastors use words like ekklesia, apostolos, baptizo, agapé, and the like. So many churchy words and theological terms are merely transliterations of Greek words, that seminary students are largely re-learning vocabulary they’ve already been exposed to. Have them learn words like kubernetes or Lakedaimonian and then tell me Greek is easier!

3. Biblical Greek is not THAT Complicated. Read Luke or Hebrews, and you’ll get a taste of the seemingly random word order and strings of participial phrases so common in classical Greek. Yet seminary Greek courses rarely venture into Luke or Hebrews until the third or fourth semester. For your first two semesters, you’re getting nice, simple sentences from John, Mark, Matthew, and the Johannine epistles. In those portions of the Bible, the sentence structure is often very similar to English.

And don’t even get me started on the optative. I had to learn to parse the optative mood, since classical Greek writers actually used it. My seminary counterparts learned the meaning of me genoito (the “May it never be!” Paul repeats throughout Romans) and checked off that they had learned the optative!

But hey, I’m not bitter.


So which language do you think is easier to learn? If you’ve studied Greek and Hebrew, do my reasons for preferring one to the other jibe with your own experience, or do you have others to add? Let us know in the comments.

We have a poll on this forum post, so please feel free to add your vote or comments over there.

If you’re getting ready to take your first Greek or Hebrew course, be encouraged. As much as I joke about the challenges of learning these languages, I absolutely loved studying them both, and using Accordance has helped me retain much of what I learned. Our current sale on Greek and Hebrew grammars should help you get off on the right foot, and pretty soon, you’ll find yourself at the rosh of the class!

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