Tonight at the church is, as mentioned in the previous post, Bible Boot Camp. In preparing for my presentation I brought out my Old Testament Hebrew vocab card set. I’ve never actually used these – I bought them long after I took my last Hebrew class, but when you are into languages you tend to collect these things. The cards are numbered from 1-1000 and on the back of each is a number saying how many times the word occurs in the Hebrew scriptures. Cards 1-979 are every word that occurs 30 times or more except for proper names. Cards 980-1000 are words occurring less than 30 times and select proper names. So it doesn’t include every single word (and remember that many Hebrew words are built off of each other due to the root system – words meaning liver, heavy, and glory all come from the roots k-b-d, for example) as many proper names are left out and there are words that appear only a few times or once that aren’t included (such as the word for gopher wood – the wood of Noah’s ark). This also explains the neat round number of 1000 cards. So what are the top ten most frequently used words in the Hebrew Old Testament?
1) The most used word, at a count of 50,524, is we, a conjunction that primarily means and. It is an enclitic, which means it never stands alone and always attaches to the following word. Its appearance at the top of the list is a bit deceiving, though; in Semitic languages there is no concept of commas like we have when listing things. It is proper in Semitic languages to say something like “I saw the bird and the dog and the cow and the eagle” and on and on.
2) Coming at number 2 is ha, the definite article (and also enclitic), with 24,058 appearances, less than half of the word for and. In its primeval form, ha likely had a lamed at the end, making it hal. This makes it easy to see how it is cognate with the Arabic definite article ‘al.
3) At third we have another enclitic – there will be more – with le, which appears 20,321 times. Le is a preposition meaning to or for. It is a very useful word, but that is about the extent of the story.
4) Be (and please note there are no capital or lowercase letters in Hebrew) -is much like le – a preposition, this time meaning in or at. It can also mean with but in an instrument sense and its use in this form is very idiomatic. Be appears 15,559 times.
5) The fifth most common word in Biblical Hebrew…well, it isn’t actually a word. Eth appears 10,978 times and it is used as a definite direct object marker and always left untranslated. The reason such a thing exists is that in Hebrew sentence order is fluid and vowels are not written, so sometimes it can be confusing to know what is the direct object of a sentence. The marker removes most all ambiguity. Also, case markers do not exist in Biblical Hebrew, although the “u” in the name Samuel may signify a case marker from an older form that was left in the word – that is a subject for a future article.
Words 6-10 up next!