It has been over a century since yeshiva graduate and journalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda revived Hebrew, yet the language is still being updated by a behind-the-scenes team of expert linguists and professionals – the Academy of the Hebrew Language.
Hidden among trees and barbed fences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, the Academy has continued to create and recreate the language, replacing foreign words with Hebrew alternatives and adding terms for modern concepts. People can now binge-watch, choreograph and take low-cost flights, all while using the most updated Hebrew vernacular.
Ben-Yehuda founded the organization in 1890 under the name Va’ad Halashon (the Committee of the Hebrew Language) to revive the Jewish tongue, for it had not been spoken since 200 CE, 130 years after the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. The first Modern Hebrew word that he created was “millon” מילון for dictionary, and it was the beginning of a 50-year journey to create a Hebrew dictionary including all biblical and Modern Hebrew words.
Starting in 1908, he published five volumes of A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, and edited an additional two that were published posthumously. It eventually grew to 16 volumes (plus an introductory tome) chronicling more than 2,000 years of Hebrew language development.
The academy is divided into two branches – the Historical Dictionary Project and the Scientific Secretariat.
The former, established in 1959, catalogues all Hebrew words in its online database, including their definitions and historical backgrounds, while the latter deals with normative work, such as how to spell Hebrew words.
The Scientific Secretariat is also in charge of coining new words, a process which takes place in its many subcommittees. Between 10 and 20 Hebrew words are created each year, including technical terms in fields such as biology and banking.
The words are constructed in a variety of ways. Some are created through the combination of a shoresh (root) and mishkal (pattern) from a biblical word, often found in the Mishna (oral Torah that has since been written down). Others have foreign influences or are simply taken straight from other languages, such as the word for muffins, מופינים (mufinim), or academy, אקדמיה (academia) .
The word for newspaper עיתון (eeton) was coined by Ben-Yehuda himself, for he founded a newspaper.
Originally מכתב עיתי (michtav iti), meaning “letter in time,” Ben-Yehuda wanted to find a shorter replacement.
He modeled this new word on the German word for newspaper, zeitung, with zeit meaning time in German, by combining the biblical word for time, עת (et), with a suffix.
The word for car, מכונית (mechonit), was also created from a biblical root.
מכונה (mechonah) was a term found in the Book of Kings that was used at the time of the First Temple (built around 1000 BCE) as the name of a base on which priests put basins.
While it may at first appear to not be an appropriate word for machine, it does sound like “machine” and is similar to the Greek word mechane.
It therefore became the word for machine and was tweaked a bit in Modern Hebrew to mean “car.”
Another interesting word is חייזר (chaizar), or alien. It does not come from the Bible, but rather is a combination of two words – chai and zar – and literally means “living strange.”
When the academy decides to create a Hebrew word, there are often multiple suggestions that will be voted on by the Committee for Words in Common Usage, part of the Scientific Secretariat. The winner will then be brought for a final vote to the plenum, which convenes six times per year and consists of up to 46 academy volunteers including Hebrew linguists and authors. Amos Oz, author of several popular books including A Tale of Love and Darkness about his childhood in 1940s Jerusalem, is a member.
There are also committees for specialized areas, such as for insurance- related words, consisting of several professionals in the field and two or three members of the academy.
Together, they work on a dictionary of terms about the particular subject, meeting once a month and then bringing the dictionary to the plenum once it is finished.
Accepted words must be published in the official gazette of the laws of Israel, Reshumot. They are also published in the academy’s magazine אקדם (Academ) that comes out four times per year, with online versions available on the academy’s website, hebrew-academy.org.il
. The academy then tries to disseminate the words, with language councils on radio and television stations assisting in the effort by using these words in programs.
However, sometimes the words do not take hold with the public.
Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at the academy, said, “It’s very difficult to uproot [people’s] habits... you can’t predict [which words will take off].”
He also discussed the way in which academy’s role in creating Hebrew words has changed since its founding. “In those years, there were a lot of new words that came into Hebrew. [However] all the common words we [now] have.”
Yet he feels that the academy still plays a large role in the development of the Hebrew language. It is one of many language-updating bodies found all over the world.
“I think it’s still relevant, of course relevant in [specific] branches,” said Birnbaum.
Words created today include those regarding new kinds of food and technology as well as random words such the word for “portable gazebo,” created in 2014, and the word for “shaming,” created in 2016. “What is shaming if not biyush!” Birnbaum exclaimed.
When asked about why the academy is called “academia” rather than by a word created for it in Hebrew, Birnbaum replied, “the words universita, democratia, chocolad... we don’t even think of having a Hebrew word for them because [they are] international. Academia is the same.”
The academy’s linguists continue to chronicle and refine the Hebrew lexicon and hope to create a Hebrew language library, featuring ancient scrolls and other artifacts, in the next few years.