Immigrants who have to cope with Hebrew, a difficult language in which the grammar is complicated and books, newspapers and magazines are printed without vowels, can take heart in the fact that even a seventh-generation Jerusalemite whose father was one of the first 15 members of the Hebrew Language Academy, can mispronounce words and make grammatical mistakes.
This was the case on Sunday at a ceremony at the President’s Residence marking the 158th anniversary of the birth and the 93rd anniversary of the death of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who is credited with being the pioneer of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.
President Reuven Rivlin, whose father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, was among the founders of the Vaad Halashon Havrit (The Committee for the Hebrew Language) which evolved into the Hebrew Language Academy, was not certain as to whether a certain noun should have a feminine plural or a masculine plural, and entered into a friendly argument with Prof. Moshe Bar Asher, president of the Hebrew Language Academy.
The argument was finally settled by someone else who said it could be either or. Both versions were correct.
Bar Asher, though pleased that the Hebrew language has become part of everyday life, lamented the fact that English has become the universal language of the sciences, including in Israel, where most conferences on any scientific discipline are held in English.
He was also unhappy that so many scientific papers by Israeli researchers are published in English.
What irked him even more is that conferences on specifically Jewish subjects are conducted in English.
He was happy, however, that increasing numbers of people are turning to the Academy for language guidance, among them poets who are seeking an appropriate Hebrew equivalent for words or phrases they know in other languages.
Despite his aversion to the infiltration of foreign expressions into the Hebrew media and even into the speech of members of Knesset; Bar Asher has apparently not found a Hebrew substitute for the words “academy” and “university,” which featured at least a dozen times in his remarks.
By the same token, when he referred to the support given to the Academy by Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, he did not use a Hebrew word for “sport.”
The ministry is helping the Academy set up a Hebrew language museum and training center so as to make Hebrew at all levels accessible to everyone.
Composer, arranger and song writer Avihu Medina, who was one of the entertainers during the event, said it annoys him that so many people, especially native born Israelis, cannot distinguish in their pronunciation between the letters chet and chaf.
Regev said that she was happy to be at the celebration of the birthday of the pioneer “who has become the symbol of the renewal of the language of our people,” and who had taken the language of the biblical patriarchs, prophets and poets out of the bookcase and transformed it into a spoken tongue.
If he was alive today, surmised Regev, she doubted that Ben-Yehuda would use words such as “selfie” and “television.” She was proud that her ministry helps to fund translations of Hebrew books into other languages and vice versa, and sponsors prizes for Hebrew literature.
If Bar Asher was displeased with the extent to which English has become part and parcel of the Hebrew language, he would have been more so just over a century ago when the Hilfsverein, a global educational body headed by German Jews who helped found the Haifa Technion, decided when formulating the curriculum, that while attention would be given to Hebrew, the language of instruction would be German. Barely masking his displeasure at a decision taken more than two decades before his birth, Rivlin said that Hebrew was recognized as the language of the Jewish people, but it was thought that German was more cultured and sophisticated, and a more suitable language than Hebrew for teaching subjects such as physics, chemistry, mechanics and engineering.
The Hilfsverein ran a teacher’s college in Jerusalem, and the decision that the language of instruction at the Technion would be in German met with fierce opposition in Jerusalem, so much so that two of the teachers, David Yellin and Rivlin’s father broke away, and established what is today the David Yellin College of Education, where the emphasis was and is placed on Hebrew.
Rivlin, in the presence of Prof. Uzi Ornan, 93, who had been his Hebrew teacher at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in the capital, said he still gets an emotional twitch whenever he sees a sign board or a street sign in Hebrew. Just like seeing the national flag on top of a masthead, it’s something that should not be taken for granted, the president said.
Earlier in the day, Rivlin, en route to visit wounded victims of Friday’s shooting attack in Tel Aviv, stopped off at the Hadas Kindergarten, where tiny tots who have never heard of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda were nonetheless singing and speaking in Hebrew, the language that they’ve heard from birth.
Even though the youngsters didn’t know about Ben-Yehuda, they did know something about Rivlin and plied him with questions, including why he never became a professional soccer player. Rivlin is a soccer addict, and a former manager of the Beitar Jerusalem team.
The Ben-Yehuda festivities will continue on Monday when all frequencies on Israel Radio will be dedicated in one way or another to promoting the Hebrew language.