The Israeli academy continuing the unprecedented revival of the Hebrew language

In Biblical Hebrew, there were approximately 7,000 words. Modern Hebrew has approximately 33,000 words.

February 17, 2018 06:46
The Israeli academy continuing the unprecedented revival of the Hebrew language

Gabriel Birnbaum, senior researcher at Historical Dictionary Project at Israel's Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem is seen on August 23, 2017.. (photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Hidden away between the dense trees of the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus lies the past, present and future of the Hebrew language.

Disguised by its modest exterior and dwarfed by impressive new university faculties, two small buildings are home to the supreme institution of Hebrew in Israel and the body responsible for the ongoing revival of the once near-extinct language of the Jewish people: the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Only a short journey from the State of Israel's legislative body, the Knesset, the academy represents the Hebrew language's legislative authority, preserving its Hebraic nature according to its deep, historical origins while catering for the natural development and evolution of the language in the modern era.

"In some ways, we are continuing the spirit of the key pioneer in the revival of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda," says Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at the academy's Historical Dictionary project.

Sitting in an office lined with ancient-looking dictionaries, religious liturgy and manuscripts, Birnbaum, whose enthusiasm for the Hebrew language and its unprecedented revival is infectious, pays tribute to Ben-Yehuda.

"It was the work of one man, which is unbelievable. One man. Everyone mocked him: 'You can't make a dictionary of all the Hebrew language, all of its layers, all of its strata,'" Birnbaum says. "He never attended university, never learnt linguistics, but he was a genius."

Born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in Luzhky, Lithuania in 1858, Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine in 1881, driven and focused to revive the Hebrew language. Others had attempted to revive the language, but did not place the same emphasis as Ben-Yehuda on the importance of spoken Hebrew.

Gabriel Birnbaum shows old notes written by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, considered the father of modern Hebrew, on August 23, 2017. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

"He decided with his wife that they would not say any word between themselves and the children in languages except for Hebrew," Birnbaum explains. As a result, Ben Yehuda's son, Itamar Ben-Avi, was said to be the first native speaker of Hebrew in modern times.

"Very soon they realized that they were lacking words. But if we have such a vast literature of Bible, Mishnah and Talmud, how could they lack words?" asks Birnbaum.

"All these words in these sources deal with major topics: they speak about love, hatred, wars, sacrifice and redemption. But how do you say 'office', 'umbrella' or 'matchstick'? For these things, they lacked words."

Birnbaum challenges the notion that Hebrew was a dead language prior to Ben-Yehuda's extraordinary efforts, describing the claim as a "misnomer."

Although there was no such thing as a Hebrew-speaking family, people did, however, speak with God in Hebrew, pray in Hebrew, learn religious texts and write a vast amount of Hebrew literature.

Coining new words for the Hebrew language, as Ben-Yehuda did until his death nearly a century ago, is only one part of the role of the academy.

The modest surroundings of the Academy of the Hebrew Language at Jerusalem's Hebrew University (Wikimedia Commons)

Established by the Israeli government in a 1953 law, the academy is split into two divisions. The first division is a scientific undertaking termed the Historical Dictionary Project, initiated soon after the academy's birth and which seeks to produce an academic Hebrew dictionary, documenting and defining every Hebrew word from all periods and evolutions of the language.

The academy’s second division has a more practical, normative role. Its task is to coin new words and inform people how to speak and write. Since its inception, the academy has published countless dictionaries of new words in different technical fields, including psychology, banking, physics and mathematics.

According to the 1953 law, all Israeli state and governmental institutions are bound by the Hebrew language decisions adopted by the academy. 

The academy's Historical Dictionary Project constitutes a symbolic continuation of the work of Ben-Yehuda, who prepared 16 volumes of the Hebrew dictionary during his lifetime. Although only five were published by the time of his death, and a further two immediately after, the entire 16-volume collection was published in full by 1959.

The printed volumes take pride of place on one of Birnbaum's many bookshelves.

Today's project, which started from scratch following the academy's establishment almost 60 years ago, now sees many more dictionary volumes published online.

In Biblical Hebrew, there were approximately 7,000 words. Modern Hebrew has approximately 33,000 words.

"In a way it's a continuation of Ben-Yehuda's dictionary but, of course, he didn't have all the data that we have. He didn't know of the existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were only discovered in the 1950s," Birnbaum says. "What we do, which is unique to our dictionary, is that we work according to manuscripts."

In contrast to other dictionaries, he explains, where there are existing words and example sentences are then sought or invented, the historical dictionary works in the opposite way.

Words are added once examples are found, whether that might be in the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud or a range of other ancient Hebrew sources.

"We have to gather all the material. Up until 15 years ago, the only thing we did was taking all the material, all the Hebrew liturgy and putting it into our database, analyzing it grammatically."

The academy's work is a two-way system and it prides itself on its involvement in public discourse in Israel. The academy receives approximately 1,000 queries per month from members of the public regarding correct use of the language.

"We don't want to be the language police," says Birnbaum. "We want to give a service to people who want it. There are a lot of people who request it."

"We have a very good website, we are active on Facebook and we run courses for different professions," Birnbaum adds, emphasizing that the academy has worked hard to improve its image in the last 25 years to change an old perception that it was disconnected from reality and uninvolved in the living language.

Last month, to mark annual Hebrew Language Day, the academy published examples of new Hebrew words on the sides of milk cartons, quietly bringing their work into the homes of millions of Israelis.

Unlike Ben-Yehuda, who advocated the eradication of all foreign words from the Hebrew language, the academy does not entirely oppose the influence of other languages.

"Hebrew is already living and kicking. The academy tends not to Hebraize international words. International words like electronics (electronica), democracy (democratia), television (televizia) and chocolate (shokolad) – we don't touch them," says Birnbaum. "Even the name of the academy, the academia, is an international word."

The acceptance of foreign words in the Hebrew lexicon is particularly notable in more technical language, especially in scientific fields.

"There is no 'pure' language," Birnbaum says. "There is no living language that is not influenced by neighboring languages or other languages that it is in contact with."

Even in Hebrew's most important, sacred source, the Bible, there are hundreds of words whose etymology can be traced back to Aramaic, Egyptian and Persian. In the Talmud, there are hundreds of words from Greek and Latin.

Given the inevitable influence of foreign languages on Israeli society, Birnbaum is modest in his expectations.

"We are not here to embalm the language and we recognize its natural development. We don't have a monopoly."

"To tell people how to speak or how to write is not to force them. But for whoever wants our services, we provide it."

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