This Week in History: Hebrew goes conversational

In a Paris café, Eliezer Ben Yehuda and a few friends conduct what may have been the first modern conversation in a nearly extinct language.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda 311 (photo credit: Unknown)
Eliezer Ben Yehuda 311
(photo credit: Unknown)
On October 13, 1881, a short time before moving to Palestine, Eliezer Ben Yehuda held what is thought to be the first modern conversation in Hebrew with two friends at a Paris café. That moment became the impetus for Ben Yehuda’s at times tortuous revival of the language, which for centuries had been relegated solely to the written word.
Upon his arrival in Palestine later that year, Ben Yehuda began testing his belief that Hebrew formed the sole common lingual connection between Jews of all backgrounds. Indeed, although taught only as a written language, he succeeded in holding basic conversations in the long-lost language from the moment he stepped off the boat in Jaffa.
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Less than a year later when his first son was born, Eliezer Ben Yehuda decided that his own family, through much pain and hardship, would raise the first child in the modern world that spoke Hebrew as his mother-tongue.
The lingual revolutionary went through great pains to ensure that his child, Itamar, heard only Hebrew in his early years. According to biographers, when guests arrived in his home, Eliezer would send his son away in order to ensure he did not pick up on foreign sounds that might taint his revolutionary tongue.
But as much as raising the first Hebrew-speaking child was a central part of Ben Yehuda’s plan for reviving the language. The second pillar was centered on Hebrew education.
Having decided to settle his young family in Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda began teaching at the Torah and Avoda School in the city. The school’s director, Nissim Bechar, understood Ben Yehuda’s logic, if not his passion for teaching Hebrew as a common language among Jews of various backgrounds.
For health reasons, Ben Yehuda had to give up teaching after a short while, but the immersion Hebrew educational system he helped start flourished even without him.
One of the most serious obstacles to the modern revival of the language, however, continued to pose problems for the education that was being endowed on the first generation of Hebrew schoolchildren. Having been relegated to the written language of religious texts for so many centuries, Hebrew lacked many of the modern words necessary for mundane and simple conversation. This issue had been identified by Ben Yehuda much earlier; while other languages had evolved along with the world, Hebrew had no words for many of the common items found in modern life.
In his family Hebrew project at home, Ben Yehuda had already begun creating new words for objects and foods. In the educational setting, lacking any uniformity, teachers too were forced to build and teach their own personal vocabularies.
“Every village teacher was an Academy (of the Hebrew Language) member with respect to creating words according to his taste, and everyone, of course, used his own creations,” early Hebrew teacher David Yellin later wrote.
But jump-starting the first generation of Hebrew-speaking children was not enough for Ben Yehuda. Less than a decade after his arrival in Palestine, the Hebrew pioneer founded the Hebrew Language Council, an early iteration of the Hebrew Language Academy, which today is the authority responsible for introducing new and modern words into the late blooming and still-evolving language.
Diagnosed with a terminal disease, the man credited with reviving the Hebrew language was determined to leave both a lasting an tangible contribution to his progressively successful lingual project. His life’s work was the creation of the first Hebrew dictionary, the 11-volume Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.
Through his personal and professional dedication to his project, which has today become part and parcel of the Zionist project, Ben Yehuda succeeded in what very few – if any – men have done: single-handedly revive a nearly extinct language.
Within his lifetime, the Hebrew language went from one that was heard being faintly uttered only in religious rites and prayers to one spoken on the street by lay persons, clergy and intellectuals alike. One month before his death, the British Mandate government of Palestine recognized Hebrew as the official language of Jews in Palestine, which of course became one of two official languages in the modern State of Israel.