What’s in a Hebrew word?

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s resuscitation of Hebrew may have been a miracle, but now it’s up to the Academy of the Hebrew Language to preserve the language’s written and verbal roots.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda 311 (photo credit: Unknown)
Eliezer Ben Yehuda 311
(photo credit: Unknown)
Countries the world over wrestle with the issue of adapting their national languages to the march of time. The issue can become even more complex when the language in question has lain dormant for centuries before being revived and thrust into daily usage in a vibrant and quickly evolving new state.
As president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher is the man entrusted with the weighty responsibility of safeguarding Israel’s vernacular while doing his best to keep it current and relevant.
“I take offense at any suggestion that we, at the academy, stay cloistered in our ivory tower,” he declares. “Hebrew is a living language, and I would never consider trying to dictate its street-level use.”
He and his team of around 30 fulltime and part-time staff members work to preserve the language’s written and verbal roots, researching all manner of texts from across the centuries as well as addressing contemporary innovations, from a building on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus. However, the academy head is looking for bigger and better things for his institution – things that will, he hopes, materialize in the next few years following a recent government decision to establish a new home for the Hebrew language in the capital.
While the resolution won the approval of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – who noted that the establishment of an expanded and suitably equipped berth for the academy would make the language and its history more accessible, and even talked about providing budgets for the said move – BarAsher and his cohorts will have to acquire a lot more funds if the idea is to take physical form.
According to the academy president, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s resuscitation of Hebrew as a living language at the tail end of the 19th century was nothing short of a miracle. “Claude Hagège, one of the leading linguists in Europe, wrote a fascinating book about dead languages. By that, he means languages that are no longer in use or are dying out,” he says. “He told me that what has happened with Hebrew negates his entire theory, and that the revival of Hebrew is unprecedented in the history of mankind.”
There are other cultures that aspire to bring their root form of verbal communication back into robust everyday use, and they have looked to Israel for pointers. “Five members of the Irish parliament, with the Speaker, came here to consult us on how to renew Gaelic, and Basques have come to us several times to ask for our advice,” says Bar-Asher. “I told them that it is not enough to be enthusiastic about reviving their language, they need to find someone who fervently believes in the project and can provide the necessary financial backing.”
The academy’s current abode was the result of such largesse.
“[Simchah Ze’ev] Saltzman, the man who donated this building, his father or brother was a Hebrew teacher, so he had a great interest in caring for the language,” explains the academy head.
“This building is now worth something like $4 million, and that can provide the start of the financial basis for the move to our new home. We estimate that we’ll need something between NIS 55m. and NIS 75m. to build the new Language Campus.”
Besides providing the trustees of the national language with a more spacious and technologically advanced base of operations, it seems the relocation is necessary for more mundane reasons as well.
“Around three years ago, this building was falling to pieces,” says BarAsher. “The electrical system and water system were completely dilapidated, and we had to renovate the whole place, from top to bottom.”
The Academy of the Hebrew Language was created almost 60 years ago, by dint of a law passed in August 1953.
The decision to establish the institution actually came about in January 1949, but paradoxically its creation was delayed by a debate over the use of the non-Hebrew-based word “academia” in its title. While then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion opposed the use of a foreign word in the name of the very institution charged with preserving the purity of the Hebrew language, the members of the academy’s forerunner, the Hebrew Language Committee, who backed the inclusion of “academia” eventually prevailed. THE OFFICIAL purview of the new linguistic enterprise was threefold: “to gather and research Hebrew vocabulary, of all periods and on all levels; to research the forms of Hebrew and its history; and to guide the natural development of the language according to the needs and possibilities in all fields, in vocabulary, grammar, writing and transliteration.”
Bar-Asher and his colleagues certainly have their work cut out for them. “We research around 31 or 32 centuries of usage of the Hebrew language and are writing the historical Hebrew dictionary,” he says. “We have already done a lot of the work, including analyzing over 25 million words – that means 25 million uses of Hebrew words, not words per se, and we are hoping to analyze another 100 million word usages. All the texts written in classical Hebrew up to the year 1050 have been read and analyzed and are accessible to the general public.” The “classic period” of the Hebrew language, he says, ranges from 1400 BCE to 1050 CE.
While appreciative of the facilities at his and his staff’s disposal, he feels much more could be done to research and preserve the language. “Look at Le Trésor de la Langue Française [historical dictionary of the French language]. They are now writing the fourth edition of the dictionary, and they have 60 full-time researchers working on it. We have 31 researchers working the equivalent of 19 full-time positions. That just shows where we are at compared with the French.”
Bar-Asher believes that the relocation would be a physical and professional step in the right direction. “My idea was, first, to take the academy out of the university grounds and to give it its rightful status as a national institution,” he says. “Secondly, and no less important, we are not only researchers, we also provide the public with a service, with all sorts of terminology. They asked us for a dictionary of terms relating to wine, and we produced that.” The Dictionary of Wine and Winemaking Terms, in Hebrew, English and French, was launched at the French Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv around a month ago.
“All sorts of people constantly contact us to ask about some word or term, and what the proper Hebrew expression is,” he notes with undisguised satisfaction. “We have a dictionary of sports-related terms, and a dictionary for medical expressions.” Technology is, by definition, an area in which Hebrew has to stay abreast of market developments. “We had a committee that worked on technological terms, in Haifa, for around 45 years, but the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology] stopped its financial support of the work,” he says. “We also had a committee that worked in Lod on transport-related terminology, and we published three dictionaries – for terms relating to landbased transport, marine transport and air transport.”
The demand for “proper” Hebrew expressions comes from professionals and laymen alike, he says. “We have journalists and teachers contacting us.
Doctors have told me that when they discuss various ailments among themselves, they use the English terms, but they prefer to use words like ‘ademet’ [German measles] or ‘tzahevet’ [jaundice] with the patients themselves.”
The academy’s website (www.hebrewacademy.huji.ac.il) is a mine of useful information about the institution’s work.
It also contains a delightful section called “How Do You Say in Hebrew,” which contains several thousand Hebrew alternatives to the more popular non-Hebrew sourced terms, listed alphabetically. Ever wondered, for instance, how to say “ego” in “real” Hebrew? Try “ha’ani.” Or you might want to explain to your garage mechanic that your car has a problem in neutral, by referring to “hiluch srak.”
Then again, he might not get your drift.
Bar-Asher and his colleagues are evidently doing their best to make the fruits of their labor as user-friendly and accessible as possible. There is a handy new Apple app, which 70,000 consumers have already purchased; a Facebook page; and a newsletter with linguistic updates that goes out to around 11,000 subscribers.
“Hebrew is a living language, and people use it, on an everyday basis, as they see fit,” he says. “We have to make sure we safeguard Hebrew, and research it, and offer our services to people all over the world, but we must never forget that language is a means of communication.” ■