Media Comment: The unhappy birthday

Ben-Yehuda used the Bible as the basis for his imaginative extensions of the Hebrew language, bringing it up to date with the contemporary needs of his time.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
This past Tuesday was the 156th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was born on the 21st of the month of Tevet, 5618. Ben-Yehuda is the personality identified with the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a spoken language.
Most notable is the Ben-Yehuda dictionary, with its 16 volumes, which was finished only in 1959 by Naftali Herz Tour Sinai. Ben-Yehuda used the Bible as the basis for his imaginative extensions of the Hebrew language, bringing it up to date with the contemporary needs of his time.
Ben-Yehuda did not have an easy time. He was criticized severely by many, including Bialik, Ahad Ha’am and other Zionist luminaries, who thought that some of his linguistic inventions went too far. The idea that one could resurrect a language was ridiculed by professional linguists. The fact is that Zamenhof’s Esperanto failed where Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew succeeded.
This was not achieved easily. He had to struggle to convince the Technion that they should not use German as the official language, but Hebrew. He established a Hebrew newspaper – Hazvi. As reported in Wikipedia, Ben-Yehuda contributed only a few hundred modern words, but it was his life’s ambition to educate people to speak the Hebrew language. This was his great contribution to the Zionist movement and the re-establishment of the modern State of Israel.
Israel’s government decided last year that the 21st of Tevet would be the Hebrew language day in Israel. On this day, the government would distribute the Prime Minister’s Prize, named after Ben-Yehuda for special contributions to the usage of the Hebrew language.
A special conference dedicated to the Hebrew language would take place. Medals would be issued to honor personalities who facilitated the usage of the Hebrew language or who excelled in its research. The education ministry would undertake special events within the education system; the same would be done within the IDF.
Part of Israel’s media also commemorated Ben-Yehuda’s birthday. The army radio station Galatz dedicated a full day of broadcasting to his memory, revolving about the task of educating the young generation to speak Hebrew correctly. The National Academy for the Hebrew Language held a special symposium on the processes by which Hebrew should be passed on to the next generation.
Realistically, though, these actions are not much more than lip service. One can only imagine that today, Ben-Yehuda must be turning in his grave. The Hebrew language is in crisis, but few people are willing to admit this or do something about it.
The annual budget of the Academy for the Hebrew Language is less than NIS 1 million. Even if the Academy were carrying out its job properly, providing the necessary words and concepts for the immense advances of our time, it simply does not have the funding needed to bring the new words to the public.
The only way the public will get to using modernized Hebrew words is if it hears them sufficiently frequently. This can be done with good will by especially the public media. But the latter, too often adhering to a post-Zionist ethos, much prefer the English language.
A sampling of the English words used in various advertisements on Kol Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station includes: “carnival,” “attractivi,” “sale,” “gift card,” “bulletinim,” “what you see is what you get” and sadly, much more. The most egregious part of all this is that the IBA did not hesitate to also use the English word “comeback” in a promo of its own TV program.
In response to a complaint, the Hebrew language advisor of the IBA, Ms. Ruth Almagor-Ramon, claimed that she was also unhappy about this usage but that she could not find an appropriate Hebrew word! Almagor did not even realize how ludicrous her answer was; the IBA should use Hebrew, and if there is a problem with a word, replace it.
The law defining the IBA’s objectives states specifically that the IBA should “foster knowledge of the Hebrew language, promote its use, among others by taking into consideration the decisions of the Hebrew Language Academy.”
In fact, Almagor has consistently supported the usage of English in advertisements. All our entreaties to her to take the position that the advertisements lead to corruption of the Hebrew language have not led anywhere.
In the IBA, income from advertising stands above the spirit of the law.
This situation is not universal. The army radio station is much more sensitive to the issue. Dr. Avshalom Kor, the language expert of the station, has substantially more impact on the correct usage of the Hebrew language.
Eran Elyakim, the complaints commissioner of Galatz, is also much more receptive than his counterpart at the IBA. The latter does nothing but pass on complaints to Almagor.
But Elyakim takes an active stand. A complaint on the usage of the word “hobby” by a reporter last September led to an apology and explanation of the special circumstances, noting that the reporter was also unhappy that the word had been used. This reaction is typical. Elyakim takes active steps to assure that Galatz’s employees use “good Hebrew.” Arguably, the worst offenders in the broadcast media are TV channels 2 and 10. Here, there isn’t even an attempt to cover up the systematic destruction of the Hebrew language.
The law is fine. It states that “a concessionaire shall not broadcast a commercial which is not in Hebrew or Arabic, the language used should be according to the accepted standard.” There are exceptions to the rule, but anyone following the ads on our commercial TV must be aware that Hebrew is used sparingly.
The issue is not only commercials. TV programs are given their English titles (for example “The Voice,” “Extreme Makeover”), with no attempt to provide (as done for example in France, where the French pride themselves with their language) a Hebrew version.
Quite the contrary.
Regev, the complaints commissioner, having made the major effort to respond to complaints, claims that this is legitimate. It is then not surprising that English is also used within news programs and more. A random check of TV Channel 10 news on September 29 shows the anchor using the words “campaign,” “arsenal,” “blitz” and more. But who cares? Our written media is not much better. Even the papers which consider themselves Zionist or very Israeli don’t seem to care. Israel Hayom’s weekly magazine had this past weekend 90 words in English, including for example “virtually,” “smartphone,” “simulator,” “motto,” “philanthropim,” “verbalit,” “mentor,” “exit.”
Makor Rishon also couldn’t care less. Previous requests to the publisher Shlomo Ben-Zvi to adhere to Hebrew terminology remained unanswered. This past weekend, their Mozash magazine was found to contain 147 English words in its 66 pages. Yediot Aharonot is not much better.
On the bright side is the establishment of a new Knesset forum for advancement of the Hebrew language by Likud MK Shimon Ohayon. If this forum has the power to convince Israel’s most important advertisers, such as Mifal Hapayis, the Electric Company, Lotto, Totto and Bezek, to use only Hebrew in their advertisements, then perhaps Ben-Yehuda will be able to start smiling again.
He deserves to have a happier birthday next year.
The author is chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (