Hebrew’s Evolution: The Revival of a Language

5 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

What if I told you that up until the end of the 19th century, Hebrew was only used for liturgical purposes (prayer and religious ceremonies) and for writing prose and poetry? That the Modern Hebrew we know, spoken by millions of people today in Israel, has only been around for a little more than a century? Linguistic studies show there are no other examples of a sacred language (existing for thousands of years) rapidly acquiring millions of native speakers and becoming the national language of a state. There were many contributing factors to the revival and renewal of Hebrew: ideological movements such as the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in Europe, poets and writers such as Hayim Nahman Bialik, and one radical linguist named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Reviving Hebrew: Initial Steps

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is widely considered as one of the most influential figures in the revival of the Hebrew language. Born as Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in 1858 in Lithuania, he grew up in an ultra-orthodox Yiddish-speaking household and received his first years of education in the traditional “Cheder.” As a teenage boy, he was exposed to books of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement and was immediately drawn to Hebrew and the idea of one homeland for the Jewish people. In 1878, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris to study medicine, but his passion for Hebrew made him change course. In 1879, he published an essay in the journal “השחר” (“The Dawn”) stating there could not be a Jewish state without the revival of Hebrew. He signed off with the name “Ben-Yehuda” – son of Judea.

Ben-Yehuda believed that the only way to create unity amongst the Jewish people was to make them speak one native language: Hebrew. This was a revolutionary idea, and while many supported it – especially young men and women who migrated to Israel in the early 20th century – many were opposed. On the religious end, the thought of speaking the sacred language of The Bible on the street was considered blasphemy. On the secular end, people thought Hebrew was too ancient and vocabulary-limited to describe complicated topics such as Math and Science. Many European charities that founded educational institutions in Israel (“The Technion” being one example) insisted that students will be taught in the same language as their funding bodies, may it be French, German, or English. Somehow, Hebrew prevailed, and today, we’re able to study everything in our native tongue, from Quantum Physics to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

First native Hebrew speaker

Back to our main plot: in 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda met his wife Devora in Vienna, and together they immigrated to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda began straight away to write for a local newspaper in Jerusalem, convincing people to incorporate Hebrew into their daily lives. In 1882, his first son Itamar was born, making him the first native Hebrew speaker of modern times. Ben-Yehuda wouldn’t allow him to go outside and play with the other children for fear that he would pick up other languages. Devorah wasn’t even allowed to sing to him a Russian lullaby. In 1884, Ben-Yehuda founded two newspapers in Hebrew, “הצבי” (The Gazelle) and “מבשרת ציון” (Herald of Zion), and developed a Hebrew teaching method – in Hebrew – that was used in over twenty schools. He established “The Hebrew Language Committee” (1890-1953), which later became “The Academy of the Hebrew Language” (1953-present): the institution in charge of the development, research, and preservation of the Hebrew language.

Ben-Yehuda and his family had many difficult years. They were ridiculed by their neighbors and chastised by ultra-religious Jews for desecrating the sacred language. Ben-Yehuda was even imprisoned for several days under the false accusation of inciting a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. In 1891, Devora died of tuberculosis, leaving him with five small children, three of them passing away shortly after from another disease. He remarried Devora’s younger sister, Hemda, an accomplished journalist herself, and together they had six more children. She published articles in Ben-Yehuda’s newspapers and helped edit many more of them. She ensured the completion of “The Ben-Yehuda Dictionary” after his passing in 1922 and even invented the Hebrew word for fashion: אופנה (ohf-nah).

Inventing Modern Hebrew Words

One of the biggest accomplishments of Ben-Yehuda was the invention of hundreds of new words in Modern Hebrew. He realized that in order to transform Hebrew into a common language, simple, mundane words must be created. He used Arabic roots to form new words, gave new meanings to ancient Hebrew words, and worked a lot with pre-existing Aramaic roots. Some of his well-known creations are: ice cream גלידה (glee-dah), omelet חביתה (chah-vee-tah), sidewalk מדרכה (meed-rah-chah), office משרד (mees-rahd), doll בובה (boo-bah), newspaper עיתון (ee-tohn), and identity זהות (zeh-hoot).

People in Israel in 2023 wake up in the morning and read the newspaper in Hebrew; they get into their car, turn on the radio, and listen to songs in Hebrew. They call their bosses and say they’re going to be late in Hebrew, and after that, they roll down their window and curse the driver next to them – that’s right, you’ve guessed it – in Hebrew. And no one ever stops to think how extraordinary and unbelievable this is, how frustrating and difficult it must have been for the first generations actually to communicate and work and live in Hebrew. Hebrew hasn’t always been a native language as it is today: people chose to speak it, to revive it, and to fight against people who thought it was a crazy and doomed idea ever to speak it. Thanks to their incredible efforts, Israelis speak Hebrew today, and together with them, millions of people across the world.

And how about you? Got the itch to learn modern Hebrew? Give it a go by scheduling a free intro session with one of our teachers to check out our unique teaching method.

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