The revival of modem Hebrew—the language of the new state of Israel—has been a continuing source of amazement to linguists and laymen alike. How was the “dead” language of the Bible suited to all the needs of modem industrial and urban civilization? Ralph Weiman is preeminently qualified to report on this achievement: he was for four years chief of the language section of the United States War Department, which prepared foreign language guides for American soldiers. 

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In a sense the most amazing feat of Zionism has been the revival of Hebrew, even more remarkable, perhaps, than such more frequently cited achievements as the transformation of the sand dunes near Jaffa into that bustling modem city, Tel Aviv. It is a linguistic miracle. For apart from Hebrew, we have no example of a “dead” language which ceased to be spoken and was again restored to life.

If a linguistic expert had been asked whether Hebrew could be revived, he probably would have replied that it was highly unlikely. From what we know about the history of language it is evident that once a language ceases to be spoken as an everyday language it either disappears completely or else continues solely as a written language. In popular terms, it “dies.” In some cases dead languages have continued to be used in religious services: we have quite a few liturgical languages, such as Latin in the Catholic Church, Old Bulgarian in the Russian Orthodox Church, Aramaic in portions of the Jewish liturgy, and Geez in the Ethiopic Church. There are also a few cases in which a dead language has been maintained as a spoken language by a small group: an example is the use of Latin by many Catholic priests.

To realize just how difficult it is to revive a dead language we have only to consider how hard it is to keep a dying language alive. The government of Eire has made every effort to encourage the use of Gaelic: its study is compulsory in the schools (teachers must be able to speak it in order to qualify for positions) and societies have been founded to foster its development. But despite all efforts, Gaelic is still rapidly giving way to English and survives as an everyday language only in certain of the country districts.

Some Hebrew scholars hold that it is not accurate to speak of Hebrew as having been “revived,” since, they maintain, it never ceased to be spoken. It was used, they point out, throughout the centuries by all Jews in their prayers and by rabbis and Talmudic scholars in their religious and legal discussions. But there is a great difference between a religious or learned language used by a small group and a vernacular language, that is, one used by a whole people in its everyday affairs. Latin during the Middle Ages was also used in religious services and was written (and to some extent even spoken) by scholars, but medieval Latin was never a vernacular in the sense that French, Italian, or Spanish were during that period. We can better realize what an accomplishment the revival of Hebrew represents if we try to conceive of a group of enthusiasts deciding to use the Latin of the classical and medieval authors in their daily life.

We are not entirely certain when Hebrew ceased to be spoken, but it was probably some time towards the end of the 2nd century BCE. About that time Aramaic, which had spread over most of the Near East, supplanted Hebrew as the colloquial language of Palestine. Hebrew continued, however, as the language of religion and law. During the Middle Ages it was used, in addition, in philosophy and poetry, and in correspondence as well. It enabled Jews living in different countries to communicate with one another and accordingly served as a sort of early “international auxiliary language.”

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If the revival of a dead language is so nearly impossible, what accounts for the success of the Hebrew revival? The explanation probably lies in the fact that in the case of Hebrew there was a rather special combination of psychological and practical factors. The Jew has always had an unusually strong attachment to Hebrew as the language of the Bible and of his religious life. Hebrew has been for him not merely another language but a “sacred language.” As the language spoken by the Jews when they were an independent nation in their own land, it has had a powerful symbolic value. It was natural therefore that the early Zionists should feel that Hebrew had to be revived as a national language before the Jews could hope to create a new national life in Palestine. To make Hebrew a living language, not only a strong emotional attachment was required, but an unusual degree of enthusiasm, amounting almost to fanaticism.

To understand something of the strength of the impulse behind the Hebrew revival, one has only to read the biography of Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1857-1922).1 “One day, out of a clear blue sky, he began to speak to his wife in Hebrew, though she did not understand a word of our national language. She looked at him in astonishment and when she finally understood his intention explained to him in Russian that though she desired with all her heart to learn to speak Hebrew, she could not very well suddenly become transformed into a mute, that after all one has to learn a new language step by step. But he stubbornly kept to his resolve and in a year Hebrew resounded in the Ben Yehuda household. But still not satisfied, Ben Yehuda and his wife Deborah decided to talk only Hebrew to their friends as well. A few years later Deborah Ben Yehuda began to teach Hebrew in one of the schools in Jerusalem.” Ben Yehuda also founded several Hebrew periodicals and compiled a Hebrew dictionary which in method and scope approaches the Oxford English Dictionary (an enterprise that represents the collaboration of scores of scholars working over half a century).

There was also a practical aspect. The Jews who came to Palestine in the 80’s and 90’s of the last century spoke many different languages. There were Russian, Galician, and Hungarian Jews who spoke Yiddish; Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino; Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who spoke Arabic; Iranian Jews who spoke Persian, etc. A common language was needed not only to facilitate communication among the different groups but also to make possible the organization of a unified educational system and the welding of the various Jewish entities into a homogeneous nation.

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Among the linguistic factors that made the revival of Hebrew possible, two are of particular importance: the existence of a common literary source and the bilingualism (and even multilingualism) of so many Jews. In order to revive Hebrew as a spoken language there had to be a source familiar to all Jews from which the everyday vocabulary could be drawn. The Bible, the Mishnaic and medieval literature, and the Prayer Book served as this source. Modem Hebrew is basically Biblical Hebrew with certain modifications found in Mishnaic Hebrew (e.g., the development of a present tense, the less frequent use of the possessive suffixes, the more frequent use of the “shel” form rather than the “construct state,” the loss or less frequent use of certain verb forms and the development of one or two new ones, etc.), and a number of further modifications and simplifications (especially in the syntax and in the tense system) which represent the influence of the Western European languages.

The fact that so many Jews knew European languages enabled them to borrow necessary new words and to coin Hebrew words on the model of foreign ones. Many of the foreign borrowings are international words like radio, telephone, telegram, etc.; many are words common to a number of European languages (prose, poem, drama, opera, satire, civilization, reform, university, etc.). The proportion of foreign words in Hebrew is much higher than that found in most other languages. It is not uncommon to hear a conversation or read a newspaper article in which twenty per cent or more of the words are borrowings. A Hebrew speaker will not hesitate to use practically any foreign word which seems to him to express an idea more precisely than a Hebrew word at his command. The first few pages of a recent issue of a newspaper contained the following foreign words (given for convenience in their English form): coalition, solidarity, interests, caricature, inquisition, bourgeois, prestige, standard, imperialistic, indiscretion, differentiation, dynamic, lexicographic, veto, sanctions, neutrality, status quo, proportion, sensation. Loan words usually appear in their German (or, in a few cases, their Russian) form: kurs “course” (u pronounced as in “rule”), kontsert “concert” (o as in “orb,” e as in “let”), paritet “parity” (a as in “father,” i as in “machine”), luksus “luxury,” egoismus “egoism,” musika “music,” proportsiya “proportion,” reaktsiya “reaction.” Very often a Hebrew suffix (especially –ut “abstract meaning” and –i “adjectival ending”) is added to a foreign word: realiut “realism,” humaniut “humanity,” moderni “modem,” eropi “European.” At times one finds rather bizaare blends like tankai, jeepai, and sportai (the suffix –ai “one having to do with” added to “tank,” “jeep,” and “sport”).

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Hebrew has always borrowed from the most diverse sources. In its early period it borrowed from Aramaic, Persian, Greek, and Latin. Since the time it was revived it has borrowed from Yiddish, German, Russian, English, Arabic, French, Italian, etc. In Palestine it has been in direct contact with two other languages, namely, Arabic and English. Many of the names of local plants and animals and of various kinds of foods are Arabic (as are, by the way, many slang terms). Among the English borrowings are words like sport, film, toast, sweater, pudding, hello (in answering the telephone), OK, and a number of military terms like tank, jeep, bunker, pillbox, etc. One frequently sees letters in the Haganah magazine BaMachane (“In Camp”) criticizing soldiers for using such words as OK, pass, camp, sick report, and suggesting Hebrew words that might be used instead.

Side by side with this wide freedom to borrow, there exists in Hebrew a very marked puristic tendency. Hebrew has a very patterned structure: most words are made up of a root (usually consisting of three consonants) which carries the basic meaning, and a vowel or vowel-consonant pattern which expresses a certain modification of the root idea. Thus we have the root l m d which means “having to do with studying or learning” and forms like lmida “the act of learning or studying,” limed “he taught,” limud “teaching, learning, study,” talmud “learning, study,” mlamed “a teacher,” mlumad “learned,” lamdan “a learned man, scholar.” Since most Hebrew words consist of such fixed patterns, words which lack these patterns are easily recognized as foreign. The English speaker is not aware that many of the common words he uses were originally loan words: while “lane” and “sweet,” for example, are native words (that is, Anglo-Saxon or Germanic in origin), “street” and “nice” are foreign words (in this case, words of Latin origin). The Hebrew speaker, however, can usually tell from the form of most words whether they are native or borrowed; and there is a very strong tendency to replace foreign words by Hebrew words wherever possible. Foreign words are avoided in formal or literary stlye, and speaking and writing a “good Hebrew” implies, among other things, the use of-a very high proportion of native words.

This tendency to replace borrowings with native coinages exists even in the everyday vocabulary. The word “telegram,” for instance, has been replaced by mivrak (from the word meaning “lightning”). Right now an attempt is being made to replace the word teksi (“taxi”) by monit (from the root meaning “to count”), though a recent issue of a newspaper carries the story of a man who being in a hurry decided to hail a cab and shouted monit to an empty cab that was coming towards him. The driver, however, just continued on his way. Desperate situations calling for desperate remedies, the man cried teksi, whereupon the driver halted instantly. Yet, given the strong puristic tendency of Hebrew, the chances are good that it will very soon be possible (if it is not already) to hail a cab by shouting monit. Every year hundreds of foreign words are replaced by Hebrew words found in the earlier literature, or by new Hebrew coinages, or are simply translated into Hebrew. This process affects even proper names: on reaching Palestine, Mr. Fried becomes Ben-Shalom (Hebrew for “son of peace”), Mr. Schwartz becomes Shchori (Hebrew for “black”), Mr. Berg becomes Harari (Hebrew for “mountaineer”), and Mr. Wilder becomes Prai (Hebrew for “wild”).

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Hebrew has enriched its vocabulary in several different ways. First of all, many Biblical words have been given new meanings. The word chashmal occurs three times in Ezekiel and apparently refers to some sort of shining substance. It was translated in the Septuagint by the Greek word for “amber,” elektron, from which our word “electricity” is derived. The word chashmal has been adopted in modem Hebrew for “electricity” and from it various Hebrew formations have been made (chashmali “electric or electrical,” chashmalai “electrician,” chishmul “electrification,” chashmalit “street car run by electricity”).

Second, many Biblical or Mishnaic words have been given extended meanings on the basis of the European languages. The word sh’ifa (the apostrophe represents the vowel shva which is pronounced like the i in “mistake”), meaning “breathing,” has been extended to mean “aspiration.” The word zerem, “stream or current,” has been extended to cover meanings like “stream of history” or “electric current.” The word sviva, which means “neighborhood or environment” (in the physical sense), has been extended to mean “cultural environment, milieu.” The word matsav, which means “standing place, station, position,” has been extended to mean “situation or status.” The word tnua, which means “movement” (in the physical sense), has been extended to include “social or cultural movement.” The word mate, which means “staff or rod,” has been extended to mean “army staff.” In a few cases a Hebrew word which happened to sound like a European word has been given the meaning of the European word it resembles. The Hebrew word mchona originally meant only “fixed place, base, stand” but has been given the additional meaning “machine” on the basis of words like German Maschine, Mechanik, and similar words in other languages. The word mapa (from Latin mappa “napkin”) which originally meant only “cloth” or “napkin,” is now used in the sense of “map” as well. The word masa which meant only “burden, load” is now also used in the sense of “mass” (as in physics).

Third, foreign words have been borrowed where there was no Hebrew word for a given object or concept, or at least no Hebrew word which was specific enough. These loan words consist of concrete nouns like telefon, radio, hank, oto (“auto”), bus, album, sigariya (“cigarette”), etc., and abstract nouns like humor, tempo, minimum, maksimum, energiya, etc. The names of most of the arts and sciences (music, drama, history, geography, mathematics, physics, algebra, psychology, etc.), have been borrowed in their German or Russian form. A good many adjectives have also been borrowed (usually with the addition of the Hebrew adjectival suffix –i): sotsiali (“social”), liberali (“liberal”), humani (“human”), obyektivi (“objective”). On the other hand, only a handful of verbs have been borrowed (the common ones are those for telephoning, typewriting, organizing, citing, and dedaiming).

Fourth, many Hebrew words have been coined on the pattern of foreign words. “Airplane” becomes aviron from avir “air” (an early borrowing from Greek, from which our English word “air” also comes) plus the Hebrew suffix –on. “Periodical” is iton from et “time” plus –on. “Weekly” (periodical) is shavuon from shavua “week” plus –on. For the words “export” and “import” Bialik coined the words y’tsu (from the root meaning “to go out”) and y’vu (from the root meaning “to come”). The structure of Hebrew readily lends itself to this process of coinage. As we have seen, most Hebrew words are analyzable into roots carrying certain conceptual meanings and noun, adjective, and verb patterns with certain semantic and grammatical values. As soon as one recognizes the root and the pattern, one can guess the meaning of new coinages. Thus the Hebrew reader who comes across a very recent coinage like mishlat knows that the root sh l t has to do with “ruling or controlling” and that one of the commonest meanings for the prefix ma– or mi– is “a place where” or “a place which.” Mishlat therefore has the general meaning of a “place which controls” and, since the context is a military one, he can guess that it means a place which puts one in a controlling or commanding position, that is, a military strong point, a fortified position, etc.

Finally, foreign words or phrases are translated into Hebrew. “Wireless” becomes al chut (“without wire”), “kindergarten” becomes gan y’ladim (“garden of children”), etc. Expressions like “point of view,” “Weltanschauung,” “fait accomph,” for example, are just translated literally (nkudat r’ut, hashkafat olam, uvda mugmeret). Loan translations of this sort are extremely common in Hebrew.

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These various methods make it possible to create at need a whole new terminology. Every year there appear technical monographs and textbooks in such fields as mathematics, medicine, physics, phonetics, ethnology, electrical engineering, etc., and the authors often have to create a Hebrew terminology as they go along. The Vaad HaLashon (“Language Committee”) issues from time to time terminological glossaries and dictionaries in the arts, various fields of pure and applied science, mathematics, philosophy, etc. An example of the creation of an entirely new terminology in the course of less than a year has been in the field of military organization and tactics. When military training on a mass scale first began just about a year ago the terms used were mostly English. Hebrew terms were gradually substituted for the English ones, and now there is a Hebrew word for practically everything military: column right, present arms, hand grenades, commando units, engineer corps, mess call.

Many Biblical and Mishnaic words were given new meanings or specific modem applications. For example, there are several words in the Bible with the root p r z which refer to unfortified towns or to open (and hence undefendable) regions; the root is now used for a number of formations which refer to “open cities,” “demilitarized regions,” “neutral zones,” etc. The Mishnaic word pagoz which refers to a projectile shot from a catapult has given rise to formations like pagaz “mortar shell,” l’hafgiz “to subject to mortar fire,” etc. Many foreign words or phrases have been translated into Hebrew: a caterpillar tank or tractor, for instance, is zachal (the Hebrew word for “caterpillar”) and phrases like “flank attack,” “pincers movement,” “dive bomber,” etc., are translated literally.

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Hebrew is of considerable interest from a purely linguistic standpoint. For one thing, it exhibits a remarkable continuity. The English reader who picks up a book written three centuries ago finds a quite different language; if he goes back seven or eight centuries the language becomes unintelligible to him. Yet the Hebrew speaker can turn from his evening paper to the Bible, portions of which were written some three thousand years ago, and feel that he is reading the same language.

A second interesting characteristic of modem Hebrew is that it is still in a formative state, particularly as regards vocabulary. We no longer have the freedom in formal or literary English or French to coin words at will. In the case of English we have to go back to the Elizabethan period to find a time when foreign borrowings and new coinages were welcomed and readily became part of the language. In Hebrew each issue of a newspaper or magazine is likely to contain many new words, and every year countless loan words and native coinages are added to the word stock of the language. The important Hebrew writers have enriched not only the literature but the language as well. A whole dictionary has been compiled of the innovations introduced by one man alone (A Dictionary of Bialik’s Coinages by Isaac Avineri).

A third characteristic of Modern Hebrew is its homogeneity. Languages like English, French, Spanish, or German show a high degree of regional and social differentiation. The trained observer can listen for a few minutes to a Britisher or Frenchman and from various features of his pronunciation and usage tell what region he is from and exactly what his social status is. Hebrew, however, has no regional differentiation and very little social differentiation. There are, to be sure, a number of variations in Hebrew pronunciation in Israel. Some speakers use a “front r” similar to the Italian or Spanish r, while other speakers use a “back r” similar to the French or German r used in the cities. Some speakers use the vowel in “let” in cases in which other speakers use the vowel in “they.” Many Sephardic speakers who know Arabic pronounce certain sounds (alef and ayin) which are not pronounced by other speakers or make distinctions (as between chaf and chet) which other speakers do not. Similarly in grammar, some speakers use forms and constructions (e.g. the form katávtem instead of ktavtém, etc.), which are considered “incorrect” by other speakers. But these variations are not nearly as numerous in Hebrew as they are, for example, in English or French, nor is there a “standard” and “substandard” language to correspond to standard British as contrasted with cockney English (or other substandard forms) or standard French as contrasted with substandard French.

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Modern Israeli Hebrew thus offers a unique opportunity to the linguistic scientist. Here he can study various phases of linguistic evolution, such as the development of social norms in a language (the emergence of standard and substandard forms), the development of different levels of usage (formal, informal, etc.), the growth of a children’s language, of a slang vocabulary, of professional jargons, etc. In short, we have in Palestine what might be described as a linguistic laboratory situation: we can watch a language evolve, as it were, before our very eyes.

Two questions often asked about Hebrew are: “Is it a difficult language to learn?” and “Is it as fully developed a language as, say, English or French?”

One who is confronted with the Hebrew alphabet for the first time doubtless receives the impression that Hebrew presents a thorny problem, indeed, an impression likely to be strengthened when he learns that except for poetry, children’s books, and beginners’ texts Hebrew is generally written without vowels (or, more accurately, without any indication of some of the vowels and without an exact indication of the others) and that conseqently there are sometimes sentences which can be interpreted in several ways, depending on the vowels the reader supplies.

Hebrew is without doubt a rather hard language to learn to read: it requires mastering a new alphabet (though, curiously enough, our Roman alphabet is ultimately derived from the Semitic one) and it means learning a good bit of the language before one can read unvocalized texts with ease. But to compensate for this difficulty, Hebrew is an easy language to learn to speak. It is a far easier language for English speakers to pronounce than French or German. We have all the Hebrew vowels in English and all the consonants except the ch sound (which is like the ch in Scottish loch or German ach) and the particular varieties of r used in Hebrew. Moreover, the accentual and intonational pattern of Hebrew and English is very similar, as is the grammatical system (both languages lack a case system and in both word order plays an important role). The tense system of Hebrew could not be simpler: there are only three tenses, past, present, and future. Building up a Hebrew vocabulary is somewhat difficult because of the absence of cognates, but on the other hand once one has learned the meaning of the common roots and the common noun, adjective, and verb patterns, one can guess the meaning of many of the new words one encounters.

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As for the potentialities of Hebrew, one sometimes reads that Hebrew is a language ideally suited to poetry because of its “conciseness and vividness,” but one not suited to the writings of novels or scientific treatises.

Hebrew does, as a matter of fact, quite often express in one word what would take several words in English, but the reverse is also true; to render the English expression “know-how,” for instance, would take many words in Hebrew (or any other language). Hebrew has many vivid expressions but for that matter so does every language. It is true that over the centuries a good deal of poetry has been written in Hebrew and relatively few novels or scientific works; this is, however, a matter of literary history and not a question of the resources of the language.

In recent years we have seen the appearance in Hebrew not only of novels, short stories, plays, and essays, but of books on fields as varied as aesthetics, numismatics, pedagogy, navigation, psychology, poultry raising, and military tactics.

A little over two generations have passed since Ben Yehuda made his resolution to speak only Hebrew. In that short space of time Hebrew has been transformed from what was essentially a literary language into an important modern language in which one can talk and write about every conceivable subject. It is indeed a phenomenon without parallel in the history of language.

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