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The Revitalization of Modern Hebrew

By Gil Cohen

How does one revitalize a language? Does one administer CPR to it? Do they blow air into the lungs of a language? Why would anyone want to do it, anyway? Language is a means of communicating ideas in your head to the person you’re talking with, right? If so, shouldn’t it be enough if people can speak the same language? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. As you may have read in my last piece (December issue, Methods of Teaching Languages in Class), sometimes people who immigrate to a new country speak different languages, and you need to have a common language which is one of the reasons Hebrew has been revitalized.

As learners of languages, we all know that learning a language creates a window through which we can look into the culture of the people related to that language. Sometimes, and for a variety of reasons, a community of speakers stops speaking their own language, and without it, they lose some of their own culture and identity. An example of this would be the Celtic languages and people (mostly) in Europe. Some of the languages have gone extinct (like Cornish), while other languages have had less and less native or second language speakers (like Irish and Welsh). Thanks to efforts as part of the Celtic revival, a variety of movements in the 19th and 20th centuries that sparked a renewed interest in the Celtic culture, Cornish has been revitalized and is no longer an extinct language.

Ever since the Second Temple of the Jews had been destroyed in the year 70 AD and the exile of most Jews from the area of Erets Israel (the land of Israel), they had a common dream: returning to their homeland. Up until the 19th century, due to the political situation in the area, Jews couldn’t immigrate to Israel. Since the destruction of the Second Temple (and actually sometime before that too) Hebrew hasn’t been used as a spoken language, but as a liturgical language – i.e. Hebrew has gone pretty much extinct. It was not used for communication and children did not learn it at home or at school and etc. Nevertheless, in the 19th century, before Jews started immigrating to the land of Israel, Jews in Europe began using Hebrew as a literary language.

The Jewish diaspora was a worldwide phenomenon. Jews were everywhere: in pretty much every country in Europe, in North and South America, in Asia and in Africa. They have been in these places for centuries, and as a consequence, beside their Judaism, they were very different from one another. Their way of dress and what they ate where different and, surprise surprise, their culture and language, too! Jews in Europe mostly spoke the language of the country/area: English in England, French in France and German in Germany, but many Jews in Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish. Yiddish is a Germanic language written with Hebrew letters, that has been influenced by Hebrew, but is much closer to German.

So, when Jews started immigrating to the land of Israel, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, they were not very united as a people, because they did not speak the same language. One spoke French, another spoke Arabic and yet another spoke Yiddish. What do you do? You need to find a common language, and which other language would be the common language if not Hebrew, the language of the bible? Thus, began the actual revitalization of Hebrew as a spoken language.

The most well-known person in the revitalization movement is Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who is often regarded as “the reviver of the Hebrew Language”. Obviously, he wasn’t the only one who revitalized Hebrew, but he was very influential: He published a newspaper in Hebrew in Jerusalem, HaZvi (lit. “The Gazelle”), he worked day and night to invent new words in Hebrew for concepts and objects that did not have a Hebrew equivalent (many of them are still used to this day) and raised the first native speaker of Hebrew in millennia, his first-born son. Even though his or his wife’s native language wasn’t Hebrew, he insisted that his children will be raised in a household in which only Hebrew was spoken.

There were many difficulties, as one would expect, such as people saying Hebrew was the sacred language of the bible and therefore it’s sacrilege to use it for every day activities, like speaking. In addition, since Hebrew didn’t have the prestige and status of other languages like French and German, many parents preferred to teach their children these languages instead of Hebrew. These languages would benefit them more in the future if they wanted to get a higher education, which at that time was not available in Hebrew. If you’re the child or grandchild of an immigrant, I guess you’ll find this familiar.

Nonetheless, little by little, Hebrew has become more and more popular, until it was being used everywhere: in newspapers, on the street, in official documents etc.. When the country of Israel was founded, Hebrew was chosen as its official language.

Nowadays, Hebrew is very much alive and non-extinct: there are millions of speakers (mostly in Israel, of course), there are many newspapers written in Hebrew, the universities in Israel teach mostly in Hebrew and songs, tv shows, movies and books are written in and use Hebrew.

In contradiction to what many people think, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew are very different:

• They’re pronounced in a very different fashion. Generally, Judaism is divided in two: Sephardic and Ashkenazi Judaism. Ashkenazi Jews are Jews that come from the area between France and Great Britain to Russia (or descendants of Jews that are originally from there), and Sephardic Jews are Jews that come from all other places: Asia, Northern Africa and Southern Europe. I won’t get to the religious difference between these groups, but they pronounced (and still do) Biblical Hebrew in different ways. Therefore, when Hebrew was revitalized, in what fashion should it be pronounced? The Sephardic way or the Ashkenazi way? There were many contentions regarding this subject, but because the Sephardic pronunciation was closer to the Biblical Hebrew one, it was the desired pronunciation for Modern Hebrew. Nevertheless, many Jews had problems pronouncing the stops and vowels in the Sephardic fashion (because most of the revitalizers of Hebrew were Ashkenazi), so we got a mix of the two.

• Biblical Hebrew is without a doubt a Semitic language, while the question whether Modern Hebrew is a Semitic language is controversial. Ghilad Zuckermann, a famous Israeli linguist and revivalist, claims that Modern Hebrew is a hybrid Germanic-Slavic-Semitic language. While the morphology is very Semitic (see my previous pieces regarding Modern Hebrew morphology), there are many constructs that are very Yiddish-like or are a calque. For example, the Yiddish phrase for “how are you?” (which is pronounced very similarly to wie gehts in German), which literally means “how is it going?”, has been calqued in Hebrew with ekh/ma holekh?, which literally means “how/what is going?”. Consequently, the grammar and syntax of Modern Hebrew is very different than Biblical Hebrew’s.

I, for one, can’t really understand Biblical Hebrew, even after 11 years of mandatory bible classes in School, in which we read the stories and analyzed them. I believe that a Modern Hebrew speaker who encounters Biblical Hebrew for the first time will understand some words here and there, because after all, the languages are related, but they won’t really understand it.

The revitalization of Modern Hebrew is a very interesting and complex subject, and I’ve just scratched the surface, so you are more than welcome to continue reading about it – and hey, maybe you’ll revitalize the language of your ancestors!

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