It’s widely known that Hebrew was the language of the ancient Israelites that got revamped and revived by idealistic Zionists around the turn of the 20th century and eventually turned into the vibrant language today spoken by at least five million native speakers. It’s a unique feat, as languages often tend to go extinct rather than gain new life, and idealistic linguistic projects (think Esperanto) usually don’t succeed. A lot can be said about the social, political and historical circumstances which made possible that the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, did succeed. There was of course the political pressure to build a cohesive nation out of a scattered people, the historical potency of Hebrew as a liturgical and poetic language of that people and the social insistence on leaving behind diaspora identities and languages. Naturally, this was a collective effort carried out by many, but the linguistic revolution did start with one man who decided to create a dictionary to bridge the gap and inject into the vocabulary of the anachronistic language a bevy of modern terms. He started by creating a word for the very thing he was working on: milon (מילון, a combination of mila meaning ‘word’ and an established suffix) would be ‘dictionary’. This was in the 1880s. When Ben-Yehuda died in 1922, the dictionary was not yet published but many hundreds of new words were contributed by him, his wife Hemda, other linguists, writers, as well as lots by school-going kids trying to make sense of the world. By then, Modern Hebrew was well on its way to be a full-fledged language, both young and old at the same time.
Ben-Yehuda and the newly found Hebrew Language Committee’s main strategy for forming new words (neologisms) was retrieving roots from either Rabbinical Hebrew or contemporary Arabic and attaching them to existing patterns or affixes. This proved a lot more effective than what Maskilim had done before them. These were members of the Jewish Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th century who sought to use Hebrew as a language of literature rather than just one of liturgy. They went about this by coining often impossibly complicated constructions consisting solely of words from the available Biblical lexicon, like ‘a sled’ being formed out of the words for ‘a winter carriage which has no wheels’. In other cases, they were more creative, opting for sound semblance like translating the word ‘cholera’ to kholi-ra (חולי רע) – literally ‘bad sick(ness)’.
Ben-Yehuda’s committee’s vision, however, was not to make a sophisticated and pretty yet unnatural and literary language – the purpose was to make Hebrew a spoken language again. Thus, they dug deep in old Mishnaic texts in order to find roots that could make for viable words for new concepts. Bicycle, for example, became ofanayim (אופּניים), from the dual plural of ofan, an outdated word for ‘wheel’. Another dual plural was employed for the new word mishkafayim (משקפיים meaning ‘glasses’), taken from the Biblical root שקפ – ‘to look through’. For other novel concepts, translation was done by analogy with older concepts, like khashmal (חשמל) for ‘electricity’ from the Biblical word for amber, the bright yellow, conductive stone.
Ben-Yehuda didn’t just look to Hebrew but also to other languages he came into contact with. Around that time, German was a highly prominent language globally, spoken by many of the early Zionists. By analogy with German, the words it’on (עיתון ‘newspaper’ from the root for time and a suffix, like German Zeitung) and gan yeladim (גן ילדים literally ‘garden of kids’ analogous to German – and borrowed into English – Kindergarten) were invented. An even more influential language was Arabic, which of course was spoken throughout the region. Crucially, it was also a Semitic language and thus for Ben-Yehuda an especially useful source from which to retrieve stems in order to form new words. The words rishmi רשמי and retsini רציני (respecitvely ‘official’ and ‘serious’, from literary Arabic rasmi and ratsin) are examples of this linguistic transfer.
Other early Modern Hebrew terms show the creativity of those linguists, writers and common folk involved in the revival project: the combination of kol ‘voice/sound’ and noa meaning ‘motion’ makes kolnoa קולנוע which is ‘cinema’. Similarly, dragnoa דרגנוע was formed by combining noa with drag, the root for ‘stairs’, making ‘escalator’. Besides compounding, blending was used to create quite a few well-known Hebrew words, like tapuz תפּוז ‘orange’ (from tapuach zahav or ‘golden apple’) and barvaz ברווז, meaning ‘duck’ but made up of bar and avaz, rendering the literal translation ‘son of a goose’.
Other neologisms were formed by acronyms, a long prevalent phenomenon in Hebrew, think of RaMBaM from Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon or TaNaKh from Torah, Nevi’im and Ktuvim. In the army, this is a popular strategy, which brought words like shnats שנ”צ from shinat tsohorayim meaning ‘afternoon nap’ into the public domain. Then there’s clever constructions like sakum סכו”ם ‘cutlery’, an acronym for sakin, kaf, mazleg (knife, spoon, fork) or khul חו׳׳ל ‘abroad’ from khuts la’arets or ‘outside of the country’.
Like so many other languages, Hebrew was also inevitably influenced by English in the modern era. This started already in British Mandate Palestine when, for example, the Hebrew word for ‘service’ shirut (שירות) by analogy with its English translation came to cover the same large semantic field from ‘secret service’ to ‘military service’ and by extension even ‘taxi’ and ‘toilet area’ (when pluralized into shirutim). In recent decades, many popular culture phrases have entered Hebrew speech, often adapted into the local pronunciation, which makes for fun words like fek nuz, popkoren and sori and delightful double plurals like jeansim and shrimpsim, not to mention ingenious implementations of English loanwords into the Hebrew verb pattern like lesabsed, lehapnet and ledalet (‘to subsidize’, ‘to hypnotize’ and ‘to delete’).
Of course, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians also injected a fair share of their mother tongue into the Hebrew vocabulary: context-specific words like khamsin חמסין and intifada אינתיפאדה, as well as widely embraced colloquialisms yallah יללה, ahlan אהלן (greeting) and akhla אחלה (‘great, awesome’). More exciting is the transfer of Arabic verb formation from nouns into Hebrew, which is the strategy employed by Palestinian Israeli author Anton Shammas when he turns Shakespeare into a verb ‘to be Shakespeare’, which is perfectly possible in Arabic: shaksbarani would be ‘I became Shakespeare’ – this is adapted into a Hebrew structure, yielding shuksparti שוקספּרתי, a strange yet recognizable Hebrew word. Similarly, Shammas invents the verb lekhamer לחמר ‘to treat someone like an idiot’ from the word for donkey חמור, because that same construction exists in Arabic.
Today, the legacy of Ben Yehuda and other language pioneers is monumental: a national language, more alive than ever, built on ancient foundations but constantly being added onto with newer, colorful building blocks. The successor of Ben Yehuda’s committee, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, is like the overseer, seeing to it that the new blocks fit neatly into the structure: borrowed terms get modified to suit time-tested Hebrew patterns and new slang is studiously scrutinized. In the end, though, language is mostly shaped by people in streets, schools, supermarkets and salons and thus the builders are the speakers themselves, who come from and pick up influences all over the place and make the thriving of Modern Hebrew possible.
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