People speak Hebrew in Israel as well as people speak Dutch in Netherlands. This statement seems trivial today. But it was just 120 years ago when Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, insisted there was impossible to revive the Hebrew language. He hoped German could become the most useful and vernacular language for Jews:
“I believe German will be our principal language…I draw this conclusion from our most widespread jargon, ‘Judeo-German.’ But over there we shall wean ourselves from this ghetto language, too, which used to be the stealthy tongue of prisoners. Our teachers will see to that.” (June 15, 1895, Diaries, 1: 171)
Unfortunately (or not?), all his hopes disappeared after Mein Kampf had been published in German: the language of Kant and Goethe had lost all chances to become widely used in the Jewish state.
In the days of Theodor Herzl, Hebrew was called Hebraic and seemed something dead, something like Ancient Greek that was used for liturgical goals only. Something like the Latin language. But…
In 1882 the first man in the world appeared who spoke Hebrew and used it like his native language. His father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), had to make great efforts for Hebrew to come to life.
How did Ben-Yehuda revive Hebrew? To answer this question, we should think about the exact difference between dead and alive languages. This difference is not a number of people who speak this language; and this difference is not the importance of information given in this language… Alive language is the one people speak from their very childhood.
Despite the fact many Jews knew Hebrew in times of Ben-Yehuda, there was no child who would pronounce his first words in this language. It means Hebrew was more dead than alive. Therefore, to make “ancient” Hebrew something like “modern” Hebrew, children should have been born who would consider it their native language to speak. Ben-Yehuda and his wife decided to speak only Hebrew at home; they continued to speak Hebrew when their son was born, so the boy had become the first native speaker of the language which was considered dead! But it was not enough to revive Hebrew…
First of all, a reviving language needed new words. To make it possible, several methods had been used:
- It appeared, that not all “new” words had to be invented. Many of them were possible to find in Talmud and Pentateuch.
- The words to name new concepts could be created in accordance with Hebrew word formation rules.
- The rules of word formation in Semitic languages differ from Indo-European or Turkish ones, but they were enough to create new words to use in “modern” Hebrew.
- New words could be borrowed from other languages; Arabic and Aramaic were used for this goal first of all.
Ben-Yehuda shared his experience in his newspaper which was published in… (who is to say!) Hebrew. He knew how to write essays that work; his initiative and direct participation gave birth to a number of different organizations and unions created to realize the slogan: “A Jew, speak Hebrew”.
His Hebrew language academy works today: it has become a state one, and it has rights to establish grammar rules of Hebrew and expand its lexical and terminological database. This academy is a so-called court of justice that decides whether a new word will become a part of the official and literary Hebrew language or it will be considered slang and jargon.
The fact of Hebrew revival can be accepted in different ways, depending on the attitude toward Jews and their country. Anyway, Hebrew cannot be considered a constructed language, like Esperanto. Ben-Yehuda did not invent any artificial rules, and he acted in accordance with the internal laws of the language people knew even in biblical times.
To know more facts about the Hebrew language revival and reasons why this language was impossible to kill, check the article of Jack Fellman here.