Israeli Hebrew – a story of a language (2)

Israeli Hebrew and its native speakers

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Zionist activists began to call for Hebrew as the language of speech in the Land of Israel. At that time, there were no native speakers of Hebrew in the area, as the last evidence of Hebrew speech had been from almost 2000 years prior to that.

The language, which we are talking today, first came into use in the kindergartens and pre-schools of the first Biluim settlements – Rehovot (then: Menucha VeNachala), Gedera, Rishon Letzion and Petach Tikva. These were very small populations of Jews, most of whom had arrived from Eastern Europe.

The teachers, who were the first to use Hebrew as their everyday language, used it as a second language, while their native languages were usually Slavic languages, mainly Russian and Polish.

And just like Israelis, who are currently using other foreign languages, such as English, the use of Hebrew, which was not practiced at the mother tongue level, was interfered by the first speakers’ native Slavic languages. They had never acquired Hebrew as their mother tongue, and they were facing an almost impossible task: to “produce” from scratch the first native speakers of the new language, those who would speak it as their first language, and could pass it on later to their next generations.

It was a very difficult task, as everyone in these areas spoke the same native languages, hence, they had no “excuse” to justify the use of a new foreign language for their everyday needs. They were motivated solely by Zionism. And apparently – it was a lot.

The target population was not large; It could include children up to the age of 12, desirably lower than that, since after the age of 12 – the process of acquiring a native language comes to an end.

Indeed, the assimilation of Hebrew language as a spoken language was carried out mainly in kindergartens, pre-schools, and the lower grades of the elementary school. Slowly, it became feasible to produce a first generation of Hebrew children, who used what they believed was Hebrew, as their mother tongue, and as their main language of communication, which they later passed on to their future generations – to us.

Is this indeed the same Hebrew from the holy sources, which was reborn? This, and more – in the next post.

About the Author
Holding a PhD degree in linguistics from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, I am the Principal Linguist in an Israeli Hi-Tech company, dealing with artificial intelligence. Also, I give enrichment lectures in language issues to all audiences. I have a previous experience in writing several guest-columns for various Jewish journals in the US and Canada. I am based in Israel.
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