The History of Hebrew
Jenny Mintz, May, 2001
Hebrew...The language of the Jews. A language that has been a flame that refuses to go out. A flame that at some points in history has been burning brightly and at other points in history has been dying out. But it seems that every time the flame is about to burn out, people have taken a deep breath and rekindled it. It is now 4,000 years after Hebrew began, and it is going strong. But don't get the idea that it has been an easy journey. Quite the contrary. It has been a struggle to keep Hebrew alive. But admirable people, such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, have been up to the fight. They have dedicated their whole lives to the existence of Hebrew and they should be commended. Because of these people, Hebrew is now the official language of the State of Israel. But, let's not jump ahead of ourselves. There is still about 3,900 years of history to discuss.
Hebrew is divided into four periods. The first period is called Biblical, or Classical Hebrew. During this period the candle was just being lit and the flame was glowing. The Torah was written in this form of Hebrew. In the Torah, the language of the Hebrews is referred to as the "language of Canaan" or "language of Judah." Biblical Hebrew had a relatively small vocabulary, with only two verb tenses. It was used as a spoken language in Palestine. This early period lasted until about the 3rd century B.C.E.
As spoken Hebrew died out, Jews in Palestine began to speak Aramaic. Later Hebrew gained many words and grammatical forms from Aramaic. Outside of Palestine, Jews began to speak the languages of the communities in which they lived.
The second period is called Mishnaic, or Rabbinic, Hebrew. During this period the flame of the candle remained dim. Mishnaic Hebrew was never used as a spoken language, but it continued to be used for written documents. In particular, the Mishna, a collection of Jewish commentaries, was written in this form of Hebrew. This period lasted until about 200 CE.
The third period is called Medieval Hebrew and began in about the 6th century CE. This represents the period when the flame was rekindled and began to burn brightly again. During this period, commonly known as the Renaissance, there was a tremendous growth in the arts, literature and culture in Europe and the Middle East. This seems to have had a positive effect on Medieval Hebrew. Many words in Medieval Hebrew were borrowed from Greek, Spanish, Arabic and other languages. This period also saw the addition of about 2,000 to 3,000 scientific and philosophical terms. Some words were formed by making use of old roots. Some were based on existing Hebrew words. And some were adapted from foreign languages. Many great theological, philosophical and poetic Hebrew works were composed during this period, mainly in Spain and North Africa. Medieval Hebrew was also used for translating works from Arabic. This period lasted until about the 13th century CE and represents a great resurgence of the language.
After the period of Medieval Hebrew ended, things again began to go downhill. And once again, the flame that had once been burning so brightly, was beginning to die out. The flame stayed dim for about 600 years. It was just about ready to burn out completely. But then came the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, a movement that emancipated Jews from their narrow shtetl and ghetto life. The Maskilim, the advocates of the Haskalah, saw Hebrew as the future of Jewish culture and looked down upon Yiddish, the common language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. They went on to develop post-biblical Hebrew literature and the first Hebrew novel. But this was just the beginning. From here, the candle began to burn brighter and brighter. And this is where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda comes into the picture.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, not necessarily a household name. But he is a person that deserves all the recognition in the world. This one man devoted his whole life to reviving a language that had not been spoken for thousands of years. He wanted Hebrew to unite the Jews, to give them a language that could be used in their everyday life, in any situation. I want to share a quote with you from Robert St. John, author Tongue of the Prophets, a biography of Ben-Yehuda. "It is the story of a man who made it possible for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love, and curse out their neighbors in a language which until his day had been fit only for Talmudic argument and prayer."
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman, on January 7, 1858, in the Lithuanian village of Luzhky. There was scattered use of Hebrew in novels and newspapers at the time of his birth. When Ben-Yehuda was young, he was trained by a rabbi to study the Torah, but the rabbi was also educating him about Hebrew novels written during the Enlightenment. He was also introduced to Hebrew through classic novels, such as Robinson Crusoe, that had been translated into Hebrew. He was kicked out of his uncle's house for reading Robinson Crusoe. His uncle did not believe that Hebrew should be used, other than for religious learning and study. Although Ben-Yehuda is best-known for reviving the Hebrew language, he was also one of the first Zionists and very interested in making a homeland for Jews. He had these ideas twenty years before the well-known Zionist, Theodor Herzl. But Herzl did not believe that you needed a common language to unify people. He felt that people would choose a language to speak after settling together. Ben-Yehuda felt that you couldn't have a homeland without a language, nor a language without a homeland. And this is where his struggle began.
Ben-Yehuda moved to Palestine to pursue his dream. He was a very smart and logical man, and always had his goal in mind. Ben-Yehuda would do lots of little things to try to revive Hebrew, the things that most people wouldn't think of. But, unlike most people, Ben-Yehuda WAS conscious of these things, and in the end, they most definitely paid off. For example, Ben-Yehuda would greet people in Hebrew. If they could speak Hebrew well enough, he would carry on a conversation with them, speaking exclusively Hebrew. He would also not allow any other language to be spoken in his house, with only a few exceptions. When Eliezer and Deborah, his first wife, began having children, they did whatever they could to stop their children's exposure to any language other than Hebrew.
As Ben-Yehuda made his home in Palestine, his vision grew clearer and his will to succeed grew stronger.
He founded and edited a weekly Hebrew newspaper called Ha-Tzvi, the Deer. This was a very important element in achieving his goal and served a number of purposes. Each week, he would add one new Hebrew vocabulary word. This was a word that he was either introducing or re-introducing to the world. He would then leave it up to the people to decide whether they wanted to use that word. If they did use it, it would then become part of their vernacular. Ha-Tzvi had a substantial readership that greatly appreciated the newspaper. There were also a large number of people who greatly opposed the newspaper and disagreed with Ben-Yehuda's opinions. So, many of these people fought to have the newspaper banned. And many times the newspaper actually got banned. But Ben-Yehuda never gave up without a fight. He was able to restart the newspaper on several occasions.
Ben-Yehuda is probably best known for the Hebrew dictionary that he created. The purpose of this dictionary was to take all the Hebrew words that he collected, and compile them. This way, the words would be easily accessible to scholars, as well as everyday people. Ben-Yehuda's methodology for his dictionary was to go back and see if the word existed. He would search through hundreds of books to try to find "lost words", like an archaeologist. Ben-Yehuda would look to sister languages, and borrow words that were alike in sound and form, and modify them into Hebrew in a Hebrew style. These sister languages were Arabic, which was alive but primitive, Assyrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Coptic. He searched for Canaanite and Moabite languages, which were closest to Hebrew, but had no luck. If Ben-Yehuda could not find a certain word anywhere, he would create the word himself. For instance, Ben-Yehuda knew of no specific word in Hebrew for the English word "dictionary." People referred to a dictionary as sefer millim, which literally means "book of words." So, Eliezer used the Hebrew word, millah, as a base and created the word, millon. This was one of Ben-Yehuda's first personal contributions to Hebrew. Another example is the word for "journal" or "newspaper." Michtav-et, meaning "a letter of the time", was the only suitable word. But Ben-Yehuda didn't think it was sufficient. He created the word itton. But there were some words that Ben-Yehuda created that very closely resembled their European equivalents. For instance, in ancients times, there was no word for a machine that flies through the air. But as time went on, people who spoke English called it an "airplane" and people who spoke French called it an "avion." Ben-Yehuda used the Hebrew base aveer, added "on", and formed the word aveeron. Although aveeron is a completely Hebrew word, it does sound a lot like airplane and avion, so many people thought he stole it from those other languages.
While Eliezer would wander from city to city searching for words, Hemda, his second wife, would search for money to support the dictionaries. Eliezer would look through thousands of books, in many different libraries, in different cities and countries all over the world for words for his dictionary. Months and months of time and work went into each Hebrew word that was to appear in Ben-Yehuda's dictionary. Each word and its information would be put on a slip of paper. If even one slip was lost or misplaced, the whole family would look for it until it was found or until they gave up on it because there was so much information for each word. Although referred to as a dictionary, Ben-Yehuda's finished product was really much more than a dictionary. Ben-Yehuda's dictionary consisted of: the Hebrew word; the translation into French, German, and English; references in Arabic, Assyrian, Aramaic, Greek and Latin; synonyms, antonyms, related words, origin, explanation of construction, comparison of its sister words in other Semitic languages, the changes it had undergone down through the ages; all its nuances, shades, forms, inflections and uses; and examples of its uses. The finished product of this dictionary took 50 years to create and was sixteen volumes. This truly was Ben-Yehuda's life's work.
Ben Yehuda also felt strongly about the pronunciation of Hebrew. He felt that if he was reviving the language, and basically starting from scratch, he might as well have everyone pronouncing the Hebrew words the same way. Ben-Yehuda liked the Sephardic pronunciation better than the Ashkenazic. He thought the Sephardic way was more beautiful and flowed better. So, if you listen to people speak Hebrew today, you will hear that they are most likely speaking with the Sephardic pronunciation.
Ben-Yehuda also did many things to build literacy and a culture in Hebrew, not just a language. He worked with teachers to write textbooks in Hebrew and worked with playwrights to write plays. Ben-Yehuda translated great works of literature into Hebrew, by authors such as Victor Hugo and Moliere. Ben-Yehuda also reported on science and inventions. He also developed the teaching method called "Teaching Hebrew in Hebrew" which was an effective way to immerse the students in the language.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda accomplished so much, it may seem like it was an easy ride for him. It definitely wasn't. There was a tremendous amount of opposition to Ben-Yehuda's ideas, from all different kinds of people.
The Turks had control of Palestine during this time, as part of the Ottoman Empire. They opposed Ben-Yehuda's ideas, so they banned Jewish immigration into Palestine. This was a setback for Ben-Yehuda. He felt that Jews should have a right to migrate to the country that was their "Promised Land." But more importantly, he needed the Jewish population to increase in Palestine, so there could be a chance for his dream to come true. He hoped that Jews could have a homeland and a unifying language.
Ben-Yehuda's ideas were also opposed by Jewish groups, such as the German Jews, Polish Jews and Spanish Jews. They felt that if he succeeded in giving the Jews a homeland and language, their cultures would become less important, less useful, and eventually die out.
Lastly, there was religious opposition. Many Orthodox Jews did not agree with any of Ben-Yehuda's ideas. They didn't think that it was "kosher" to interfere with G-d's ways, by introducing Hebrew into secular use. They didn't want biblical Hebrew being used for everyday life because it was sacred and popular use would prostitute it. So, many religious Jews took action. They closed Hebrew schools and blacklisted any students that studied Hebrew. In response Ben-Yehuda bribed teachers to teach classes in Hebrew. He also bribed students to take classes in Hebrew.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda died in 1922, after seeing the beginning of his dream come true. People were speaking Hebrew and using it in their everyday life. It was Ben-Yehuda who revived Hebrew and made modern Hebrew what it is today.
And so we have reached the fourth period, Modern Hebrew, the only spoken language created from a written language. The pronunciation is a modification of that used by the Sephardic Jews rather than that of Ashkenazic Jews. Modern Hebrew is written from right to left with 22 consonants. Word roots usually consisting of 3 consonants, to which vowels and other consonants are added, create words of different parts of speech and meaning. In 1913, Hebrew became the language of instruction in Jewish schools in Palestine. And in 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel, Hebrew became the official language.
So, in 8 pages, in 10 minutes, I just gave you 4000 years of the history of Hebrew. For me, this report made the connection between the Modern Hebrew I've learned in Hebrew School and the Biblical Hebrew I'll be chanting at my Bat Mitzvah. It's quite a story...
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