One of the most impressive achievements of Zionism is undoubtedly the revival of an ancient and medieval language (mostly Bible and the Talmudic literatures), and its subsequent adaptation into a modern, sophisticated all-encompassing language. Modern Hebrew responds to all the aspects of present-day life, with its complex terminology for all the fields of science (medicine, technology, electronics, computers, the humanities, law, etc.).
In addition, Hebrew was vivified into a living spoken language, from a once dormant holy language of ritual and literature – by itself almost an unprecedented miracle. Today modern Hebrew possesses all of the necessary language registers, be it slang, substandard, vulgarisms, journalese, legalese, to the highest literary eloquence.
This paper explores the methods and means of making Hebrew so flexible as to respond to all of the needs of modern life such as coining new words based on old grammatical and semantic principles, as well borrowing words from its sister Semitic languages (Aramaic, Arabic), as well as European languages and what I call ‘globalese, common global terminology.’ Moreover, this discussion will explore, out of the hundreds of patterns of creating new Hebrew words, just a few of typical ones, with just some selected examples.
I’ll start with a personal note: In April 1951 my family made ‘Aliya to Israel, with the rest of the Jews of Iraq, when I was about thirteen years old. When we arrived in Israel, I was quite surprised and amused to see roadsigns and store signs in Hebrew, and , moreover, even cigarettes and match boxes with Hebrew names.
But the most shocking was seeing pieces of papers with Hebrew letters discarded as garbage in the streets. Why was I so amused or shocked?
Because until our arrival in Israel, or ironically the Holy Land, Hebrew was for us a Holy Language of the Bible, of prayers, blessings and rituals, hardly ever used for secular mundane purposes. If a Hebrew book would be worn out and had to be discarded we would kiss it several times and then put it with reverence in the genizah chamber in the synagogue. Even after we arrived in Israel, whenever my mother would see a peace a paper with Hebrew letters discarded on the floor or in the street, she would pick it up and put it somewhere high so that people would not desecrate it by stepping on it.
So to understand the process of how Hebrew came to be used as a secular language, indeed a great achievement of Zionism, I would like to give you a short historical background.
Hebrew was of course used for everyday purposes during most of the Biblical times, in addition to its use as a literary languages of the Bible.
However, after the destruction of the temples by the Babylonians (586 BCE) and the Romans (69 CE), followed by dispersal of the Jews in East and West diasporas, Hebrew became more or less a dormant language, recited in prayers and rituals in the synagogue and at home, and used by Rabbis and other learned people for religious texts, such as commentaries on the Bible, prayers, hymns, etc. The Jews in diasporas gradually adopted new local languages, such as Aramaic in Babylonia, Yiddish in Ashkenaz, Ladino in Sepharad, Judeo-Arabic in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Judeo-Persian in Iran, etc. This situation, with a brief intensive literary activities, such as in Medieval Spain and Enlightenment/Maskilic Europe in pre- Modern times, until modern times and Zionism.
The history of Modern Hebrew is very much associated with the history of modern
Jewish nationalism or Zionism. Adopting a national language was a very important and unifying element of any nationalism in modern times. Zionism, too, being inspired by the European nationalist movement, considered the revival of Hebrew as a national language as a paramount goal. Rejection of the diaspora, the Galut, meant also rejection of the diaspora’s Jewish languages, such as Yiddish, and return to Zion meant return to Hebrew, the ancient language of Zion.
However, the use of Hebrew for everyday speech and instruction of modern sciences was not that simple, and many considered it impossible or a phantasy. Even Herzel, the father of Zionism, in his book ‘the Jewish State,’ thought that it would be impossible to use Hebrew even ‘to buy a ticket for a train travel,’ and similar modern needs. He took Switzerland, where four different languages are accepted as national languages, as a model for the Jewish State. He imagined the Ashkenazi Jews would continue to speak Yiddish, the Sephardic Jews – Judeo- Spanish, etc. Indeed the difficulties of using Hebrew as the only national language were tremendous.
It took a great advocate like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born 1858) to make the revival of Hebrew as a spoken and cultural language possible. He became convinced that the Jews could not hope to to become a united people in their own land. As a teacher he insisted on using Hebrew exclusively as the language of instruction, In 1890 he founded Va’ad HaLAshon ‘the Language Council,’ which many years later became known as the Academy of Hebrew Language (1953). He realized that the traditional Hebrew cannot provide all the needs of a modern language. Therefore he became a lexicographer, author of a comprehensive several volume dictionary, coined by himself or inspiring many others, hundreds of new words, a task continued by the Academy of Hebrew Language until today. He was also the father of modern Hebrew journalism in Palestine, founding a Hebrew weekly (ha-
Tsvi) in 1885, and in 1909 converted it to a Hebrew daily. Thus he disseminated thousands of Hebrew words necessary for modern life, a task continued by newspapers and other media until today. He died in 1920, but the revival and and cultivation of Hebrew became a national goal. The Hebrew University and the Israel Technion which opened after his death used Hebrew as the language of instruction in all areas. Thousands of immigrants who came to Israel, speaking many other languages (Yiddish, Arabic, Polish, Persian, Romanian, etc.) after sometime shifted to Hebrew, and their children born in Israel took it for granted.
Now let us try to answer the big question: How does Hebrew, ancient and dormant for 2000 years, manage to respond to the complex needs of modern times. Such a linguistic revival has no known precedent and no subsequent match. The Academy of Hebrew Language in a way has been continuing the work of Ben- Yehudah and many others who were his contemporaries or followed his path. One of its major tasks has been the preparation of a historical Hebrew dictionary, which has so far over 100,000 words. Segments of the dictionary and several other cultural-lexical material is disseminated by variety of forms, and in recent years mostly by the internet.
The Academy has also established rules of spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and it clarifies many doubtful matters of grammar and semantics. It runs a three- hour hotline that gets 30 to 40 calls a day, attracting everyone from Israeli lawmakers to pregnant women in search of Hebrew names for their babies. It also sends leaflets with new words coined by the Academy to all government offices, schools, etc. (will show samples later). However, some words coined by the Academy remain unused by the public, such as baby sitter or shmartaf, instead of the stuffy Academy word shomer-Taf or Tappay. In addition to the Academy’s words, many new words are coined by journalists (who are usually in a hurry and need a quick word), writers, teachers, the Israeli army, and many professionals such as Medical and Engineering Professors and others.
In the following, we’ll go over some typical examples of new words or new meanings in modern Israeli Hebrew, to see where they come from, and how they are coined or formed.
1) Many new words are actually composed of old elements.
Such as mirshetet ‘Internet,’ < reshet ‘net’ + prefix mem and suffix tav, like the Biblical mishʿenet ‘support’; so is maHshev ‘computer’ , is from the old root H-sh-v ‘to think, calculate’ in the old noun pattern maf’el, used for instruments, like masreq ‘comb,’ ma’der ‘hoe’. Similarly, Halalit ‘spacecraft’ is composed of Halal ‘space’, and suffix -it, like other new words for vehicles, as mekhonit ‘car,’ monit ‘taxi,’ massa’it ‘truck,’ Hashmalit ‘tram,’ and most recently hesseʿit ‘shuttle (to hotels, etc.)’. Other common noun patterns are paʿlan or nouns with -an ending to indicate one’s profession, tendency, or ideology: as the old raHman ‘merciful’ gazlan ‘robber’, now we have ’saHqan ‘actor’, safran ‘librarian,’ tsarkhan ‘consumer’, shamran ‘conservative,’ smolan ‘leftist’; mafsidan ‘loser,’ matsliHan ‘winner,’ and more recent ones: qolnoʿan ‘filmmaker,’ misʿadan ‘restauranteur,’ yenan ‘winemaker,’ gazʿan ‘racist’, minan ‘sexist’, nashyan ‘feminist’, and gilan ‘agist.’ Another such pattern is paʿal formation, like the old Hazan ‘cantor’, ganav ‘thief’, now we have Tayas ‘pilot’, nehag ‘driver,’ nayad ‘mobile or cel phone,’ sapar ‘barber’, ashaf ‘master chef,’ and anas ‘rapist’, as in anas sidrati ‘serial rapist.’ Another trendy (my favorite) and productive pattern is paʿil , used like English words ending with – able/-ible, like savir ’reasonable’, qavil ‘acceptable, admissible,’ qaliT ‘absorbable, catchy tune,‘ akhil ’edible’; nagish ‘accessible’, gamish ‘flexible’, qari’ ‘legible,’ daliq ‘inflammable’; bilti-hafix ‘irreversible,’ bilti-ʿavir ‘insurmountable,’ bilti-shavir ’unbreakable,’ and more recently: lo-zamin ‘unavailable, away from her desk’, nashiq ‘kissable’ (it seems that some people are more kissable than others), shaʾil literally ’question-able’, but really ‘a parent whose children feel comfortable to ask him/her questions about intimate or sexual issues).
Diseases have their own noun formation, such as nazelet ‘cold, dripping nose’; kalevet ‘rabies,’ sakeret ’diabetes.’
2) Compound or blended words,such as ʿidken ‘to update’ (< ʿad + kan); qolnoaʿ ‘cinema, a talkie’, < qol ‘sound/voice and noa’ ‘move;’ maHazemer ‘musical’ < show+singing;
3) Prefixes and Suffixes: Had-paʿami ‘instant, disposable (like diapers, paper plates), ben-leʾumi ‘inter-national;’ ʿal-qoli ‘supersonic,’ kokhevet-ʿal super-star (of cinema),’ ma’atsamot-ʿal ‘super powers’
4) Many words designating periodicals in English end with -ly, like daily, weekly, etc. In Hebrew they end with -on, as ʿitton ‘newpaper’, yomon ‘daily’, shvuʿon ‘weekly,’ shnaton ‘annual,’ and most recently mqomon ‘local/neighborhood paper,’ Hinnamon ‘no-cost-, free- paper.’
5) Borrowing words from sister Semitic languages, as Aramaic (tlat-ofan ‘tricycle’); Arabic: Some of the most common words in spoken Hebrew today are Arabic: kef ‘fun’, aHla ‘great, very good’, yalla ‘let us go.’
6) Borrowing from Jewish languages, as Yiddish: nudnik shvitser ‘show-off;’ Judeo-Spanish, as burekas ‘Turkish-Spanish pastry.’
7) From English or European languages (to mention just a few): the ubiquitous Hi and Bye, especially among the youngish bank ‘bank’, tank ‘tank’, radiyo, telephone, sport; including verbs: letalfen ‘to phone’, le’argen ‘organize’, leflartet ‘to flirt;’ lezagzeg ‘to zigzag.’
To sum up: Hebrew began its life about thirty three centuries ago, about two thirds of this time its use was limited to religious Judaic registers (synagogue and home rituals) and literature, almost excluding normal spoken register. This situation changed with the advent of Zionism and the renewal of Jewish nationalism in its ancient homeland. Hebrew is no longer a semi-dormant ancient language, but rather extremely resourceful and practically unrestricted to express all the registers and needs of modern life with all of its sociological, scientific medical and technological necessities. Yes, Hebrew came a long way from gamal, the camel era, to Halalit, the spacecraft era.