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The Rebirth of a Language: How Modern Hebrew Emerged


How one man's efforts in the 1800s allowed a dead language to thrive again.

Unless you have gone through the Israeli state school system the name Eliezer Ben Yehuda probably means nothing to you. But, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, more than anyone else carried the mantle for reestablishing the Hebrew language as a modern 20th century tongue no less than the Zionist movement re established the ancient homeland as the Jewish State.

So remarkable was the feat that linguists have marveled at the success of this ancient language brought back to life by a few logical, simple rules.

Like many European Jews Ben Yehuda spent his childhood learning the religious books, Tora, Mishna, and Talmud. But, the young Ben Yehuda, then Eliezer Perlman caught the enlightenment fever that was sweeping 19th century Europe, and decided to leave his little Russian shtetl in the Jewish pale for Paris where he studied at the Sorbonne.

While there he was introduced to Zionism. Seeing it as an emancipating philosophy, Zionism was the Jews’ ticket to independence. Furthermore, it was a verification of the growth of the nation state in Europe, a prime component of enlightenment thinking in which ben Yehuda was already entrenched. Ben-Yehuda was deeply influenced by such revivals as "the Greeks, the heirs of Classical Athens, in 1829, and the Italians, the heirs of Classical Rome, in 1849. (He) came to the conclusion that the European concept of national fulfilment should also be applied to his people, the Jews."

In this undated photo provided by Alma mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna, a document that an Italian expert says to be the oldest known complete Torah scroll. An Italian expert in Hebrew manuscripts says he has found the oldest known complete Torah scroll, a sheepskin document dating from 1155-1225. It was right under his nose, in the library of the University of Bologna, where it had been mistakenly catalogued a century ago as dating from the 17th century. Mauro Perani, a professor of Hebrew in the university's cultural heritage department, was updating the library's Hebrew manuscript catalogue when he stumbled upon the scroll in February. In an interview Wednesday, May 29, 2013 Perani said he immediately recognized that it had been wrongly dated given its script and other graphic notations. Two separate carbon-14 dating tests confirmed the revised dating. (Photo: AP/Alma Mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna) In this undated photo provided by Alma mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna, a document that an Italian expert says to be the oldest known complete Torah scroll. An Italian expert in Hebrew manuscripts says he has found the oldest known complete Torah scroll, a sheepskin document dating from 1155-1225. (Photo: AP/Alma Mater Studiorum Universita' di Bologna)

"He felt deeply that if the Bulgarians, who were not an ancient, classical people, could demand and obtain a state of their own, then the Jews, the People of the Book and the heirs of historic Jerusalem, deserved the same." He concluded during his stay in Paris that having a cohesive modern Hebrew tongue was every bit as important as reclaiming the homeland itself.

He road the wave of Jews migrating to Palestine after the 1881 pogroms which is now known as the First Aliya. Settling in Petach Tikva he started a newspaper. This was the best way he thought to teach people all the new words he would build which had not been Hebrewized for the previous 2,000 years. Ben Yehuda would print articles and in the margins he would put new Hebrew words, several each week.

Yiddish speakers, most who studied biblical Hebrew like Ben Yehuda found their childhood training a great advantage in learning Hebrew as a common language. For those who didn’t have the training, it might have been a little harder. But, a community dedicated to successfully fulfilling the task helped to build modern Hebrew within one generation into a viable, modern, ever expanding language like any other in the world.

He invented a system of rules that would allow Hebrew speakers to formulate modern words out of the ancient texts. He started with a root or “Shoresh” in Hebrew, usually three characters derived from the Hebrew bible, and from those roots he built many different words of the same relationship. The closest I can come in English would be the use of prefixes and suffixes to give words more usage.

But, Ben Yehuda’s system goes so much further than that. Taking one root, and formulating sometimes 20 or 30 words from it, all having different meanings but in relatively the same family.

Zionists who made the trek from Eastern Europe to resettle their ancient homeland were no less inspired about revitalizing their ancient tongue. Discussing new words became the topic in the fields, at the dinner table and coffee breaks along with the other discussions.

Years later, the Irish wanting to do the same in their country with Galic sought Zionist help, but that experiment failed because the people already indigenous and speaking English had no desire to change languages. The Irish attempt using modern Hebrew as a guide to revitalizing Galic did not have the willing population to make it happen. Zionist Jews with the help of Eliezar Ben Yehuda, fired up with nationalism, created the perfect conditions to make this work.

An English equivalent from the King James version would be changing the words “thou” to “you” and “Thy” to “I.” Don’t misunderstand, it is still the language of the Hebrew bible. An Israeli child learning to read can read the bible like any child who learns to read it in English. Unlike English though which has gone through at least three transformations in the last 1,200 years, from old, to middle to modern English, one has to study middle, and definitely old English as if they are foreign languages. Not so with modern Hebrew.

If a 21st century Israeli were transported back to the Kingdom of David at the end of the Bronze Age he would be able to perfectly communicate with those people. If an Englishman were sent back to the time of William the Conqueror in the 11th century he would have a very tough time communicating.

One historical anecdote, Ben Yehuda, raised his son to speak only Hebrew in the 1890s. Everyone around the child agreed to only speak Hebrew, never Yiddish, or any other language. His son became the first Jew in 2,500 years to have Hebrew as his first and only language. The tragedy in the story is that when he grew up he immigrated to the United States. Today even though there is a Ben Yehuda street in almost every medium to large size town in Israel, Eliezar Ben Yehuda, one of the most influential Zionists of the 19th century has no living heirs in Israel.

Today Hebrew is bastardized utilizing many other languages, but mostly English because of the British Mandate years and the impact English has on the rest of the world in general. For example, there is a Hebrew word for banana, but it just never took. I don’t even know what it is. Israelis call “bananas,” bananas. Zionist purists would regard these introductions as failures in Zionism. Jews in Israel never think about it. They have their language, its just made easier with the Arabic and English colloquialisms added to it.

Larry has a degree in history from California State University, Northridge. Graduate school focused on the Middle East, and the Arab Israeli conflict. He is the author of over 500 articles on the subject the Middle East in the last 10 years. follow him on Twitter @harts1war and friend him on his facebook page "Jewish community examner." and he requests that you visit his blog page at'

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