The Bean Blog (currently on hiatus)

Monday, November 29, 2004

Modern Hebrew

I read something recently that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. It was about the history of Israel. For instance, did you know that Jews started buying land in Palestine in 1897 and they also started settling there from that point on? I didn't think the Jews returned to Israel until 1947 when the United Nations voted Israel into existence. Au contraire.

But that wasn't what I wanted to blog about. As you might know. Hebrew is the official language of Israel. However, you might not know that "modern" Hebrew was virtually created by one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922). When he and his wife moved to what was then Brittish controlled Paslestine, they made a vow only to speak Hebrew. One problem. No one spoke Hebrew anymore. It was a holy language and primarily only read although prayers were spoken. In other words, there were no words for anything that didn't exist in Biblical times. For conversation, Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, while Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino. They created these other languages because of the belief that one should not talk to God with the same words that one would talk to their dog.

For whatever reason, Ben-Yehuda decided that a return to the holy land mandated a return to the holy language, so he took it upon himself to create new words for items not named in the Bible. He didn't just make them up out of thin air, but rather he used the roots of existing Hebrew words so that the new words would be based on linguistic principles. And then he compiled a dictionary that combined the new and old words--and modern Hebrew was born.

I always think of language as an organically grown system. I can't get my mind around the idea that one man said to himself, "I'm going create thousands of new words and revive a dead language"...and then that language and his words became the official language of a country! It's amazing.


  • I love learning about language, which is why I minored in Linguistics.

    By Blogger Dan, at 3:28 PM, November 29, 2004  

  • I was a linguistics minor too! It was right after I was an art major, and just before I became an art major.

    Sometimes I really wanna punch the guy who invented English. There are more exceptions to rules than there are rules. I don't know how to explain to my boys that love is not spelled L-U-V even though all the rules say it should be. I just keep telling them that "adult spelling" is confusing because adults like to make everything more complicated than it needs to be. :)

    By Blogger Whimsy Chick, at 3:37 PM, November 29, 2004  

  • Thanks for bringing that forward, Oz! Hebrew's rebirth is an amazing story. I'll admit my bias here: I speak it. I feel a very strong connection to where I come from every time I do. I wish more folks around me were able to speak it as well. It's a fun "secret" language because so few people in North America use it as their primary language.

    Then I'll flip to French and become a native Quebecer. That's NOT as secret as Hebrew, but a lot more useful when navigating through the old hometown of Montreal!

    By Blogger Carmi, at 4:03 PM, November 29, 2004  

  • I don't know a second language, though I wish I did. I know a smattering of Spanish, a TINY bit of German, and a few words here and there of others. Just stuff I've picked up over the years. I'd like to learn more languages, but I never seem to be able to force myself to dedicate the time.

    I also find language to be a fascinating subject to study. I've never done so formally, but it's still kind of fun.

    The creation of "new Hebrew" isn't the only instance of someone inventing a language. Esperanto, which was meant to become the universal language, was invented completely from scratch. There have also been several other attempts to create a universal language. In addition, author J. R. R. Tolkien created at least one complete ficticious language for his work 'The Lord of the Rings' and several other partial ficticious langauges. And then there's Klingon from Star Trek!

    Interesting (to me) side note: The only American movie to ever be filmed in Esperanto is the 1965 film, 'Incubus' starring William Shatner!

    By Blogger Newell, at 7:33 PM, November 29, 2004  

  • Wow, that's incredible...really incredible. It kind of leaves me speechless... ~;^)

    By Blogger foxymama, at 7:53 PM, November 29, 2004  

  • Dan, Linguistics seemed too complicated for me. But then again, I've never taken a linguistics course. Languages are cool, though. I have a tendency to get those learn-a-language-in-your-car CDs.

    Kerrie, So the little ones are confused by English spelling? Try reading this poem to them and see what they think! Of course, the poem might just depress them even more!

    Carmi, Do you speak Yiddish, too? Or just Hebrew? Honestly, it seems a little odd to me that Hebrew is the national language as the entire reason for creating Yiddish and Ladino was to keep Hebrew sacred.

    Newell, Yes, many languages have been invented from scratch. But have any of those really taken off? Not so much. The amazing part of this story is that this guy did this and did it so well that a nation took his words and made them their own.

    Foxymama, What about all those fancy words from your recent post on your blog? Surely there must be an appropriate word!

    By Blogger Oz, at 5:32 PM, November 30, 2004  

  • Thanks for sharing that, I learned several new items!

    Are you thinking of creating a new language? Beanglish, perhaps?

    By Blogger Diva, at 8:44 PM, November 30, 2004  

  • I dn't speak Yiddish, but I can understand most of a conversation. My parents always used to speak it as their secret language. So over the years, I picked up enough. I realize I'm outing myself here - and they could theoretically read this comment and learn my secret. But the fact that they're technological luddites means I'm likely pretty safe. I don't even think they quite get how to read the archives on my blog: links don't really come easy to them.

    Amazing I turned out the way I did!

    By Blogger Carmi, at 4:41 PM, December 03, 2004  

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