Hebrew: The Transition of an Ancient Liturgical Language to a Modern Vernacular

by Norman Berdichevsky (May 2021)


 Conversation Among Artists, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, 1912


The Israeli postage stamp on the right shows the historical roots of the languages through the age of the Bible at the bottom and its growth through the periods of the Talmud, the Middle Ages and in modern times at the surface. The roots are marked with “new” words that made their appearance for the first time at these various eras and were incorporated into the language.

        For a time, a lively rivalry existed between Hebrew and Yiddish, and competed for the loyalty of several generations of literary figures, writers, playwrights and philosophers. Supporters boldly proclaimed Yiddish as a “Jewish National Language” at a famous conference in Czernowitz in 1908, pointing to the tremendous numerical superiority of Yiddish speakers. Hebraists, on the other hand, at their 1913 Vienna conference laid claim to Hebrew as the Jewish national language, emphasizing the superiority of its historical continuity, the immense prestige of the Bible, its influence upon much of European literature, and its venerable age.

        Yet, apart from the political difficulties in trying to establish a Jewish state, many linguists (concerned observers as well as the perennial cynics and pessimists), doubted that Hebrew, a language that had been “frozen” or “dormant” and endured almost entirely in written form, could meet the needs of a modern society. Hebrew grew in power and prestige due to territorial concentration through immigration (aliya) to Mandatory Palestine and was a better “fit,” to achieve a national sense of identity for many immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds, than Yiddish. It is hard to imagine a more persuasive Zionist argument than that the Land of Israel “speaks” Hebrew through the countless inscriptions uncovered on parchment, stone, clay, papyrus, and wood. Nevertheless, the drawbacks involved in its transformation to become the vernacular of the State of Israel in the twentieth century were readily evident. They were (and continue to be):

  • The narrow range of vowel sounds and the paucity of vowel combinations (diphthongs), as well as the elimination of several guttural consonants unfamiliar to speakers of Indo-European languages. The result is a poor match between speech and spelling.
  • An alphabet that is unable to properly represent vowels by individual letters, creating serious problems both of reading comprehension and pronunciation.
  • The need to develop a new vocabulary and appropriate word derivations based on the indigenous “roots” of Hebrew.
  • The difficulties of a Semitic-based grammar with unfamiliar constructions for speakers of European languages.
  • In addition, the right to left direction in contrast to European languages using the Latin alphabet makes it difficult to portray, adjust margins and align such different languages on the same page without special computer programs. It will surprise many readers who no doubt still regard Jews” as the “People of the Book,” that the ancient alphabet, never fully modernized, still poses a number of difficulties for literacy such as the right to left direction of the text, the absence of capital letters, the attachment of the prepositions and article to the words they relate to and the similar shape of many letters with few extending below or above the line, as well as the slower speed of reading in the right to left direction.*

        The examples below show a Hebrew text (without vowel signs) as used for most books and newspapers. Beneath it, is the fully voweled system with nikkud (vowel signs, created in the 9th and 10th century of the Common Era by scribe-scholars in the town of Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee). In such a text, with these signs are placed below, above or midway among the letters and used in poetry, children’s books, the Torah scroll and beginners’ textbooks in the Diaspora.

        Most Jews who are perfectly able to follow the synagogue service from prayer books with nikkud are unable to read simple texts in the modern language from an Israeli newspaper or book. The bestselling recent novel in Finnish (The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna) in Finland with a population similar to Israel has sold more than 800,000 copies, compared to less than 150,000 of the best-selling novel in Hebrew, A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (in more than 20 foreign language translations, it has sold close to a million!)

        Attempts to introduce a more convenient alphabet were attempted numerous times including Latinization. They all failed to attract any significant support due to the emotional attachment formed over the centuries to the Hebrew alphabet. It was too great a change that would have made access to more than two thousand, five hundred years of historical continuity in danger. Imagine how many texts would have to be re-typeset with a new alphabet! Ironically, the newspaper Deror which appeared for about a year (1929) was edited by Itamar ben-Avi, the son of the great Hebrew scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who was instrumental in the revival and modernization of the language.

Attempt at Latinization: 1929 issue of Deror (Liberty)

        In his memoir Promise and Fulfillment, Arthur Koestler wrote, “The only way to avoid the dangers of cultural isolation and stagnation seems to be the Latinization (aka. Romanization) of the obsolete and cumbersome alphabet. If this revolutionary measure could be carried out in backward Turkey, one would have expected it to meet with little resistance in this predominantly European community.”

        In both Turkey and Malta, nationalist leaders saw the great advantages of Latinization and implemented the radical change in alphabets from the Arabic to the Latin ones which had been used for centuries. In Israel however, tradition and religious sentiments proved much stronger than utilitarian arguments. This is ironic, due to the fact that the modernization of Hebrew in all other aspects was the prime example followed by other nationalist movements (See Israel Review of Arts and Letters Modern Hebrew; The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language). It was the vision of a united nation with a single unifying language that united all the Zionist parties. A popular army poster shows road signs left with the languages of the diaspora pointing back to the tragic past and barbed wire, while the road sign indicating Hebrew points to a bright future.

        The poster to the right has the inscription “Are you a Hebrew? Speak Hebrew! Leave the languages of the exile behind and adopt the language of Israel”

The Lack of Vocabulary

     The transition to a modern vocabulary was extremely difficult among the first generation of Hebrew-speaking children, especially those who attempted to adopt a natural, unstilted Hebrew to mirror their world. The American Yiddish poet Yoash visited one of the early Zionist settlements in 1913 and was impressed to hear teenage girls playing and making use only of Hebrew. However, when he asked the name of a flower in her own garden, one girl replied, “Flowers don’t have names.” It would take another generation and the achievement of Israeli independence for Hebrew to catch up with the backlog of essential vocabulary. Consider, for example, all the diverse fields rich with terminology to include in the lexicon in order to become an educated speaker: flora, fauna, medicine, technology, art and science, just to name a few. Biblical Hebrew had a small vocabulary less than 8,000 words.

Hebrew’s Powerful Word Derivation Mechanisms

        The inherent mechanisms for word formation in the Hebrew language have played a brilliant role in enabling linguists to draw upon indigenous sources for the necessary vocabulary to modernize the language. This has been done in such a clever and convincing way that it would be no exaggeration to say that if we could resurrect some of the Biblical prophets and give them today’s Hebrew newspapers, they would be able to discern the root concept and make a good guess at the meaning of many words which they had never seen before and had not existed until modern times.

The Inherent Logic of the Language and the Source of the Neologisms

    The Hebrew vocabulary intrigues and challenges students who quickly learn to discern the relationship between words with similar roots. The key to the vocabulary and a source of wonder and surprise for many new students is that words that sound alike and look alike share a similar concept. For example, in English, book, author, library and literature are all quite different. They don’t look alike or sound alike but in Hebrew they share the common consonants S-F-R. Compare the English words that all have to do with the concept of “telling a story.” The last two words for a modern library and literature were only coined at the beginning of the 20th century. Note that in my transliteration, upper case letters represent consonants and the lower case, vowels.

book (SeFeR), author (SoFeR), library (SiFRiyah), and literature (SiFRut).

        The root letters S-K-N have to do with danger, and stem from the word for knife, “SaKiN.”  SaKiN is closely related to the words for danger, SaKaNa, and dangerous miSooKaN  as well as the word for risk, SeeKooN. The capitalized letters in English S-K-N and represent the “root letters,” the three important consonants that immediately transmit a basic concept. A reflexive form as a noun or verb, miStaKeN, is immediately understood as a risk taker (someone who puts himself danger). Among these words, only the word for knife existed in the Hebrew in use until the late 19th century. Students can appreciate how the social conditions of several thousand years ago made the concept of a knife—the most potent weapon which could be concealed lead to the related ideas of danger and risk. This traditional word building process in Hebrew was adapted in creating the many neologisms—new words representing concepts and devices of modern times.

New Words—Relying on the Skeleton of the Roots

        The inherent mechanisms for word formation have played a brilliant role in enabling linguists to draw upon indigenous sources for the necessary vocabulary to modernize the language. The ability of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and other linguists to coin new words from the scant vocabulary stock of the Bible and the Talmud derives from this basis and the use of prefixes, and suffixes that still retain the original consonantal root letters. For example, how did Modern Hebrew derive the modern word for computer? Israel was one of the first countries to make use of computers in the 1960s, when the word had not yet acquired international acceptance. Why was this new word so readily adopted by the public in Israel as the “natural word” for a computer? After all, the Hebrew Language Academy had no objection to telephone and later television rather than adopt impractical suggestions based on an original authentic Hebrew root. The root letters CH-SH-V indicate the basic action/process of thinking/thought. In the hands of a good teacher, this property of the language can help and intrigue students who are delighted to grasp immediately the meaning of new words they never encountered before. (Hebrew letters CHet like the Scottish “loch” and SHin like the “sh” in shoe). It was named maCH-SHe-V based on the root letters meaning “think,” that resulted in the words maCH-SHaVa (thought), and CHaSHeeVut (importance).

        But it was not only the most prominent maskilim (the learned) who made suggestions for new words to be adopted for the many new objects not found in the late 19th century vocabulary before Ben-Yehuda led the campaign to make Hebrew a spoken language again. For example, the word for eyeglasses. They were invented sometime at the end of the thirteenth century in Italy. The first Hebrew reference to them dates from dates from 1404, as found in an inscription dedication to a Bible written by Haim Ben Shaul of Saragosa. The term used was the equivalent of “glass seers between my eyes”. Several different two-word phrases appeared in Hebrew in periodicals published in Europe to describe eyeglasses during the nineteenth century. The most popular of these names were “Batey Enayim” (“Eye houses”) and kley reut’ (“Seeing instruments”). Haim Leiv Hazan, a teacher thought up a more original name in 1890, “miSH-KaFa-yim” from the root SH-K-F (to observe). He wrote a long article for the Hebrew daily “Hatzfira,” published in Warsaw, and explained the importance of making up new Hebrew words.

        Students of Biblical Hebrew only have to contend with roughly 2,000 recognizable “roots,” some of which have disappeared but a great many enough survived through posterity to the modern era. During the period of the Mishna, perhaps 8,000 new terms were added by Jewish scribes based on only 800 new “roots.” Another few thousand words of Aramaic origin and new Hebrew terms were added in the period of the Talmud and later that enabled many of the “maskilim,” the writers and poets of the Enlightenment, to use the language for secular purposes. Since Ben-Yehuda’s day, the estimate of new words including technical and foreign terms had produced an estimated 17,000 new items. Today’s modern educated Israeli reader has a vocabulary of 60,000 words.

        Moshe Leib Lilienblum, born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1843, was a Hebrew scholar and writer. In his article on the Jewish question and Palestine in 1881, he expressed his skepticism that Hebrew could be “modernized” and wrote sometime around the turn of the century that what he termed a ‘disgraceful, ridiculous language” would ever be accepted as a living tongue among Jews in the holy land and that the “the language savants” would ever appreciate such a “revival” and thank its initiators. He could not have been more wrong!

Agreement on Two Major Controversies: Biblical vs. Mishnaic Grammar and Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi Pronunciation

        Ben-Yehuda’s initial plan to base the grammar of the new language on that of the Bible when in fact, it was Mishnaic Hebrew that was closer to the morphology of modern European languages. Word order. Biblical Hebrew in majority of cases is a Verb-Subject-Object language; the verb comes first in a sentence; this is a common feature of Semitic languages. Modern Hebrew imitates the general pattern of most European languages where the subject comes first. Biblical Hebrew has several more verb forms difficult to pronounce which have disappeared from the modern languages, notably the feminine plural Imperfect forms. Earlier forms of the Hebrew language like other Semitic languages did not have strictly defined past, present, or future tenses, but merely perfective and imperfective aspects, with past, present, or future connotation depending on context. This clearly was a major problem that had to be overcome in order to render clear meanings with regards to time. Today, Modern Hebrew uses the tenses much as other Indo-European languages do.

        In the end, Ben Yehuda won out on insisting that the Sephardi pronunciation in use by the Oriental communities be universally adopted. He had the advantage of support from the more prestigious Sephardi community in Jerusalem that enjoyed a better and closer relationship with the Ottoman authorities and the fact that it was deemed more logical to use Arabic as a model. The modern form of Hebrew known as “Ivrit” is the official language of the country and can lay claim to being the youngest and fastest growing language of the world from a single family to almost eight million citizens and residents of Israel and perhaps another two million in the region and the Diaspora.

Press and Radio Help Establish a National Standard

        The rise in newspaper readership following the ability of journalists to use the new more modern language with its greatly expanded vocabulary helped make it easier for the British mandatory authorities to accept Hebrew as one of the three official languages of Palestine when they initiated the Mandate in 1920. A huge new wave of aliyah from Germany and Poland in the 1930s provided a much greater listening audience to regular radio broadcasts on the newly created “Voice of Jerusalem” service. This service was avidly listened to because it set the model for correct pronunciation. This radio service became “The Voice of Israel.” The “explosion” of the Hebrew press was due to the multiplicity of political parties and their subsidization in part by the various Zionist movements and the immense hunger of new “olim” (immigrants) to master the written new language of Modern Hebrew.  By now, all of the party newspapers have folded but they played an important role in increasing literacy and helping new immigrants become familiar with the economic, political and social conditions in the country. All the newspapers were dedicated to the Hebrew language and encouraged the new immigrants to make the transition from the foreign language press in the country (largely in Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, German, Romanian and Arabic).

        The editors delighted in making the banner typographically distinctive and apppealing (see front pages of newspapers below). Even the Far Left among the Zionist parties realized that they could not risk offending the many Jews in the diaspora by replacing the hallowed familiar traditional letters with the “Roman” alphabet. 

Politicized press in Israel circa 1950-70: Clockwise from upper left they are: HaBoKer (The Morning, General Zionist/Centrist) (The Voice of the People, Communist), DaVaR (The Word, Israel Labor Party), Che-Ru-T (Freedom, Revisionist Movement (later HaLikud)/nationalists, HaTZoFeH (The Observer, Religious), Al-ha-miSH-MaR (On Guard, Far Left/Zionist)


The Academy of the Hebrew Language

        The Academy of the Hebrew Language that was founded in 1953 with its seat in Jerusalem and replaced the prior Hebrew Language Committee (Va’ad ha-Lashon ha-‘Ivrit) established in 1890 by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was its first president. It became a national agency whose decisions are binding on the government.

Original Hebrew Language Committee, (Ben-Yehuda at the far right) (L) and the Academy today (R)

        The modern academy located on a campus of the Hebrew University publishes its rulings and deliberations as well as dictionaries and has coined thousands of words that are in everyday use. The Academy sets standards for grammar, orthography, transliteration, and punctuation based on the historical development of the language. An important part of its mandate is to create new words from roots to replace loanwords derived from other languages, but critics assert it has not pursued this goal vigorously and is too indecisive. The Academy decides in matters of grammar dealing primarily with the conflicting forms inherited from different periods. Its stated policy is to find a middle ground between automatic adoption of current usage and rigid adherence to what was deemed “correct” in the past. It deliberates on the issues in depth and makes recommendations.

The Majority of the Speakers Trumps Decisions of the Academy

        Fortunately, the Academy was spared the most controversial issues and emotional debates that were decided by the public in Palestine during the early days of the first waves of immigration and during the period of the British Mandate. Neither Ben-Yehuda’s personal whims and fancies nor the directives of the Hebrew Language Committee, or Ben-Gurion could operate in a vacuum or issue that had any moral force. In the end the public, the great majority of which was secular or non-traditional in outlook proved to be the decisive arbiter about what to accept or reject. Tomatoes are an essential ingredient in the typical Israeli salad and much loved by the Arabs as well. The Hebrew word, agvania, and universally accepted for several generations, nevertheless ignited a fierce debate. The plant is native to the Western hemisphere and was first brought to Europe in the 16th century. Its color associated with blood put off many Europeans. The legend grew that it might be poisonous or that it was an aphrodisiac. It took at least another 150 years for the plant to become well known in Eastern Europe and for some Jews its reputation made it suspicious so that among Orthodox Jews, it was first called “treyf” (non-kosher) apples.” Nineteenth century accounts of rabbis who came to Israel at the end of the 19th had serious concerns about eating tomatoes.

        Rabbis and several distinguished personalities in Palestine opposed Ben-Yehuda’s choice of bandura, pointing out that it was not of Semitic origin. They coined the word in 1886 that matched the European “love apple”—agbanit which later was changed to agvania. The root as used in the Bible means “to lust, desire.” Even worse for orthodox sensibilities, the same root is used for buttocks reflecting the fruit’s shape; lust or coquetry, agvenet. For Ben Yehuda, this was all rather vulgar, and he tried unsuccessfully to prevent its use. Agvaniya won out before the Academy’s decision.

        Modern Hebrew met and overcame all the challenges and debates generated by the reluctance of the ultra-orthodox community feared that the “Holy Tongue” might eventually be used for illicit purposes to write cheap pornographic novels, tattoo slogans on your body, advertise prostitutes, rather than only sophisticated “high literature” on secular and intellectual subjects. All of these things they predicted have come to pass. It is a language today like any other language cherished by Israelis as a mother tongue and vernacular. Its reach among the world’s great literary languages and through translations is also assured. In 2007, a selection from the Chinese translation of A Tale of Love and Darkness was the first work of modern Hebrew literature to appear in an official Chinese textbook. The story “Esperanto,” also by Amos Oz from the collection Between Friends was translated into Esperanto in 2015.

*see “Differential Recognition of Techistoscopically presented English and Hebrew Words in Right and Left Visual Fields,” Barton, M.I., Goodglass, H., and Shai, A. in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 21, 431. 1965 and “Differential Recognition of Hebrew and English Words in right and left visual fields as a function of Cerebral Dominance and Reading Habits” Orbach, J. in Neuropsychologia 5, 127. 1967. These studies describe the experiments that demonstrate how much slower it is to read a text written with the traditional Hebrew alphabet compared to a comparable one in English.

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Norman Berdichevsky is a Contributing Editor to New English Review and is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast




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