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Tovi Romano, Modern Hebrew Instructor, Reflects on Attending Spoken Israeli Hebrew Workshop at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

May 17, 2016

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem hosts a workshop annually that is open to a small number of university instructors of Hebrew language, chosen from among applicants from all over the world. This past summer, Tovi Romano, the Herbert I. Rosen Lecturer in Modern Hebrew, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, attended the workshop with support from the Middle East Center. She shares some of what she learned from the distinguished scholars participating in the research, revival, and documentation of the Hebrew language.

Hebrew is considered the only language ever to be revived. Almost two millennia passed before the Jewish people started using their language again as a living spoken language. How did it happen? Since Hebrew was a dead language, used for centuries mainly in sacred practice (i.e., prayers, rituals and Torah studies), by the 18th century, Hebrew vocabulary was insufficient for daily communication. Modern Hebrew writers faced challenges expressing new world ideas when words did not yet exist. From the start, these modern scholars and writers were inclined to keep the “purity” of the language and to refrain from using foreign words. Thus, when they began to translate and write secular texts, in order to describe a new object or concept, instead of using foreign languages, they used ancient Hebrew resources (the Tanah or Mishnah). For example, glasses were called “houses of eyes,” passport was a “travel certificate” and a giraffe was a “camel-tiger.” Later, as the revivers made up new Hebrew words, they based their choices mainly on ancient roots and patterns.

The revival of Hebrew is attributed to Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922), who not only invented new words, but also raised the first Hebrew native speaking family in Jerusalem. Ben Yehuda’s personal life and his fight for the revival of spoken Hebrew are both fascinating stories. One of the highlights of the workshop, and an emotional experience for me, was the visit to the Academy for Hebrew Language, where we saw some artifacts that belonged to Ben Yehuda. Among those artifacts were Ben Yehuda’s work desk (he used to stand while working at night in order to stay awake), his book collection and some of his hand-written notes with new words.

Ironically, while Modern Hebrew is not even a century old, its “purity” is being compromised by the influence of foreign languages such as English. Today, when you read a newspaper article or listen to popular TV shows or street conversations, you can recognize countless English (or English based) words and phrases. Although foreign languages influence is a common phenomenon in all living languages, the Academy of Hebrew Language is determined to fight it and to maintain the purity of the language. To achieve its goal, the Academy constantly tries to provide speakers with new Hebrew words, and even to involve the public in the process of creating them. The Academy is also becoming more lenient in its linguistic decisions and rulings, and finally, its members are more accessible to the public, offering on-line communication and services.

The historical process of the revival of spoken Hebrew was just “a drop in the ocean of topics” that were presented and discussed in the workshop. Among other activities, we observed classes, visited the National Library, discussed our challenges in teaching spoken Modern Hebrew and more.