How Hebrew Rose from the Dead

by Oakland Ross

Jerusalem -- A derelict two-storey house slouches on Ethiopia St., not far from the limestone ramparts of ancient Jerusalem.
More than a century ago, this house was inhabited by Eliezer Ben Yehuda. But you wouldn't know it now.
No plaque adorns the place, whose modest dimensions are overshadowed by the Ethiopian church across the street.
An empty and unheralded abode - it seems a poor sort of monument for a Russian-born Zionist whose fanatical labours many decades ago continue to resonate every minute of every day in almost every corner of modern Israel.
On the other hand, there's Ben Yehuda St., Jerusalem's principal pedestrian mall, and that's not all.
It would not be going too far to say the memory of Eliezer Ben Yehuda is invoked just about every time an Israeli opens his or her mouth to speak.
All but single-handedly, Ben Yehuda took an antique and moribund tongue called Hebrew and coaxed it back from the dead.
"In a way, he was obsessive," says Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at the Hebrew Language Academy. "He was a man of action, not of dreams. He was monomaniacal."
In the annals of language, the revival of Hebrew counts as a singular achievement, a feat unequalled in all the millennia that have stuttered past since humans first dispensed with grunting and began to speak.
"I don't know if there's any other language not spoken for so long and then revived as a spoken language," says Ken Frieden, a professor of Hebraic studies at the University of Syracuse on sabbatical in Israel.
Little more than 100 years have passed since Hebrew first began to rediscover its tongue. Last spoken in Old Testament times, it now is firmly established as the primary language of about 5 million Jewish Israelis, not to mention some 2 million additional Hebrew speakers scattered through the world.
The once-dead language possesses a rich, modern vocabulary, extensive enough to support a 16-volume dictionary, with an even more comprehensive work on the way.
Its speakers can swear, sing, argue, mate, conduct wars, negotiate peace treaties, publish newspapers and carry out any of the countless other human activities that profit from the use of words.
Hebrew also boasts a thriving literature, including a Nobel laureate - Shmuel Agnon in 1966 - plus a host of prominent contemporary writers, led by Amos Oz.
This, in any language, would constitute a mouthful. In the case of Hebrew, however, the transformation is extraordinary.
A parlance last used in oral form by biblical prophets has accommodated itself in only a few decades to a world of six-lane highways, reality TV and the Internet.
Born in 1858, Ben Yehuda arrived in the Holy Land in the early 1880s as a pilgrim from czarist Russia.
At the time, not a solitary person on Earth used Hebrew as a means of communication for daily affairs. In fact, barely a soul had done so for more than 2,000 years.
True, the language survived in written form for liturgical purposes, but nobody spoke it at the dinner table, during sporting contests or while preparing for bed.
Depending on where they lived, Jews in modern times spoke a variety of languages, ranging from Yiddish, Ladino and Arabic to an array of European tongues.
Inspired by the early stirrings of Zionism, Ben Yehuda decided that what Jews really needed in order to become a nation - apart from a land of their own - was a common means of communication.
Quixotically perhaps, he settled on Hebrew, which had ceased to be the spoken language of the Jews several centuries before the birth of Christ, according to Frieden.
By the time of the Romans' destruction of the second temple in 70 AD - the event that sparked the flight of the Jews into the Diaspora - those fleeing souls mostly spoke Aramaic.
Nonetheless, on his arrival in Jerusalem in the years of Ottoman rule, Ben Yehuda somehow convinced his wife that they should converse exclusively in Hebrew, both between themselves and with their children. Their first son, Yitzhak, is credited with the first child whose first language was Hebrew in two millennia.
"This is what they did," says Birnbaum. "This was the start of the whole thing."
Other Jews were moving to the Holy Land, many of them inspired by the Zionist dream, and Ben Yehuda managed to persuade neighbouring families to take part in what quickly became his life's central project.
Although not a linguist, Ben Yehuda set about coining thousands of words to describe daily phenomena - articles and activities missing from Hebrew's ancient vocabulary.
"There wasn't a vernacular in Hebrew," notes Frieden. "How do you speak a language that only exists as a religious language?"
Against great odds, Hebrew began to catch on among Jews as a means of conversing about their day-to-day affairs.
In 1914, eight years before Ben Yehuda's death, an association of Jewish teachers in the Holy Land decided to make Hebrew the official medium of instruction in their schools, a critical milestone in the language's journey back from the dead. By the time Israel was established as a state in 1948, it was home to 600,000 Hebrew speakers.
The language's revival has come at some cost, for it coincided with - and likely contributed to - a corresponding decline in two other languages once widely spoken by Jews and now barely used at all.
"Hebrew is not at risk," says Frieden. "There's a critical mass in terms of active users. Yiddish is the one at risk. And Ladino."
In an effort to protect Hebrew against excessive interference from other languages, especially English, a national body called the Hebrew Language Academy devises Hebraic words for emerging concepts, products and gadgets.
It doesn't always work.
"This is one of the riddles of the academy," says Birnbaum. "Which words will be successful?"
He and his colleagues have had good results with inventions for items associated with cars, although Israelis mostly insist on referring to "autos," rather than the authorized term, "mehonit."
The academy has had almost no luck in selling Israelis on its homemade medley of musical terms. Instead, when it comes to music, Italian borrowings drown out their Hebraic competition.
"We do not despair," says Birnbaum. "They say that where there are two Jews, there are three views."
Thanks to Eliezer Ben Yehuda, however, when Israelis disagree with one another nowadays, they can do it in a common tongue.

The Toronto Star, 6 January, 2008