Language DeathCambridge

Jack Fellman, an American Linguist, who lives in Israel and works at the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar-Ilan University, wrote a very interesting essay about a man called “Eliezer Ben-Yehuda” (cf Fellman, 20023). This man was “the one” pioneer in the revival of the Hebrew language between 1881 and 1908. Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman, in the Lithuanian village of Luzhky on January 7, 1858.

As a typically Jewish child, he had to learn Hebrew as a part of his religious upbringing. His parents sent him to a Talmudic academy, hoping he would become a rabbi. But Eliezer Ben-Yehuda had another dream: The restoration of ancient nations like Greece, Italy and the revitalization of Bulgaria during the early 19th century had a deep impact on him, and he believed that the Jews deserved an own nation too (namely the sovereign state of Israel – which was finally proclaimed in 1948).

For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back. (Ben-Yehuda 1908)

And this was exactly the guideline he followed during his entire lifetime. He knew that the only chance for a successful revival would be a child, brought up with Hebrew as his mother-tongue. So he persuaded his wife, to raise their boy, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, as the first all-Hebrew speaking child in modern history. According to Ben-Yehuda, this was a very important symbolic event for the future of the revival, because, with a child in the house, parents and visitors would have to speak naturally to him. The young boy would also be the living proof that an actual revitalization of a dead language is possible.

It was also interesting to see how consequently Eliezer Ben-Yehuda kept all foreign language influence from his home and his family. Any visitors had to talk to the boy in Hebrew, provided that they were able to do so. If not, the visitors were not allowed to see the child. If a language which has stopped being spoken, with nothing remaining of it save what remains of our language – (if there is such a language) can return and be the spoken tongue of an individual for all necessities of his life, there is no room for doubt that it can become the spoken language of a community. (Ben-Yehuda 1908)

Ben-Yehuda wrote that in the introduction to his dictionary he published later. Another interesting point is the practical use of the language. Since the young Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda had to cope with ancient Hebrew prophecies but also with the real world, his father had to coin new words, mainly nouns for simple things like: doll, ice-cream, jelly, omelette, handkerchief, towel, bicycle, and hundreds more.

Jack Fellman furthermore explains that the use of “Hebrew in the School” was clearly the most important, and Ben-Yehuda realized this. He understood that the revival could succeed especially, and perhaps only, if the younger generation would begin to speak Hebrew freely. Therefore, when Nissim Bechar, the principal of the Torah and Avodah School of the Alliance Isra�lite Universelle School in Jerusalem proposed to Ben-Yehuda in 1882 that he should teach in his school, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda seized the chance. The important thing was not only to get an opportunity to teach Hebrew, but it was also the first occasion for children of different jewish communities to sit in one classroom and communicate through a medium they had in common: The Hebrew language.

The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and… become a living language” (Ben-Yehuda, 1886). As time went by many problems like a lack of teachers, teaching materials, guidelines and books emerged. A form of standardization was missing, and every teacher of Hebrew created useful words of his own to make teaching a little bit easier.

Ben-Yehuda also wanted to persuade the grown-up population by publishing his own Hebrew newspaper, called “Hahavatzelet”. Inspired by the layout and design of Paris’ “Le Figaro”, he wanted to create a newspaper, that contained information on every aspect of life as well as lists of vocabulary. Again, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda succeeded in his efforts and by the end of the 19th century virtually every male Jew in Palestine could read and understand a newspaper written in Hebrew.

He also, created a dictionary out of personal notes he took down during his time in Paris. The little Notebook he used contained vocabulary in Hebrew and French; notes he used to make remembering of certain words and phrases easier. While amending the dictionary to a broad audience, Ben-Yehuda encountered a problem, which might be very common in matters of language revival: As long as Ben-Yehuda spoke Hebrew at home or with his friends, he was able to use the language more or less as he wished. But if he wanted the entire society to use Hebrew, then the words would have to be precise and accurate, according to strict philological rules. Therefore, Ben-Yehuda became a scientific lexicographer. The results of enormous labours, working sometimes 18 hours a day, are astounding, culminating in his 17-volume “A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.” (cf Fellman, 20024).

To sum up, the revival of the Hebrew language was set under certain circumstances, which favoured a success. Firstly, people like Ben-Yehuda, who dedicate their whole life to a non-profit effort like this are certainly rare in the modern society. Of course, that does neither mean that people like him do not exist nowadays, nor that he revived Hebrew entirely on his own. Secondly, it was the time of the beginning of the early immigration waves of Jewish settlers to Palestine. Most of these settlers were like Ben-Yehuda himself: young, educated and idealistic. This can be considered as the ideal agars for ideas like the one Ben-Yehuda had.


Secondary literature: Crystal, David (2000), “Language Death”Cambridge”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Schmidt, Annette (1990), “The Loss of Australia’s Aboriginal Language Heritage”, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press Dixon, Robert M.W. (1989), “The Original languages of Australia” VOX vol. 3, 26-33 Johnson, Steve (1987), “The philosophy and politics of Aboriginal language maintenance.” Australian Aboriginal Studies, no.2, 54-58

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