Tucked into a leafy corner of a campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Academy of the Hebrew Language has the challenging job of trying to preserve and promote one of the world’s oldest living languages.
In an effort to counter the influx of foreign words, the institution develops and distributes some 2,000 new Hebrew words each year; the most recent batch includes words for biosphere, sustainable development, hacker, and blog.
For jetlag, it came up with ayefet – a newfangled Hebrew word created from the root for "tired" and rendered in such a way that it resembles words for various other infirmities.
“In the academy, we try to fight word by word. Instead of just making an exact translation from English, we try to find an original Hebrew word that captures the meaning,” says Moshe Bar-Asher, the academy’s president.
The linguaphiles under his direction are not only interested in hearing Israelis talk about sending someone a quick misron instead of a text or an SMS, however, but also in stopping the general deterioration of the quality of Hebrew, especially in public life.
“You hear people, kids especially, using the same 10 to 15 verbs,” laments Mr. Bar-Asher. “We don’t want the language of the school, or of the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] to be the same as the language of the street. Any society should distinguish between the two.”
National Hebrew Day
France has its venerable L’Académie française, and there are institutes and committees around the world dedicated to the preservation of at least 90 other languages.
Many of these have been ribbed at some point for their linguistic chauvinism, or for isolationist, reactionary, and ultimately wishful thinking that would keep foreign words out. But defenders of the Hebrew language – which was revived as a spoken tongue only about 150 years ago, after some 1,750 years in which it was almost exclusively a language of biblical and other religious texts – have their own unique challenges to face.
The man credited with single-handedly taking Hebrew out of the holy books and into the modern era is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, though others of course played a key role in the overall project as part of the early Zionists’ nation-building.
Marking 152 years since Ben-Yehuda’s birth, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet held a special session earlier this month on the state of the Hebrew language, and voted that Ben-Yehuda’s birthday [Jan. 7] would from now on be marked as National Hebrew Day.
The cabinet agreed that the academy would provide lessons to improve Knesset members’ Hebrew and would form a committee to formulate ideas of how to strengthen the lingua franca in public life, all under Bar-Asher’s direction. They also agreed to a plan to have schoolteachers dedicate four hours a week to improving students’ Hebrew.
“Every culture has some high standards that they expect to be used in the media and in the parliament,” explains Bar-Asher. “The Hebrew in such institutions should be normative and correct.”
'A waste of my tax money'
Not every Hebrew aficionado agrees with this outlook. Ghilad Zuckermann, an Israeli professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, vehemently disagrees with what the academy is doing.
“I think it’s ridiculous to tell teachers at Israeli schools to speak according to a certain grammar, because at any rate, what we speak today is only based on Hebrew,” says Dr. Zuckermann, back in Israel on one of his occasional visits. He says the structure of sentences and turns of phrase grew more out of Yiddish – the German-offshoot language of European Jews. As such, he thinks it’s more appropriate to call today’s Hebrew “Israeli,” to show its distinction from classical Hebrew. In 2008 he published a controversial book called Israeli, a beautiful language.
“What they’re trying to do by correcting Israelis and the way they speak today, as I see it, is a dangerous move,” Zuckerman says. “Such a thing can cause a kind of schizophrenia. Many Israelis grow up unsure of what is grammatical and what isn’t.”
Moreover, it bugs him when the academy takes a popular “Israeli” word like intuitzia for intuition (many words work like this, such as coalitzia for coalition) and tries to come up with a “proper” Hebrew word instead. The academy suggested people use binat halev, which literally translates into “understanding of the heart.”
“There is no need to get rid of these words,” Zuckerman says. “These words are integral parts of the Israeli language, but they’re treated as if they’re illegal foreign workers. The Academy of the Hebrew Language is a waste of my tax money.”
Israeli children now have harder time reading Bible
Some go further. During the session earlier this month, one of Netanyahu’s ministers noted that the very word “academy” is Greek. Couldn’t the institution dedicated to promoting the Hebrew language come up with something ... well, Semitic?
Bar-Asher laughs at this question. It was originally called a committee – for which there is a Hebrew word – but to denote research, he said, only academy would do. Even the Mishna - the precursor to the Talmud – which was redacted in the year 200 AD, has nearly 2,000 words in it that come from Greek or Latin, he notes, showing that the influence of neighboring cultures is nothing new.
“I’m not terrified by foreign words,” he says. “They’re usually just a fashion. What is worrying is that 40 years ago, Israeli children were much better able to open the Bible and understand what they were reading.”