The Revival of Hebrew

The Hebrew language was re-embraced by proponents of the Jewish enlightenment, then fully reborn in Palestine.

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Many other personalities played a part in this undertaking, which at the beginning appeared little less than impossible. Among them were important groups of teachers who adopted the cause of teaching Hebrew via Hebrew.

During this first stage of the revival, which lasted up to 1918, consideration was given to a number of problems in phonology (adaptation of Hebrew to the pronunciation of foreign names, resulting in the introduction of some graphemes that are followed by an apostrophe), orthography (adoption of scriptio defectiva), and morphology and syntax (no deliberate major changes).

However, the process did not follow just one path--at the end of the 19th century, for example, I. Epstein and other leading teachers cultivated a separate pronunciation in Galilee that continued to gain ground until 1920 before eventually disappearing completely.

But the most pressing issue was the creation of new words, the basic task of Ben‑Yehuda and the Va'ad ha‑Lashon [Language Council], which began to operate in 1890. In the introduction to Ben‑Yehuda's Thesaurus, the methods employed for adapting the language to everyday needs are explained.

These include a return to the scientific and technical Hebrew vocabulary of the Tibbonid translations and the introduction of Arabic loanwords on the basis of semantic proximity to Hebrew, with their forms adapted to Hebrew patterns. From the Mishnah, Talmud, and midrashim, Ben‑Yehuda adopted any potentially useful Hebrew and Aramaic expressions, and even Greek and Latin loanwords.

Aramaic morphological patterns and suffixes were employed, and precise senses established for infrequent biblical words, especially hapax legomena [a word that appears only once in the texts of a given language], the meanings of which are not evident from context. Roots attested in Biblical Hebrew were exploited to derive additional vocabulary according to traditional morphological patterns. The end result of this was an immense and thoroughgoing enhancement of the expressive potential of the language.

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Angel Saenz-Badillos

Dr. Angel Saenz-Badillos is Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.