A Revitalization Success Story
Shana Tova! Happy Jewish New Year! As I prepare to sing prayers and songs with my family in Hebrew tonight, I am reminded of the impressive revitalization story of the Hebrew language. Today Hebrew (called עברית or “Ivrit” in Hebrew) is spoken by up to 9 million people worldwide, including about 5 million in Israel where it is one of the two official languages (along with Arabic). Although the language dates back to at least the 10th century BCE, it ceased to be used as a spoken language between 200 and 400 CE. So how did so many people come to speak it again? More on that below!
Hebrew is part of the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. It has origins as early as the 22nd century BCE but was not highly differentiated from other Semitic languages until about the 10th century BCE. Classical Hebrew (or Biblical Hebrew) flourished from about the 10th century BCE until the first century CE in an area known as Canaan between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (modern day Palestine/Israel). The Hebrew Bible, known also as the Old Testament, is written in Classical Hebrew. The language went through several dialectical iterations, and ceased to be used as an everyday language following the Babylonian exile of the Israelites (the Jewish people), who began to use the main regional language of the time, Aramaic.
The first Hebrew alphabet emerged in Biblical times and is closely related to the Phoenician alphabet, the world’s oldest verified alphabet. The Modern Hebrew alphabet is a variant of Aramaic script, which also has its origins in the Phoenician alphabet. The Modern Hebrew alphabet has 22 consonants and no vowels, which are instead indicated by diacritic marks written above or below the letters. Hebrew is written from right to left, and has a square print form developed from the Aramaic script. A cursive form, with more rounded letters, is also used in handwriting.
Around the 6th century BCE, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian empire and the Israelites (Jewish people) were exiled to the far east of Babylonia. During their time in exile, many Israelites learned Aramaic which was the main language of the region. The region was then conquered and ruled by a succession of empires, and the Jewish people were exiled from the area completely by the Romans in about 70 CE. The Jewish people migrated to Europe and North Africa, where they learned the languages or their new countries. In Central Europe, Yiddish emerged as a common language of the Jewish diaspora, a Germanic language fused with elements of Hebrew and Aramaic. Classical Hebrew was preserved in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish religious ceremony, literature, and poetry, but was not used as a spoken language between the 5th to 19th centuries CE.
In the late 1800s, some Jewish people began immigrating back to Palestine as part of the Jewish national movement. One of these people was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who is widely credited with sparking the revival of the Hebrew language. There was much debate about which language should be used by the Jewish people as they set out to reestablish Israel, with many insisting that Yiddish was a more obvious choice. But Ben-Yehuda pushed for the modification of Hebrew for everyday use in the new Israel and set out to work on creating new vocabulary, often influenced by other languages spoken by the Jewish people. Some saw his actions as blasphemous and an affront to the sacred biblical language, and others disagreed with his vocabulary choices, but he pushed on. He created the Committee of the Hebrew Language, which later became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an institution that still exists today.
By the early 20th century, many more Jewish people were flocking to Palestine (as well as other countries, as they faced increased hostility and antisemitism in Russia and Europe). It was at this time that many took up Ben-Yehuda’s call and joined the movement to revitalize Hebrew as the common Jewish language, establishing schools and endeavouring to use the language at home. The language would eventually take on a life of its own and begin to evolve naturally on the tongues of the people. They used many of the words developed by Ben-Yehuda and other linguists and left others behind, inventing new words and phrases to meet their needs. In 1922, the British Mandate of Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the country’s three official languages. The modern State of Israel was established in 1948 and retained Hebrew and Arabic as its official languages.
Today Hebrew is spoken by 5 million people in Israel, as well as millions of Jews and other interested learners worldwide. The United States has the second largest population of Hebrew speakers. Classical Hebrew is still the main language of Jewish religious ceremony and prayer, while Modern Hebrew is spoken in homes and taught in schools. I went to a Jewish elementary school in Vancouver until Grade 4 where I learned to read and write the Hebrew script, have basic conversations, and sing many songs and prayers.
There is much that can be learned from the revitalization story of the Hebrew language. It’s important to remember, though, that there are two key factors that distinguish Hebrew from other threatened languages. First, a rich literature was maintained for over 2000 years. The Hebrew Bible and other texts contained vast amounts of writing that could later be used as a base to create a modern language. Many endangered Indigenous languages are oral languages, and are not able to rely on ancient texts in this way. The second difference is the sovereignty of Israel. With political independence, Israel is able to determine its own laws, legislation, education policy, and funding decisions. Most communities around the world trying to revitalize their languages do not have this luxury, and must work within the context of another, often linguistically diverse, nation state.
PS. What’s in a Name?
Jewish children born in countries where Hebrew is not the main language are often given a Hebrew name in addition to a name in the language of their country. Hebrew names usually have a deeper lexical meaning, and it is common to name a child after an ancestor that has passed. My Hebrew name is נִיסָן, or “Nisan”, meaning spring., pronounced “Nitzah”, which means flower bud. I am named after my grandfather whose Hebrew name was