flowery language

Revival of the Hebrew language

The revival of the Hebrew language was a process that took place in Europe and Israel at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century, through which the Hebrew language changed from an exclusively liturgical, written language to a spoken language of official status in the State of Israel. Not purely a linguistic process, the revival of Hebrew is integrated into the wave of change involved in the concurrent rise of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, the world's only Jewish state, in 1948.

The process of Hebrew's return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a language devoid of native speakers becoming a national language with millions of first language speakers.

The revival also brought with it linguistic changes to the language. Despite that the leaders of the process insisted they were only continuing "from the place where [Hebrew's] vitality was ended," they in fact created a new situation for the language, the characteristics of which are derived from all periods of the Hebrew language and also from European languages, chief among them Yiddish. The current situation of the language is the Modern Hebrew or Israeli Hebrew of today.


Ever since the spoken usage of Mishnaic Hebrew language ended in the second century AD, Hebrew had not been spoken as a mother tongue. Be that as it may, during the Middle Ages, the language was used by Jews in a wide variety of disciplines. This usage kept alive a substantial portion of the traits characteristic of Hebrew.

  • First and foremost, Classical Hebrew was preserved in full through well-recognized sources, chiefly the Tanakh (especially those portions used liturgically like the Torah, Haftarot, Megilot, and the Book of Psalms) and the Mishnah. Apart from these, Hebrew was known through hymns, prayers, midrashim, and the like.
  • During the Middle Ages, Hebrew was used as a written language in Rabbinical literature, including in judgments of Halakhah, Responsa, and books of meditation. In most cases, certainly in the base of Hebrew's revival, 18th and 19th century Europe, the use of Hebrew was not at all natural, but heavy in flowery language and quotations, non-grammatical forms, and mixing-in of other languages, especially Aramaic.
  • The use of Hebrew was not only in written language. Hebrew was also used as an articulated language, in synagogues and in batei midrash. Thus, Hebrew phonology and the pronunciation of vowels and consonants were preserved. Despite this, in the region the influence of foreign tongues caused many changes, leading to the development of three different forms of pronunciation:
    • Ashkenazi Hebrew, used by Eastern and Western European Jews, which maintained mostly the structure of vowels but may have lost the stress, and the gemination, although this cannot be known for sure, as there are no recordings of how the language (or its respective dialects) sounded e.g. in Kana'an; it should be noted that Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation has a variation of vowels and consonants, which follows closely the variation of the vowel and consonant signs written down by the masoretes around the 7th century CE, indicating that there is a strong link with the language heard by them. E.g. where we see two different vowel signs, or a consonant with resp. without a dogeish (dagesh), a difference is also heard in the various Ashkenazic pronunciations.
    • Sephardic Hebrew, used by Mizrahi Jews, preserved a structure different than the recognized Tiberian Hebrew niqqud of only five vowels, but did preserve the consonants, the grammatical stress, the dagesh, and the schwa; yet, different ways of writing consonants are not always heard in all Sephardic pronunciations. E.g. the Dutch Sephadic pronunciation does not make a difference between the beth with and without dagesh: both are pronounced as "b". The "taf" is always pronounced as "t", with or without dagesh. There are two possibilities: the difference disappeared over time in the Sephardic pronunciations, or it never was there in the first place: the pronunciation stems from a separate Hebrew dialect, which always was there, and which e.g. the masoretes did not use as reference.
    • Yemenite Hebrew language, which, though by some believed to preserve almost all the Classical Hebrew pronunciation, was barely known where the revival took place.
    • Within each of these groups, there also existed different subsets of pronunciation. For example, differences existed between the Hebrew used by Polish Jewry and that of Lithuanian Jewry and of Germany Jewry.
  • According to evidence discovered by researchers, it appears that in the fifty years preceding the start of the revival process, a version of spoken Hebrew already existed in the markets of Jerusalem. The Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino or Arabic and the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish needed a common language for commercial purposes. The most obvious choice was Hebrew. Though Hebrew was spoken in this case, it must be noted that it was not a native mother tongue, but a common language of limited use, a sort of Jewish lingua franca.
  • The linguistic situation the background of which the revival process occurred was then a situation of diglossia, when two languages--one of prestige and class and another of the masses--exist within one culture. In all of Europe, this phenomenon has waned, starting with English in the 16th century, but there were still differences between spoken street language and written language. For example, Russians spoke popular Russian to each other, but wrote in more prestigious Russian or French, while Germans spoke in local dialects and wrote in Standard German. The Jews had a similar situation: Yiddish was the spoken language, and the written language was Hebrew for liturgical purposes and the language of the broader culture - be it Russian, German, French, or Czech - for secular purposes.

The revival of literary Hebrew

The revival of the Hebrew language in practice advanced in two parallel strains: The revival of written-literary Hebrew and the revival of spoken Hebrew. In the first few decades, the two processes were not connected to one another and even occurred in different places: Literary Hebrew was renewed in Europe's cities, whereas spoken Hebrew developed mainly in Palestine. The two movements began to merge only in the beginning of the 1900s, and an important point in this process was the immigration of Haim Nahman Bialik to Palestine in 1924. But after the transfer of literary Hebrew to Palestine, a substantial difference between spoken and written Hebrew remained, and this difference persists until today. The characteristics of spoken Hebrew only began to seep into literature in the 1940s, and only in the 1990s did spoken Hebrew widely appear in novels (as in Etgar Keret's books).

Hebrew during the Haskalah

A preceding process to the revival of literary Hebrew took place during the Haskalah, the Jewish movement paralleling the secular Enlightenment. Members of this movement, called maskilim (משכילים), who sought to distance themselves from Rabbinic Judaism, decided that Hebrew was deserving of fine literature, and what's more in Biblical Hebrew language. They considered Mishnaic Hebrew language, Aramaic, and other varieties of Hebrew defective and unfit for writing. The Haskalah-era literature written in Hebrew based itself upon two central principles: Purism and flowerly language. Purism was a principle which dictated that all words used should be of biblical origin (even if the meaning was not biblical). The principle of flowery language was based on bringing full verses and expressions as they were from the Tanakh, and the more flowery a verse was, the more quality it was said to possess. Another linguistic trait thought to increase a text's prestige was the use of hapax legomena, words appearing only once in the text.

But while it was easy to write stories taking place in the biblical period and dealing with biblical topics, Haskalah-era writers began to find it more and more difficult to write about contemporary topics. This was due mostly to the lack of a broad and modern vocabulary, meaning translating books about science and mathematics or European literature was difficult. This barrier was finally breached in the 1880s by a writer named Mendele Mocher Sforim.

Mendele Mocher Sforim

Mendele (1846-1917), whose given name was Ya'akov Abrimovitch, was given the title of "Mocher Sforim" (מוכר ספרים), meaning "bookseller." He began writing in Hebrew as a Haskalah writer and wrote according to all the rules of Haskalah-era literature. At a certain point, he decided to write in Yiddish and caused a linguistic revolution, which was expressed in the widespread usage of Yiddish in Hebrew literature. After a long break he returned in 1886 to writing in Hebrew, but decided to ignore the rules of biblical Hebrew and added into the vocabulary a host of words from the Rabbnic Age and the Middle Ages. His new fluid and varied style of Hebrew writing reflected the Yiddish spoken around him, while still using all the historical strata of Hebrew. For the purposes of his Hebrew works, some of which were translations of his Yiddish books, Mendele needed a language to represent popular language spiced-up with jests and detailed descriptions. He satisfied this need by throwing out the restrictions of the Haskalah's biblical flowery language and turning to figures of speech and vocabulary from the Rabbis while incorporating characteristics of syntax found in European languages.

Mendele's language was considered a synthetic one, as it consisted of different echelons of Hebrew development and was not a direct continuation of a particular echelon. However, today, his language is often considered a continuation of Rabbinic Hebrew, especially grammatically.

The continuation of the literary revival

Mendele's style was excitedly adopted by contemporary writers and spread quickly. It was also expanded into additional fields: Echad Ha'am wrote a superb article in 1889 using the style entitled "This is not the Way," and Haim Nahman Bialik expanded it into poetry with his poem "To the Bird" of the same year. Additionally, great efforts were taken to write scientific books in Hebrew, for which the vocabulary of scientific and technical terms was greatly increased. At the same time, Europe saw the rise of Hebrew language newspapers and magazines, while even sessions and discussions of Zionist groups were conducted and transcribed in Hebrew. As Hebrew poets and writers began arriving in Palestine armed with the new literary language, they exerted a certain amount of influence on the development of spoken Hebrew as well.

The revival of spoken Hebrew

When speaking of the process of Hebrew revival, the first name that comes to mind is his Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (אליעזר בן יהודה) (1858-1922), known as the "reviver of the Hebrew language" ("מחייה השפה העברית"), yet upon closer examination it becomes clear that his major contributions were ideological and symbolic; he was the first to raise the concept of reviving Hebrew, to publish articles in newspapers on the topic, and he took part in what is known as the Ben Yehuda Dictionary, and he worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the topic while fighting against its opponents. But the practical activity which finally brought about the revitalization of Hebrew was not carried out, at least for the most part, with Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem but in the moshavot (settlements) of the First Aliyah and the Second Aliyah. There, the first Hebrew schools were established, Hebrew became a language of daily affairs, and finally became a systematic and national language. Yet Ben Yehuda's virtue stands in his initiation and symbolic leadership of the Hebrew revival.

The revival of spoken Hebrew can be separated into three stages, which basically parallel (1) the First Aliyah, (2) the Second Aliyah, and (3) the British Mandate Period. In the first period, the activity centered on Hebrew schools in moshavot and in Ben Yehuda's club; in the second period, Hebrew usage expanded into assembly meetings and public activities; and in the third period, it became the language used by the Yishuv, the Jewish population during the Mandate Period, for general purposes more than other languages having both spoken and written forms, a movement reflected in the official status of Hebrew in the British Mandate. All of the stages were characterized by the establishment of many varied organizations that all took an active and ideological part in Hebrew activities. This came together in the establishment of the Hebrew high schools (גימנסיות), the Hebrew University, the Jewish Legion, the Histadrut labor organization, and Tel Aviv - the first Hebrew city.

Throughout all periods, Hebrew signified for both its proponents and detractors the antithesis of Yiddish: Against the exilic, rabbinical, and bourgeois Yiddish language stood revived Hebrew, a language of secularism, Zionism, of ground-working pioneers, and above all of the transformation of the Jewish nation to a Hebrew nation with its own land. Yiddish was degradingly called a jargon, and its speakers encountered harsh opposition.

Nonetheless, Ghil'ad Zuckermann believes that "Yiddish is a primary contributor to Israeli Hebrew because it was the mother tongue of the vast majority of language revivalists and first pioneers in Eretz Yisrael at the crucial period of the beginning of Israeli Hebrew". According to Zuckermann, although the revivalists wished to speak Hebrew with Semitic grammar and pronunciation, they could not avoid the Ashkenazi mindset arising from their European background. He argues that their attempt to deny their European roots, negate diasporism and avoid hybridity (as reflected in Yiddish) failed. "Had the language revivalists been Arabic-speaking Jews (e.g. from Morocco), Israeli Hebrew would have been a totally different anguage – both genetically and typologically, much more Semitic. The impact of the founder population on Israeli Hebrew is incomparable with that of later immigrants. Zuckermann says that a hybrid is a sign of richness and vigour rather than impurity or contamination.

The First Aliyah: Ben Yehuda and Hebrew schools

With the rise of Jewish nationalism in 19th century Europe, Eliezer Ben Yehuda was captivated by the innovative ideas of Zionism. At that time, it was believed that one of the criteria needed to define a nation worthy of national rights was its use of a common language spoken by both the society and the individual. In 1881, Ben Yehuda made aliyah and came to live in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, which as noted already possessed a small Hebrew-speaking community, Ben Yehuda tried to garner support for the idea of speaking Hebrew. He determined that his family would only speak Hebrew and attempted to convince other families to do so as well, founded associations for speaking Hebrew, began publishing the Hebrew newspaper HaZvi, and for a short while taught at Hebrew schools, for the first time making use of the method of "Hebrew in Hebrew." Yet Ben Yehuda's efforts were not all too fruitful: In 1902, over two decades into his efforts, his wife recorded that she baked a cake for the tenth family to agree to speak only Hebrew.

On the other hand, widespread activity began in the moshavot of the Second Aliyah, which was concentrated in the Hebrew schools. In 1886, the first Hebrew school was established in the Jewish settlement of Rishon LeZion, where a part of the classes were taught in Hebrew. At this point, progress was slow, and it encountered many difficulties: Parents were opposed to their children learning in an impractical language useless in higher education; the four-year schools for farmers' children were not of a high caliber; and a great lack of linguistic means for teaching Hebrew plus the lack of words to describe day-to-day activities, not to mention the absence of Hebrew schoolbooks. Added to these, there was no agreement on which accent to use, as some teachers spoke taught Ashkenazi Hebrew when others taught Sephardic Hebrew.

In 1903, the Union of Hebrew Teachers was founded, and but sixty educators participated in its inaugural assembly. Though not extremely impressive from a quantitative viewpoint, the Hebrew school program did create a nucleus of a few hundred native Hebrew speakers and proved that Hebrew could be used in a day-to-day format.

The Second Aliyah: Tel Aviv and the moshavot

As the Second Aliyah began, Hebrew usage began to break out of the family and school framework into the public venue. Motivated by an ideology of rejecting the Diaspora and its Yiddish culture, the members of the Second Aliyah, established relatively closed-off social cells of young people with a common world view. In these social cells - mostly in the moshavot - Hebrew was used in all public assemblages. Though not spoken in all homes and private settings yet, Hebrew had secured its place as the exclusive language of assemblies, conferences, and discussions. Educated Second Aliyah members already were familiar with the literary Hebrew that had developed in Europe, and they identified with the notion that Hebrew could serve as an impetus for the national existence for the Jewish people in Israel. This group was joined by the aforementioned graduates of Hebrew schools, who had already begun to raise the first native-born speakers of Hebrew in their families.

During this period, the World Zionist Congress also adopted Hebrew as its official language.

In 1909, the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, was established, on the streets and in the cafes of which Hebrew was already widely spoken. The entire administration of the city was carried out in Hebrew, and new olim or those not yet speaking Hebrew were forced to word their statements in Hebrew. Furthermore, street signs and announcements were written in Hebrew. A writer said in 1913 that in Tel Aviv "Yiddish is more treif (non-kosher) than pork. To speak it a person needs great courage."

Accordingly, Hebrew education continued to expand, as more and more Hebrew educational institutions came about, including the Hebrew high schools. Hebrew teachers recreated the Hebrew Language Council (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language), which began to determine uniform linguistic rules, as opposed to the disjointed rules which had been created. The Council declared as its mission "to prepare the Hebrew language for use as a spoken language in all affairs of life," formulated rules of pronunciation and grammar, and offered new words for use in schools and by the general public. The widespread production of Hebrew schoolbooks also began, and Mother Goose-style rhymes were written for children.

The pinnacle of Hebrew's development in this period came in 1913, when the so-called "War of the Languages" (מלחמת השפות) occurred: At that time, the Company for Aiding German Jews to establish an institution of higher education for engineering and insisted it should be instructed in German. The whole of the Yishuv rose up against this standpoint and forced the group to admit defeat, leading to the founding of Israel's foremost institute of technology, Technion. This incident marks with no shadow of doubt the transformation of Hebrew into the official language of the Yishuv.

The Mandate Period: Systematic Hebrew

After World War I, it was all but clear that Hebrew would be the spoken language of Israel. Although the immigrants arriving from the Diaspora did not speak Hebrew as a mother tongue, their children learned only Hebrew as their native language. At this time, Hebrew speech was already a complete fact, and the revival process was no longer a process of creation, but a process of expansion. In Tel Aviv, the Legion of the Defenders of the Language was established, which worked to enforce Hebrew use. Jews who spoke other languages on the street were admonished: "Jew, speak Hebrew" (יהודי, דבר עברית).

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