How a little boy brought Hebrew to life

Did you know that for over 1000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language, and the Jews owe its revival to a little boy and his father Eliezer Ben Yehuda? In 1881, a native of the Vilensk province of the Russian Federation (present-day Vitebsk region of Belarus) Ben-Yehuda emigrated to Palestine and suddenly realized that all immigrating Jews spoke different foreign languages ​​unknown to him, which made the organization of the circumcision ceremony for his newborn son extremely problematic. And then Ben-Yehuda decided to put his life on so that the Jews speak one common language for them. In fact, the Jews already had such a language - Hebrew, but no one spoke it as their native language since about the third century BC. It was used only for worship.

Ben-Yehuda decided to honor his own son Itamar with the privilege of becoming the first speaker of the revived spoken Hebrew. And here some difficulties arose, since in the Old Testament there were no words such as, for example, "steam locomotive". So to teach Itamar what was happening in the world after the fall of the Roman Empire, a huge number of new words had to be invented.

To communicate with a child, Ben-Yehuda had to come up with many words, without which a child's vocabulary cannot be imagined. This is how the seemingly elementary words appeared today, such as "booba" (doll), "ofanaim" (bicycle), "glida" (ice cream), etc. In total, Ben-Yehuda invented about 220 new words, and about a quarter of them have not yet become firmly established in Hebrew.

Ben Yehuda forbade his son to communicate with anyone other than himself. When guests came to the house, Itamar was sent to bed so that he would not accidentally hear a word in a foreign language.

Once Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian song to a child. He was so furious that he began to destroy furniture (it’s scary to even think how many new words the boy learned during this scene). It got to the point that poor Itamar was forbidden to listen even to the sounds made by animals.

However, I must admit that the training bore fruit, after a while other Jews began to trust Ben Yehuda to teach their children, and, in the end, Hebrew became the state language of Israel.

The success of the family experiment led to the fact that four more families followed Ben Yehuda's example - they, too, began to speak with newborn children only in Hebrew. For every family that made such a decision, Ben Yehuda's wife baked a cake as a gift. To imagine how difficult it was to promote spoken Hebrew to the masses, it is enough to mention that in 20 years she had to bake only 10 such pies ...

However, even such modest successes only increased the number of Ben Yehuda's opponents. The rebellious character also did not add supporters to him. The society of Hebrew lovers created by Ben Yehuda "Safa brura" ("Clear language") was called by many as "Safa arura" ("Cursed language"). Opponents of the Hebrew language even sent a denunciation to the Turkish authorities accusing Ben Yehuda of anti-government sentiments, and he was arrested for a while.

Founded in 1886 in Rishon LeZion, the Haviv School became the first school in the world to teach all subjects in Hebrew. Textbooks for most subjects in Hebrew simply did not exist, and teachers had to compose them during the educational process. The textbook on Jewish history was written by Ben Yehuda himself.

Educational institutions in general turned out to be the main front of the "language war" - in them Hebrew had to compete with German, French and English. The turning point was 1913: the Hebrew supporters at the Haifa Institute of Technology (Technion) managed to defeat the supporters of German, which was then considered the language of science and technology (this victory was especially remarkable given that the apologists for German were headed by the patrons of art who sponsored the Technion). In 1922, shortly before the death of Ben Yehuda, the "language war" ended - the British mandate authorities gave Hebrew the status of the official language of Eretz Yisrael.

One of the main achievements of Ben Yehuda was the creation of the Hebrew Language Committee, which became the main mouthpiece of the movement for the revival of Hebrew and after the creation of Israel turned into the Hebrew Academy (by analogy with the Académie Française). The Hebrew committee established uniform rules for grammar and pronunciation, and also determined which new words would enter the language. The fight against blind borrowing of foreign words has since become one of the main aspects of the activities of the Committee, and then the Academy.

The work of the Hebrew Academy has borne fruit. In many cases, automatic cripples were avoided - the Hebrew analogs of foreign and international words proposed by the Academy were loved and entrenched in all linguistic spheres. In particular, contrary to many other languages, Hebrew has dispensed with the borrowing of words such as "computer", "taxi" or "institute". At the same time, it is curious that the name itself - Academy - is borrowed. An extensive explanation of this seemingly strange fact is given on the website of the Academy itself.

Today the Hebrew Academy is trying to offer Hebrew alternatives to replace common technological terms that have come from the English language. The Academy specialists have developed an alternative to such words as "Internet", "blog", "talkback", "flash drive", etc. Will the people accept them? Time will tell.

The first Hebrew medical dictionary was compiled by Dr. Aaron Meir Mazya, who was the third head of the Hebrew Language Committee. Mazya, who was born in Belarus, was an extraordinary person: an engineer, doctor, philologist, farmer, public figure and even a rabbi all rolled into one. It is to him that modern Hebrew owes, among other things, a special noun form used to denote diseases.

By the way, the surname Mazya is an acronym for the words "From the offspring of Israel Iserlin." The common Jewish surnames Katz, Shatz, Segal, Bloch are also acronyms, and, as far as I know, this phenomenon is present only in Hebrew.

The aforementioned son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Ben-Zion (better known under the pseudonym Itamar Ben-Avi) became one of the most prominent figures in Eretz Yisrael. Already at the age of 15, he sent a letter with a "modest" request to Baron Rothschild: to finance the creation of the Jewish army. So that the addressee did not doubt his fighting spirit, he translated the Marseillaise into Hebrew.

Growing up, Itamar Ben-Avi came to the conclusion that Hebrew should become the dominant language of the entire Mediterranean. He proved to everyone who was ready to listen that even the geographical names of the region (Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Marseille) come from Hebrew. It is less known that Itamar Ben-Avi was also carried away for some time by the idea of ​​translating Hebrew into Latin script (to make it more accessible to other peoples) and even published a newspaper in Hebrew in Latin script. Today, such an undertaking can only cause laughter.

In 1972, Dan Ben-Amotz and Nativa Ben-Yehuda published the first Hebrew slang dictionary, thus completing the process of converting Hebrew into a living language. Paradoxically, in Hebrew slang most words are of foreign origin, so the circle is complete. But the rapid development of the language did not stop there, and today the bold slang expressions of thirty years ago sound like perfect archaisms.

In recent years, voices have been heard calling into question the very fact of the Hebrew revival. Proponents of this point of view argue that Hebrew not only never died, but did not even fall into a lethargic sleep, and they cite many facts to prove this. In particular, the Israeli professor Shlomo Harmati established that in many European universities since the Middle Ages, medicine was taught in Hebrew, that is, Hebrew was not exclusively a language of prayer.

According to the same Harmati, the founders of the United States of America seriously considered the possibility of declaring Hebrew the state language. In addition, as you know, they gave Jewish names to children and settlements.

The famous writer S.-J. Agnon, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, once asked Ben Yehuda's second wife Hemdu: "How did it happen that your spouse is considered the father of the Hebrew revival, because many people spoke Hebrew in Jerusalem without him?" Hemda's answer was very laconic: "They didn't have such successful PR people like me."

Be that as it may, in the fall of 2007, UNESCO officially recognized the role of Eliezer Ben Yehuda in the revival of Hebrew and expressed its intention to take part in the celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. Usually this organization is difficult to suspect of love for Israel, but even she could not ignore the uniqueness of the work of Ben Yehuda's life and its success.

However, the specifics of the revolution that took place in the last hundred and a half years was best reflected by the writer Ephraim Kishon, the author of the famous aphorism: "Israel is the only country in the world in which parents learn their native language from children."