Israel's Language Warriors

By Mitnick, Joshua | Moment, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Israel's Language Warriors


Mitnick, Joshua, Moment


The room that houses the museum-like reproduction of Eliezer Ben Yehudah's 19th century study in the Academy of Hebrew Language is silent as a sanctuary. Hundreds of books with brittle spines line the walls. Elaborately carved Damascus chairs face the wooden rostrum that once served as a writing station for this Jewish scholar (18581922) who single-handedly transformed a language of religious study and devotion into a living vernacular.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Up the stairs and across the courtyard, the wordsmiths of Jerusalem's Academy of Hebrew Language--established by law in 1953--carry Ben Yehudah's work forward. Like similar institutions in France, Brazil and Belgium, the Academy of Hebrew Language spins out new words and advises speakers on language, spelling, grammar and related questions. The 44 active members and 50 staff employees of this independent government agency are the kind of people you wouldn't want to meet on the other side of a Scrabble board.

One of them, Ronit Gadish, 51--predictably bookish in rimless glasses--excitedly pulls a yellowing 1938 volume of clothing illustrations with modern Hebrew fashion terms from her office bookshelf. "Now here's a great dictionary,'' remarks Gadish, the secretary of the Academy committee that invents general-use words like those in the 1938 dictionary, but with a particular focus on new Hebrew monikers for popular foreign language words.

During modern Hebrew's first half century, Ben Yehuda and his successors' mission was to invent enough words to provide a new society with the means of communication. But now that the entire country operates in modern Hebrew, the Academy's challenge is to keep Hebrew relevant as English seeps into Israelis' daily chatter. For example, just as Americans have morphed Google into a verb, masses of Israeli web surfers have Hebraicized English nouns into verbs such as telephone, fax and torpedo. In Israel "to Google" is le'gagel. "Our problem is because of the Internet, because of globalization--there's an unending flow of English into Hebrew," says Gadish. "It's not only words, it's also in terms of thinking. We're returning to the situation before the Tower of Babel."

The Academy has had some success with kovetz (computer file), tochnah (software), mekuvan (online) and magar netunim (database). The creation of these words and others like them is usually a joint effort rather than the work of a single inventor, says Gadish. Her department identifies holes in the language primarily through faxes and emails it receives from the general public. After researching a foreign word's usage, Gadish and her staff brainstorm appropriate Hebrew terms and submit their choice to the Academy's general assembly for final approval.

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