ASK Israelis what makes them Israeli, and they just may answer in
Hebrew. Its rebirth as a living language was once viewed as the glue
that would bind a dispersed people.
Today, Hebrew experts are less concerned about nation-building
and more interested in keeping too many foreign words from getting
stuck in that glue.
A century ago, Zionists looking to revive the Hebrew language -
all but unspoken for 1,700 years - began turning to the Bible and
medieval Jewish commentaries to build a modern vernacular.
But the deepest searches through the Scriptures don't turn up any
references to correction fluid, teleprompters, or high-tech.
The instinct of most Israelis, with their predilection for things
American, is to graft such words into the language of their
But thanks to the latest rulings by the Academy of the Hebrew
Language, secretaries now correct errors with mechikon, news anchors
read from a makraya, and Bill Gates is the giant of taasiya eleet.
Purists say they're losing the fight to protect Hebrew, but they
haven't given up yet.
Indeed, many of their inventions will be ignored. Taasiya eleet
doesn't quite have the trendy ring of high-tech, and it could easily
join the long list of Academy inventions that the public refused to
A few years ago the Academy, headquartered at Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, decided to call in-line skates galgiliot lahav -
literally, wheels on edge. But a salesperson will be dumbfounded if
you ask for them in any sports store, because they're still called
Rollerblades, the brand name that caught on in the early 1990s.
Academy members had an easier job when the state was young and the
advancement of Hebrew was treated as a national priority.
That spirit prevailed until the 1960s, when the first computer
arrived in Israel. The Academy called it a machshev - something that
thinks - and it stuck.
But today, 50 years after Israel's establishment, the Academy
doesn't even attempt to impose Hebrew words where globally
ones, like Internet, are already ingrained in everyday speech.
"In the '60s, the Academy tried harder than it does today to coin
Hebrew words," says Gabriel Birnbaum, the Academy's academic
"Some caught on, but many others did not. In the past 20 or 30
years, the Academy hasn't even tried to coin Hebrew equivalents of
most international words," he says.
Modern words from ancient roots
Speaking one of the world's oldest living languages, Israelis are
ever in pursuit of new Hebrew words to make up for the gaps where
language left off almost two millennia ago.
Many of the 46 members of the Academy, among them some of Israel's
foremost linguists and authors, argue that the purpose of
resurrecting the Hebrew language is defeated by simply relying on
English or other foreign substitutes for 20th-century inventions.
So, sitting down together at least once every two months, they
pick through the English words creeping into the language and try to
create Hebrew versions. The goal is to build new words out of
existing Hebrew roots, or at least the roots of other Semitic
To some extent, their creations are still taken seriously. The
Academy, a quasi-official body established by a law of the Knesset,
Israel's parliament, regularly sends its rulings about new
vocabulary, grammar, and syntax to all public institutions.
State-run radio and television stations, the army, and all
offices are obliged to abide by its rulings. …