Modern Hebrew's Dilemmas

By Berdichevsky, Norman | The World and I, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Modern Hebrew's Dilemmas


Berdichevsky, Norman, The World and I


Apart from the political difficulties in trying to establish a Jewish state, many linguists (concerned observers in addition to the perennial cynics and pessimists), doubted that Hebrew, a language that had been "frozen" and endured almost entirely in written form, could meet the needs of a modern society. Hebrew grew in power and prestige due to territorial concentration through immigration (aliya) to Mandatory Palestine and was a better "fit" to achieve a national sense of identity for many immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds than Yiddish or other languages. (1) It is hard to imagine a more persuasive Zionist argument than that the Land of Israel "speaks" Hebrew through the countless inscriptions uncovered throughout its length and breadth on parchment, stone, clay, papyrus and wood. Nevertheless, the drawbacks involved in its transformation to become the vernacular of the State of Israel in the twentieth century were readily evident. They were (and continue to be):

--The need to develop a new vocabulary and appropriate word derivations and the resultant dilemma to base derivations on the indigenous "roots" of Hebrew that many speakers are unfamiliar with

--The difficulties of a Semitic-based grammar with unfamiliar constructions for speakers of European languages

--An alphabet that is unable to properly represent vowels, creating serious problems of reading comprehension

--The narrow range of vowel sounds and the paucity of vowel combinations (diphthongs), as well as the elimination of several guttural consonants have made the spoken language sound very monotone. The result is a poor match between speech and spelling.

In spite of the enormous success of Hebrew and its solid position as the "National Language" in the State of Israel, all of the above problems continue to present considerable barriers to literacy and the development of the language. (2) Moreover, another threat intensifying the difficulties is the enormous appeal of English and its challenge to become an alternative language of communication in countries like Israel, whose languages have a small number of speakers and are spoken nowhere else.

The lack of vocabulary

The transition to a modern vocabulary was extremely difficult among the first generation of Hebrew-speaking children, especially those who attempted to adopt a natural, unstilted Hebrew to mirror their world. The American Yiddish poet Yoash visited one of the early Zionist settlements in 1913, and was impressed to hear teenage girls playing and making use only of Hebrew. However, when one was asked the name of a flower in her own garden, she replied, "Flowers don't have names." (3) It would take another generation and the achievement of Israeli independence for Hebrew to catch up with the backlog of essential vocabulary. Consider, for example, all the diverse fields rich with terminology that one would need to have as part of his or her lexicon in order to become an educated speaker: flora, fauna, medicine, technology, art and science, just to name a few.

Hebrew's powerful word derivation mechanisms

The inherent mechanisms for word formation in the Hebrew language have played a brilliant role in enabling linguists to draw upon indigenous sources for the necessary vocabulary to modernize the language. This has been done in such a clever and convincing way that it would be no exaggeration to say that if we could resurrect some of the Biblical prophets and give them today's Hebrew newspapers, they would be able to discern the root concept and make a good guess at the meaning of many words which they had never seen before, and had not existed until modern times. (4)

The ability of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and other linguists to coin new words from the scant vocabulary stock of the Bible and the Talmud derives from this basis and the use of prefixes, suffixes and infixes that still retain the original consonantal root letters. …

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