What’s the story of Modern Hebrew – how was it revived, and how’d it come to be a modern national language less than a century ago?
This is one cool story. I will give it a most cursory treatment on this blogpost, but I encourage you to delve into Hebrew’s fascinating evolution to a modern lexicon, and share your resources with us by posting a response! Modern Hebrew is a baby compared to other languages, such as Arabic and Greek. However, it derives from Ancient Hebrew, the language of the Torah, our core text.
In 1880, a highly-educated Litvak with a vision, known as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, believed in a homeland for Jews (before his time), and a common language, Hebrew, to unite us. Realizing that Hebrew would only gain traction as the lingua franca by insuring ‘Hebrew in the home, Hebrew in the schools, and words, words, words!’, Ben-Yehuda began teaching in a school (in what was then Palestine,) whose population was linguistically diverse. Later he published an all-Hebrew newspaper, where he disseminated newly coined vocabulary. He worked passionately to develop a lexicon based on ancient Hebrew, and developed the first modern Hebrew dictionary, containing words for everyday items, as well. While teachers in that era had no published Hebrew materials and curriculum to work from, they were inspired by Ben-Yehuda’s vision and used whichever textbooks they had at hand – French, Russian, etc. as a template to teach their Modern Hebrew lessons.
By 1881, waves of immigration from Eastern Europe to Palestine helped Ben-Yehuda realize his vision, as thousands of persecuted Jews dreamed of a united community in a safe homeland, and readily took up the Hebrew cause. “Thus, within a biblical generation, in the forty years between 1881-1921, a core of young, fervent Hebrew-language speakers was formed, with Hebrew as the unique symbol of their linguistic nationalism. This fact was acknowledged by the British mandate authorities, who on November 29, 1922, recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine.” (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/ben_yehuda.html)
Surely this dramatic story of the birth of Modern Hebrew, a purposefully forged tool of communication and unity, based on our beloved Torah, has inspired many non-native speakers to pursue acquiring and using Modern Hebrew to listen, read, write and speak – בעברית!