[lg policy] Israelis offer a 'Yom Huledet Sameach' to Ben Yehuda, resurrector of Hebrew language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 9 15:49:33 UTC 2013

 Israelis offer a 'Yom Huledet Sameach' to Ben Yehuda, resurrector of
Hebrew language

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who transformed Hebrew from the rusty language of
ancient Israel and the Bible into the dynamic, dominant language of
modern-day Israel, would be 155 years old today.

By Christa Case Bryant, Staff Writer / January 8, 2013

If it weren’t for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, I wouldn’t be able to order ice
cream, ask directions to the local furniture store, or discuss Gaza
bombings in Hebrew.

Since I’m a new journalist in Israel who happens to love ice cream and
arrived here with only one piece of furniture to my name, that would be
grave indeed.

So I for one am grateful for Mr. Ben Yehuda, who was born 155 years ago
today in the Russian empire.

Legend has it that the man was not only brilliant, but a little crazy. And
you would have to be, if you were planning to try to resurrect an ancient
language after roughly 2,000 years and expect it to become the primary
spoken language of a country that didn't even exist yet.

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But the Sorbonne-educated Ben Yehuda did just that – well before the state
of Israel was founded in 1948, and even before Lord Balfour of Britain made
his famous promise to the Zionists in 1917 to help establish a Jewish

Of course, Hebrew was the language of the Torah – the biblical books of
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – as well as other
religious writings. So many Jews were familiar with it. But they didn’t use
it to talk about things like grocery shopping or even politics.

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Where to start? With your family, of course. When Ben Yehuda arrived in
Israel with his family, he banned his wife and children from speaking any
other language. According to tradition, his family was the first to speak
exclusively Hebrew in the home.

He also helped start schools and Hebrew-language newspapers, and published
the first dictionary of modern Hebrew, often drawing on biblical words to
coin modern terms. Ultra-Orthodox Jews pushed back hard, arguing that
Hebrew is a holy language and not to be used to discuss the mundane. Many
of them still prefer to speak in Yiddish when discussing daily affairs.

But Hebrew is nevertheless the dominant language in Israel today, although
Arabic is an official language as well.

But I digress.

You were wondering about how to order ice cream, right?

G'lida. That’s your ticket.

Todah (thank you), Ben Yehuda.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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