Q&A: Has modern Hebrew changed grammatically or phonologically from when it was first revived?

Yes—quite a lot. The best illustration of this is the Hebrew of the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the ‘father’ of modern Hebrew and compiler of its first dictionary.

Itamar Ben-Avi

I recently read his autobiography (החצוף הארצישראלי ‘The Cheeky Hebrew Boy’), and although much of his Hebrew is not much different from high-register academic Hebrew today, some of it seems almost comically affected (although it wasn’t—that’s just the Hebrew he was brought up with). Typical example (not from his autobio, but from another project of his):

זה לי ארבעים שנה פחות ארבע, שאני הוגה בכתב העברי יומם ולילה ממש. מעודי לא יכולתי להבין מדוע לעברים אל״ף-בית כה קשה ומסובך, ולנוכרים – כה קל ונעים לשימוש? יום אחד – ואני אז בן-עשר – פניתי לאבי ואשאלנו: …״

Rough English equivalent:

’Tis four years shy of forty now that I have been contemplating the Hebrew script—yea, verily, day and night. Never have I been able to fathom why the Hebrews have such a difficult and convoluted alphabet, while the foreigners – [one] so easy and simple to use? One day – and I was but a lad of ten – I turned to my father and enquired of him:…

In the decades that followed, Hebrew underwent further stages of evolution. This is neatly illustrated in the continually revised translations of ancient Greek plays into Hebrew for performance on stage—as described in my translation of Nurit Yaari’s book, Between Jerusalem and Athens:

Despites its many virtues, Tchernikhovsky’s [1929] translation […] highlighted the differences between the Hebrew of the Eastern European diaspora and that which had evolved in Palestine since 1896, in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. The actors soon found that they had to make many revisions to Tchernikhovsky’s text to create a performance text that they could fluently declaim, and which the spectators could readily understand at first hearing. Since Tchernikhovsky was no longer alive, they turned to one of the leading poets of the new generation, Avraham Shlonsky—a young innovator of the modern Hebrew language and Hebrew poetry modernist—to convert Tchernikhovsky’s biblical prose into theatrical text [and] infuse the text with a fluent cadence that was familiar to the ears of Eretz-Yisraeli audiences.

Around twenty years later—in 1947, shortly before Israel’s declaration of independence—Shlonsky’s Hebrew was already considered too old-fashioned, so the upstart theatre group, The Cameri (whose members were native Israelis, unlike those of the veteran theatre, Habima) enlisted the services of a younger author, Natan Alterman, who—

felt free to use a colloquial and contemporary Hebrew of modern Tel-Aviv. Critic Haim Gamzu thought very highly of the result: ‘The translation is […] brilliant in its lightness, succulence, and innovations.’ Ben-Ami Feingold, however—theatre critic of the Haboker newpaper—sniffed at [Alterman’s] use of […] a language that it is wholly unworthy of the noble character of the play.

A generation later—in 1965, the Cameri Theatre felt it necessary to commission yet another updated translation of the Greek play—this time by the poet T. Carmi. The result drew many plaudits and admiration from the theatre critics:

[…] then all of a sudden, T. Carmi comes along—and suddenly it rings! And it’s Hebrew, and intelligible—one understands every word!’ gushed culture reporter Michael Ohad with evident delight. Haim Gamzu agreed, in his characteristically more measured tone: ‘In T. Carmi’s excellent modern rendition, most of the elements of the original are preserved, without the tortuous language that make it less intelligible to the spectator or listener […]

Three years later, a production of Aristophanes’ comedy Peace celebrated the richness of Hebrew, by offering—

[…] a potpourri of formal Hebrew, biblical or biblical-sounding expressions, street slang intermixed with Arabic (e.g. ḥarah [shit], jorah [sewage pipe/’piehole’], Abu Mega Iddiot); Yiddish (e.g., shpion [spy], feig [coward], proteksia [friends in high places], and English (patzifist [pacifist], frigidit [frigid]), a mixture of sounds that […] reflected the multicultural character of Israeli society.

A mere twelve years after that—in 1977—

Aharon Shabtai’s translation of Oedipus Tyrannus marked yet another new era in the translation of classical Greek tragedies into Hebrew and their performance on stage. By and large, the critics were appreciative of Shabtai’s work: ‘Every word in Aharon Shabtai’s translation is clear as a bell—and so it sounds.’ […] ‘a bold attempt to present Sophocles in a Hebrew that is intelligible to everyone’, and ‘Shabtai’s translation strikes me as generally simple and colloquial […] it was easy to listen to and understand, and the style did not get in the way between the play and the audience.’

In the 1980s and ‘90s, writer and translator Yehoshua Sobol’s translations—

peppered [the text] with local expressions typical of the period [… and] Israeli newspaper jargon, into lines from famous songs and into Arabic curses that had become part of the modern Hebrew idiom, such as bnei-zonot (‘sons–of–whores’), tohar hanesheq (‘purity of arms’) and, most conspicuously, the term Troyah Hame’uḥedet (‘united Troy’)—an obvious allusion to the right-wing Israeli mantra of a ‘united Jerusalem’.

Meanwhile, playwright Hanoch Levin wrote plays so exclusively aimed at Israeli audiences, that he pointedly used colloquial Hebrew designed to thwart the very possibility of having them translated into any other language.

In her 2001 production of Lysistrata, the late Anat Gov adapted Aharon Shabtai’s translation, into ‘a New Comedy with postmodern domestic jokes […] with witty Hebrew, Israeli music and high fashion.’

And so it goes on. As long as it remains the day-to-day native tongue of millions of speakers, modern Hebrew will remain in constant flux, and no doubt continue to evolve far more quickly than in did in the two thousand or more years that it was primarily the language of prayer. By the end of this century, the Hebrew of the early Zionist era may strike young speakers as quaint as biblical Hebrew. Hopefully, however, they shall still be able to understand it.

[First published on Quora, November 17, 2020]

3 thoughts on “Q&A: Has modern Hebrew changed grammatically or phonologically from when it was first revived?

  1. This is a fascinating topic – experiencing language change in ones lifetime, as opposed to most (?) other languages. Recently I read the text of זמר נוגה by Rachel the Poetess written 100 years ago and was struck by how her Hebrew is different from my Modern Hebrew class.

    You overview is very interesting but it opens many questions – what are precisely the language changes? What was the driving force behind these changes? The new immigrants who never completely grasped the language of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda but used a “poorer” subset? Or immigrants from the Arab countries who have “adjusted” Hebrew to their Semitic mother tongue? Or just some “redundant complexity” which was “optimized away” through a natural process?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mikhail. Rachel the Poetess’s זמר נוגה is a classic that is well known to generations of Israelis, as it was put to music some fifty years ago and made into a well-loved song. The Hebrew, while far from modern colloquial, is not significantly different from poetic Hebrew that might be written today.
      The driving force behind changes is much as it is anywhere else: social and technological change, as well as changing demographics. Language, like water, flows along the path of least resistance: neologisms that roll off the tongue are quickly accepted and adopted, but awkward ones are quickly discarded, or ignored. In any event, the level of command by new immigrants is rarely a factor, as the language is determined by their native-born children, not by first-generation speakers.
      It’s important to note that the process is not purely cumulative: many colloquialisms of my mother’s generation (born in the mid-1930s) for example, had fallen by the wayside by the time I grew up, and similarly, much of the slang of my generation dates us in the eyes of today’s youths. Thirty-forty years ago, Palestinian Arabic words were commonly used, but today, many of them have been replaced with native Hebrew ones (see, e.g. https://byautumnlight.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/what-is-the-hebrew-word-for-excellent-amazing-or-awesome/). So although the number of changes made to the Hebrew translations of ancient Greek plays might suggest an enormous change in the colloquial language, in reality, due to the ebb and flow of new vocabulary, the actual change hasn’t been that much.


  2. Very interesting, indeed. It confirms an old linguistics adage that languages “drift” even without a particular cause. But they drift even more quickly after contact with new speakers, especially adult learners, who tend to simplify the complexities.

    Liked by 1 person

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