Q&A: Why didn’t Eliezer Ben-Yehuda use Greek root words to develop modern Hebrew from biblical Hebrew, instead of inventing new ones himself?

There are several components to this answer:

  1. There is this common belief among non-Hebrew speakers that Ben Yehuda ‘invented’ all or most of the modern Hebrew vocabulary ab nihilo
    In fact, he invented no more than 300 new words that were accepted into the modern idiom (many of his neologisms—such as parqah = army division; avḥemetz = oxygen; maqolit = gramophone—were rejected). His greatest contributions lie in his compilation of the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and in raising his son Itamar as the first native Hebrew speaker in modern times to prove that that was possible.
  2. Such words that Ben-Yehuda did successfully introduce were primarily from the roots of existing Hebrew words (be they biblical, Talmudic, or medieval)—such as eqdaḥ (pistol) from the biblical root q-d-ḥ, meaning ‘burn’.
  3. When there were no related Hebrew roots, he opted to borrow first from Aramaic (the closest surviving sister language to Hebrew)—such as adish (indifferent), dayal (attendant), and only then from Arabic, as a sister Semitic language (such as bubah = doll, which was accepted, or badurah = tomato, which was not).
  4. Deriving words from Greek may have been all the rage in the two or three centuries after Alexander the Great, when Hellenist overlords ruled over the entire Near East from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and dozens upon dozens of Greek words entered the language—such as alakhson (diagonal), basis (basis), dugma(example), cartis (card), bimah (stage), pundaq (inn), teatron (theatre)—shucks, even Sanhedrin (council)—but that is so2300 years ago, darling. We like the Greeks, but they’re just not the bees-knees anymore…
    So in the rare instances when Ben-Yehuda did resort to drawing from non-Semitic languages, they tended to be from major modern European languages (esp. French, German, or Italian). Even then, he tried to limit them to words that coincidentally sounded like Hebrew roots of related meaning—such as:
    • glidah (גלידה—like the Aramaic glida גלידא = ice, and the Hebrew root g-l-d = congeal, but serendipitously like the Italian gelato)
    • mivreshet (מברשת = brush)
    • nazelet (similar to the French or English nasal, but from the Hebrew root n-z-l = flowing liquid)



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