Q&A: Was modern Hebrew less Europeanized before Israeli independence?

On the contrary: it was a lot more Europeanised—for the simple reason that, even after the hundreds of words that Eliezer Ben-Yehudah had introduced into the lexicon to make Hebrew useable as a modern everyday language , it still lacked many terms needed for contemporary life.

Thus, words such as locomotive, colony, architect, hydrogen, greenhouse, taxihad no native Hebrew equivalent, so people had no choice but to use them as is, or slightly Hebraised: locomotiv, qoloniah, arkhiteqt, hidrogen, grinhaus, taqsi.

Over time, native Hebrew equivalents were coined for them: qatar, moshavah, adrikhal, meiman, ḥamamah, monit — and these were quickly and gratefully adopted by the public.

In some cases, biblical words of approximate meaning were pressed into service for the purpose: tarbut (from Numbers 32) was recruited to replace qulturah for ‘culture’; ḥashmal (from Ezek. 8) for ‘electricity’; livyatan (Isaiah 27, and elsewhere) for ‘whale’.

The trend of coining proper Hebrew words continues to this day: the word tiskul for ‘frustration’ was invented in the 1970s, yoshrah (integrity) only in the 1990s. In addition, European words are thoroughly assimilated even more than their originals to become full-blooded Hebrew verbs—thus, lefaqsess (to fax), lesamess (to send by SMS), lehaqliq (to click), letarped (to torpedo/sabotage).

Of course, many well-established Hebrew words are in fact old Europeanisations—imported from classical Greek many centuries before any of the modern European languages came into being: ḥaludah (rust), dyoqan (portrait), traqlin (living room), vilon (curtain), himnon (hymn), cartis (card), akhsaniah (inn), gruta’ah (wreck), safsal (bench)—shucks, even the word Sanhedrinwhich is from the Greek συνέδριον (sinhadrion) meaning ‘council’.

So, as the wise Preacher said (Eccles. 1:9), אין חדש תחת השמש (ain ḥadash taḥat hashemesh = ‘there is no new thing under the sun’).


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