Q&A: How was modern Hebrew created?

Modern Hebrew wasn’t ‘created’ in the sense that constructed languages such as Esperanto or Lojban are created ex nihilo. Rather, the traditional Hebrew of Scriptures, the Talmud, and nearly two thousand years of rabbinical commentary was taken and updated to make it serviceable for the modern age.

Eliezer Ben-Yehudah is often credited as single-handedly doing this himself, by creating the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and coining hundreds of new terms, but in fact, innumerable people were involved in this enterprise—such as writers such as Mendele Mocher-Sforim, Ehad Ha’am, and Hayim Nahman Bialk, who in the second half of the 19th century spearheaded, aided by a slew of Hebrew-language publications (HaMagidHeHalutzHatzfirah, etc.).

Ben-Yehudah’s other notable contribution is proving—using his infant son as a guinea pig—that a child can acquire Hebrew as a native tongue. But even without Ben-Yehudah, this would have happened, because the real revival of Hebrew as a spoken, everyday language was taking place in the schools of the first Zionist moshavot (settlements), such as Lev Frumkin’s boarding school in 1886, and the Ḥaviv School, founded two years later in Rishon Lezion.

The Ḥaviv School in Rishon Lezion, early 20th century (Credit: rishon.mynet.co.il)

Hebrew was the inevitable chosen language of the burgeoning Zionist community, not only because it was the only language that Jews of all countries had in common, but because it symbolised the return to ancestral land and cultural roots.

Q&A: What is the Moabite word for “Israel” in the Mesha Stele?

Exactly as in Hebrew—Yisrael ישראל (blue rectangle below)—as evident at the start of the third sentence (line 5), in which he describes how Omri king of Israel had oppressed Moab:

Top of Mesha Stele (b&w rendering) Source: en.wikipedia.com https://images.app.goo.gl/jzFsMqXUisxZAVFo8
Source: en.wikipedia.com https://images.app.goo.gl/jzFsMqXUisxZAVFo8
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Q&A: What is the difference between the Hebrew words dabar and amar?

The verb d-b-r (דבר) is to speak—i.e. it is more formal and intentional. Hence words put in writing are also dbrim* (‘dvarim’); the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Proclamations); and religious prophets always warned civic leaders to honour at hdbrim awr H’ xivh* etc. (the things that the Lord commanded).

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Q&A: Why might a translator use a calque?

[A2A] One would use a calque (a.k.a. loan translation) when there is no equivalent word or expression in the target language, but it captures the meaning so well and concisely that one is moved to recreate it by emulating the same word combination using native words in the target language.

In Hebrew, noted examples are:

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Q&A: If the head of government of the Republic of Ireland is widely known as the Taoiseach, why isn’t the head of government of Israel widely known by a Hebrew term rather than as “Prime Minister”?

Three reasons:

  1. Because only the Irish Prime Minister is accorded this honour (the PM of France isn’t referred to in English as the Premier Ministre, the Spanish PM isn’t called the Primer Ministro, etc.)
  2. Because Rosh Hamemshalah is a bit of a mouthful for most foreigners
    and—last but not least:
  3. Because foreign Jews would confuse the Israeli PM with Rosh Hashanah, and think that he must be celebrated only once a year.

Q&A: Is it possible to design Scrabble in languages that are not fully alphabetic, such as Hebrew?

There is a Hebrew version of Scrabble, because Hebrew has an alphabet (shucks—who do you think invented it?).

However, the Hebrew version is not always readily available—especially when one is abroad (i.e., outside Israel). For those situations (as in many others), SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew) comes in handy, as evident from this example of a Hebrew Scrabble game that we played in the family:

Scrabble in SimHebrew

Q&A: Why are the Hebrew words melakh, melekh, & malakh so similar?

Misapprehensions like this are precisely why conventional transliteration of Hebrew is so flawed.

In SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew in Latin characters), the spelling distinctions between those three words are clear, and preserved:

  • melakh’: in Hebrew מלח, in SimHebrew mlk
  • melekh’: in Hebrew מלך, in SimHebrew mlç
  • malakh’: in Hebrew מלאך, in SimHebrew mlaç

See Modern-day Ecclesiastes for more examples.