Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, (1858-1922) born Eliezer Perlman, was a Zionist, a journalist and a lexicographer, and is the single person most responsible for the rebirth of Hebrew as a living language.

Ben-Yehuda was born to Orthodox parents in Luzkhy, Lithuania, then a territory of the Russian Empire. He was educated in the traditional way, which, for Orthodox Jews, meant learning Hebrew.

In time, after flirtations with Haskalah thought, Ben-Yehuda became a fierce Zionist. When he was 23, he and his wife set off for the Ottoman territory of Palestine. The legend of Ben-Yehuda states that he and his wife vowed to never speak Hebrew again. While in Palestine, living in penury, Ben-Yehuda began to publish Hebrew-language newspapers. Other dedicated Zionist immigrants committed to using Hebrew as their primary language. Ben-Yehuda and his allies in Hebrew-language education became formidable advocates for Modern Hebrew. When a bitter controversy arose in 1913 over a German-language technical institute at Haifa-- the Technion-- Ben-Yehuda forcefully advocated for Hebrew-language instruction, and the Hebrew Teachers' Association went on strike. When the issue was re-considered in 1914, the technical institute decided courses would be conducted in Hebrew.

There were, however, fairly compelling reasons for German-language instruction. Though the classes would be conducted in Hebrew, much of the technical literature was already written in German. The greater issue, though, was that Modern Hebrew was still in its infancy, and had very little vocabulary with which to discuss the modern world. (Hebrew novelists in the 19th century had to struggle to shoehorn Biblical Hebrew into everyday chit-chat-- cf. discussion at Alter 24) Ben-Yehuda had long realized that Hebrew was hindered by a lack of vocabulary, and it would push him to accomplish his greatest feat.

Since before the turn of the century, Ben-Yehuda had been working on a dictionary. He compiled vocabulary which already existed in Hebrew, tweaked and extended meanings, and adapted Hebrew to modern life. In those places where Hebrew lacked vocabulary, he brought over triliteral Arabic roots and adapted them to Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda continued work on his lexicon until his death. After his death, the work was carried on by other scholars. The same organization exists today as the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

The Technicon affair began a string of successes by which Ben-Yehuda's vision was finally realized. In 1916, a census showed that 40% of Palestine's Jewish inhabitants spoke Hebrew as their first language,[1] and in 1919 the status of Hebrew was solidified when the British proclaimed it, with Arabic and English, as one of the three official languages of Palestine. Furthermore, Ben-Yehuda had become internationally known within the Zionist movement.

References

  1. Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel, 3rd ed., rev. and expanded. Knopf, 1997. p. 84