Decisive factors in the success of the struggle for the revival of Hebrew: retrospect and prospect

by Pablo-Isaac Kirtchuk-Halevi
Académie de Versailles and INaLCO, France

Oscar Wilde said that only lost causes are worth fighting for. Therefore, the Revival of Hebrew was a most noble cause since it had no chances to succeed from the very start. As Claude Hagège put it in his book form the late nineties, had Ben Yehuda been a linguist, he would have never attempted to revitalize Hebrew because he would have known that it would be impossible. Indeed the man was a would-be physician so he did try, and to the great astonishment of everybody he succeeded.

We shall now focus on several factors that allowed the unbelievable success of this endeavour.

Hebrew, with Aramaic, was the lingua franca among Jews from the very first moment of exile in the first centuries A.D. Most Jews at the time were observant, and as we know, most Jewish texts, including of course Tora, Prophets, Scripture, commentaries, Mishnah, Midrash, Liturgy, Tossafot, and what have you, are written in Hebrew for most of them and Aramaic for the others. Those sister languages accompanied Jews through their Migrations. Both in Spain and Germany, Iraq and Poland, Yemen and the Balkans, and in more recent times South America and Australia, traditional Judaism has been wise enough not to neglect the alma mater of Jewish identity, namely the Hebrew Language. That is the case to this very day, when observant Jews, independently of country, socio-economic class, professional activity or cultural background, are attached to the Hebrew Language and only a little less so to the Aramaic Language, to the point of being able to communicate in Hebrew, be it with some difficulty and within narrow limits. That has been a factor of great pragmatic importance for it provided a Lingua Franca for Jews for very different horizons, linguistic and otherwise. Had Hebrew been replaced by the vernacular in everyday prayer, and religious service; it would have been the end of the Unicity of the Jews as they would have been no longer capable of communicating with each other.

Such was the ace which Ben-Yehuda detained when he launched his campaign for the Revival of the Language. Yet that factor in itself, although a necessary one, would not have been a sufficient condition for the enterprise to prosper.

Moreover, the languages of the Jews were not confined to a single group or family of languages. Such is, for example, the case of people at the Argentine-Brazilian border, where it is relatively easy to communicate for Poruguese and Spanish are closely related giving birth to a mixed language, ’Portunhol’.

Arabic and Yiddish, however, are non-related languages, their speakers weren’t unable to communicate with each other on the basis of a common vocabulary or grammar. Now Jews had gathered and wished to communicate with each other. If the Zionist movement had not reunited Jews from all origins in one and the same small piece of land, the Revival of Hebrew would not have succeeded either since the need to have a common language would not have arisen. Jews from Germany would have went on speaking German and Jews from Yemen would have contented themselves with Arabic while Jews form the Balkans and Turkey would have used Judaeo-Spanish to communicate within their community, and the local vernaculars to speak with their non-Jewish neighbours.

Paradoxically, the fact that Hebrew had not been used for 2 millenaries was yet another factor which favoured its revival. Other ancient languages such as Latin, Greek or Sanskrit, evolved so rapidly with such a drift, to use the term coined by Edward Sapir, that they split to many dialects or descendant languages such that the speakers of one cannot communicate with the speakers of the other: upon arriving to France, I was forced to learn French in order to communicate, my sole knowledge of Spanish wouldn’t do. And so it is for the other Romance languages as well as for Hindi / Urdu, Gujrati, Prakrit and the other modern languages that descend from Sanskrit. The slow pace of Hebrew’s development on the other hand allowed for Jews of Eastern Europe and Northern Africa to communicate with relative ease, since the very fact of its becoming a non-vernacular prevented Hebrew from splitting into a variety of dialects. Therefore, the caesura in the use of Hebrew was providential for its revival. It was as if the language had been put into a freezer, then taken out of it some 18 centuries later, defrost and put into use again.

The fact that the Hebrew texts were rich enough both in vocabulary and grammar to make it possible for the language to serve as such was a key factor in its revival. Had it been otherwise, it would not have happened. Gaelic and Basque, to give but 2 examples, were not rich enough in those two respects. None of them could have provided the bulk of terms and semantic distinctions necessary for a modern society to function.

And of course there was the will of the people to be one Nation with one  and its own language. This is an important factor, for Hebrew was felt to be the warranty of National identity. Indeed, to this very day, all citizens of Israel speak Hebrew, whether they be Jews or not, Israeli born or not, young or less young. The individual contribution of Joseph Klausner in this respect was paramount. His understanding of the essential role of the language in a people’s soul as well as his enormous philological knowledge of other languages both ancient and modern proved precious for the enterprise to succeed. In the quarrel of the languages of 1912-1914, when the newly founded Technion faculty was split on the question of teaching in Hebrew or… German (it was before both World Wars) Klausner’s and Ben-Yehuda’s position was clear and it made the difference. As for today, several courses in Israeli Universities are often given in English, and Ph.D. dissertations can be presented in that language. A rather uncanny situation which turns Hebrew into a secondary language in the academic sphere.

As for Eliezer Itzhak Perlman, later known as Ben-Yehuda, he was endowed with an exceptional will-power, outstanding intellectual abilities, a quasi-prophetic vision and an extraordinary emotional involvement in the task he undertook. He had the will power and the accuracy of a Litwak (he was born near Vilno) and the enthusiasm and life drive of a Hassid. Let me quote Claude Hagège who with his customary wit says that Ben Yehuda was fortunately not a linguist for, had he been one, he would have known that his endeavor was impossible. Not being a linguist, he was not aware of that, therefore he carried on at the price of public hostility, difficulties in his own couple and a life of material hardship. Ben-Yehuda had 5 children with his first wife Deborah and 6 with the second, who happened to be Deborah’s younger sister. Eventually, his endeavour was crowned by success.

A language that may have been a rival to Hebrew is Yiddish. Most of its speakers were, however, assassinated in the Holocaust. It dis therefore loose its power of nuisance, so to say[1].

A question that naturally arises is whether Hebrew is still a Semitic language. We now Edward Ullendorff’s sceptical stance on this matter (1958), and we recall David Cohen’s answer (1969) which can be resumed thus: a Semitic Language is a Semitic Language. We deem him right despite other people’s opinion according to which Hebrew is a Slavic language in Semitic guise. Needless to say, those who claim such an inanity were careful not to learn any Semitic language either modern or ancient nor General Linguistics. Family appurtenance has little to do with typology and all to do with genealogy. Common vocabulary referring to body parts and the extension thereof which are family members, numbers up to four and atmospheric-cum-celestial bodies constitute the hard core of vocabulary similarities. As far as grammar is concerned, common exceptions and suppletion are the water mark of family links. I’ll take a non-Semitic group to demonstrate my purpose and then make a very brief comparison with other modern Semitic languages.

Let me first resume the factors that allowed for the revival of Hebrew:

  1. Being a Lingua Franca among Jews who had abandoned it both as the mother tongue for their children and as the means of communication for everyday needs but nonetheless had a varying passive knowledge thereof from their cultural and /or religious background and practice,
  2. Moreover in exile the Jews adopt very different languages and so left Hebrew as the sole means of communication common to them all,
  3. Not being used on a daily basis, Hebrew evolved at a very slow pace as compared with other ancient languages such as Latin, Greek, Slavonic, Sanskrit etc., which yielded modern versions too different to be considered as mere variants thereof. This allowed for Hebrew to be reactivated with no major adaptations needed, while remaining faithful to its Semitic linguistic heritage,
  4. The rich amount of Hebrew written sources which harken back to about 1400 C.E. until Modernity, including Bible, Mishnaic and rabbinical texts, medieval philosophy, etc., which furnish a vocabulary and grammar sufficient for all needs, while allowing for an abundant neology and no need of too many loanwords,
  5. The people’s will to reactivate Hebrew as a token of ethnical identity and culture in the context of National revival, a unique endeavour after an exile of 2000 years.
  6. The fact that Yiddish, a potential rival, lost the majority of its speakers in the Holocaust.
  7. Ben-Yehuda’s personality, made of an exceptional will-power, outstanding intellectual abilities, a quasi-prophetic vision and an extraordinary emotional involvement in the task he took upon himself.

All of those factors are peculiar to Hebrew. They do not exist as such for other nations that have been made similar attempts, viz. Scots and Gaelic or Basques and Euskara. Hebrew’s success is unique. We can say therefore E Pluribus Unum: from an array of elements an old language was reborn. Old countries recovered independence, but no quasi-extinct language recovered life save Hebrew.

A question arises on the effects of this process in the light of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis according to which one’s mother-tongue influences the way that person sees the world. For a native speaker of French, reality is divided between male and female, because such is French grammar, while it goes otherwise for a native speaker of English). Hebrew is the mother tongue of Israelis but not of the Jews in the Diaspora. Will both groups end up having radically different Weltanschauungen on account of that? To prevent that, it seems only logical that all Jews in the Diaspora should have at least a rudiment of Hebrew.

It is time to make some linguistic remarks. Hebrew evolved more in the last century than in the 20 centuries before. That is bound to continue, probably along the lines of Classical Semitic grammar: roots and schemes will keep being the pillars of syntax, morphology and vocabulary (with minor influences from American English). As for phonology, CH has lost or is in its way to lose its gutturals… just like Akkadian in Antiquity and nowadays Amharic as well as North Eastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA), which does not prevent them from being Semitic.

Let us then briefly show to what point Hebrew is faithful both to (1) its more ancient stages, essentially Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic or Rabbinical Hebrew, and to (2) its Semitic origins. Amharic and NENA developed an obligatory copula, a syntactic function that does not exist as such in the Classical Semitic languages nor in Contemporary Hebrew (CH) where it is merely optional. In NENA the verbal system is founded on the passive participle for the perfect aspect and the active participle for the non-perfect. The perfect is quasi-ergative inasmuch as the subject is an oblique personal mark appended to the dative-genitive preposition /l-/, the whole being suffixed to the passive participle. In the non-perfect aspect, personal pronouns are appended to the active participle. No such thing exists in contemporary Hebrew, where the verbal system is a three-tenses one, much inspired on that of Mishnaic Hebrew: prefixes for the future, suffixes for the past and the participle serves as present tense. Likewise, word order in CH resembles that of Mishnaic Hebrew, SVO, mostly as it were, while in Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) it is VSO. Be it as it may, CH continues by and large the former stages of the language. As for the root system, it is productive to the point of creating new roots from loan words, cf. /f.k.s.s./ from fax, /r.f.r.r./ from refer, /d.s.k.s./ from discuss (a homonymous root is inspired on the disk-shaped implements used in agriculture to turn the soil), and even /r.t.v.t./ from retweet. Which means, incidentally, that the consonantal pronunciation of /w/ as [ve-] or [u-] depending on phonetic circumstances is still active just like in Classical Hebrew, cf. Semitic /we-/ ‘and’, H [ve-]/[u-] depending on phonetic context. There are onomatopoetic roots as well.

Contemporary Hebrew’s (CH) morphology is, by and large, that of Classical Biblical Hebrew (Classical BH). This concerns verbal conjugation but also the declination of nouns and prepositions. True, the genitive relation is mainly expressed by the particle /sel/, but this particle itself is accompanied by person, number and gender endings, as well as prepositions. It shall be noted that possessive relation of nouns denoting family members continues to be expressed by personal endings, cf. /?axoti/ ‘my sister’: this is a proof if iconicity as the close morphosyntactic relation reflects a close semantic proximity. As for syntax, the verbal system conforms is that of Late Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew : it is no longer, like in Classical BH, a twofold aspectual aspect with the accomplished aspect expressed by personal suffixes and the unaccomplished une by prefixes, with a “conversive waw” attributing  them to a temporal framework. In CH like in Late Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, the verbal system is threefold temporal, with the suffixed verb functioning as past tense, the prefixed one as future tense and the participle as present tense. The vocabulary is by and large based on the Semitic root base, with foreign loanwords furnishing new roots hence new verbs conjugated according to Hebrew morphology and phonology,  cf. /r.t.v.t./ from ‘retweet’, /r.f.r.r./ from ‘reference’, /f.k.s.s./ from ‘fax’, etc. It is a strong proof of Contemporary Hebrew’s fidelity to its Semitic alma mater.

Which allows us to compare it to other Modern Semitic Languages. North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA) as well as Amharic developed a compulsory copula, to the opposite of the Classical Semitic syntax when the nexus, namely the relation between subject and predicate is expressed by intonation. It is still the case in CH, where a copula is optional, not obligatory. In Amharic word order shifted to determinant-determiner, quite the opposite of Classical Semitic order. In NENA the verbal system experimented a major change, as the perfect aspect is expressed in a quasi-ergative manner: to an ancient passive participle is appended a personal ending added to the preposition /l-/ ‘to’. In other words, the agent is not the subject of the verb but an oblique complement. In the non perfect or so-called ‘subjunctive’, the subject is a personal pronoun ending appended to the active participle. In both cases, the verbal system of NENA is founded upon two ancient participial forms. Contemporary Hebrew, to the opposite of both Amharic and Modern Aramaic, remained faithful to the system inherited, morphologically from Biblical Hebrew and syntactically from  Mishnaic Hebrew. Word Order within the noun clause basically the same as in the ancient stages, although the main sentence observes an SVO pattern and not VSO like in Classical Biblical Hebrew and Semitic. In subordinate sentences, word order remains often VSO.


Now some examples to show that basic Hebrew vocabulary remained stable as compared with that of Neo-Latin languages:


Latin                   Spanish               French       BH             MH            CH

caput                    cabeza                tête             ro’∫             ro’∫             ro’∫

tres                      tres                      trois           ∫alo∫           salo∫          salo∫

pater                   padre                  père            ’ab             ’ab             ’ab

sol                       sol                       soleil          ∫eme∫          ∫eme∫          ∫eme∫


A rapid look on morphosyntax shows that while Latin marks syntactic function by morphologically case-endings,  Spanish and French mark them by word-order and prepositions, cf. Lat. Paulus Hannam amat = Sp. Pablo ama a Ana = Fr. Paul aime Anne.

All this shows Latin, Spanish and French to be 3 different languages while Hebrew is one and the same through its different periods.


Ben-Yehuda, E. 1908-1959. (in Hebrew)

מילון הלשון העברית הישנה והחדשה (Dictionary of the Ancient and Modern Hebrew Language), Tel Aviv.

Cohen, D. 1979 ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une langue sémitique?’ Comptes Rendus du Groupe Linguistique d’Études Chamito-Sémitiques (GLECS, 270-    301).

Hagège, Cl. 2000. Halte à la mort des langues. Eds. Odile Jacob.

Kirtchuk, Pablo. 2013. ’Onomatopoeia in Hebrew’. Encyclopaedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (EHLL), Brill 2013.

Kirtchuk, P. I. 2013. ‘Hebrew and Typology’ (EHLL).

Kirtchuk, P.  2013. ‘Hebrew and General Linguistics’ (EHLL).

Kirtchuk, P. ‘The Hebrew Language’. Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies     492-514. Oxford University Press.

Polotsky, H. J. 1961. ‘Studies in Modern Syriac’. Journal Of Semitic     Studies, 6, pp. 1-32.

Ullendorff, E.1958. ‘What is a Semitic Language?’ (A problem of linguistic identification). Orientalia. Nova Series, Vol. 27, n° 1, pp.       66-75 . Gregorian Biblical Press.

[1]For this remark I am indebted to Nicolas Tournadre.

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