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Hebrew’s Reviver

December 16, 2017

The man who almost single-handedly invented modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, 1858), died on this date in Jerusalem in 1922. In 1881, he emigrated to Palestine, where he, his wife Dvora Jonas, and their son Ben-Zion are widely considered to be the first modern family to speak the language full-time. In addition to his belief in the need for full Hebrew immersion in order to revive the language, Ben-Yehuda also understood that Classical Hebrew lacked sufficient vocabulary to function effectively in the modern world and be useful in everyday life. To address the problem, he invented scores of brand-new Hebrew terms, many of which have remained in usage to this day (e.g. the words for newspaper, train, and bicycle) -- though others, such as his Hebrew word for democracy, have failed to catch on. In 1910, Ben-Yehuda began to publish his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, which was completed by his family and published in seventeen volumes in 1959. He also founded and presided over the Va’ad HaLashon HaIvrit (“The Hebrew Language Council”), which was a forerunner to the Hebrew Language Academy. An atheist, Ben-Yehuda faced considerable persecution from Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community. An ode to Ben-Yehuda’s linguistic efforts (lyrics by Yaron London) became a hit song for Matti Caspi and Chava Alberstein in 1978; scroll down to watch them perform it.

“Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
A jocular Jew
Word, words, words, words
He concocted out of his feverish mind”
-- Yaron London, from the song “Eliezer Ben-Yehuda” (1978)