The oddities of Hebrew

Israelis are in the fortunate position of being able to understand the Bible in the original language. They are also in the rather bizarre position of knowing that when they post on Facebook, tweet on Twitter (or order that Pizza with a double topping of cheese) they are doing so in the language of the Ten Commandments. 

Being nearly 3000 years old and literally set in stone, Hebrew is the only successfully revived language in the history of the world. Starting with its rebirth in the late 19th century, it was already clear to its pioneer, Eliezar Ben Yehuda, that ancient Hebrew could not entirely cater for the the needs of the changing world. Modernity made it incumbent upon him, that if the Holy Tongue was to be the new Jewish vernacular, he would need to morph it to modernity and establish linguistic cohesion among Europe’s Hebrew-speaking Jews living in and outside of British Mandate Palestine. 

Ben Yehuda thus established The Hebrew Language Committee. As the Jews of Europe flooded into the Land of Israel, the institution flooded society with Hebrew, by publishing Hebrew dictionaries, newspapers and introducing thousands of new words. 

Just five years after Israel became a state, the Committee became “The Academy of the Hebrew Language.” It has 35 members who meet regularly with language scholars and experts in Judaism studies and the Hebrew Bible and serves today as the supreme linguistic authority. 

Not that the Academy polices the street by issuing tickets to immigrants and sabres for glaring mistakes, rather it makes decisions that are binding on all governmental agencies: meaning for instance, that if you want to know what is the correct and perfect Hebrew, then listen to the news. 

The Academy also decides on the nature of verb structures, vowels, prepositions and whether a noun should be feminine or masculine. It introduces words for terms and objects that were absent in antiquity, modern phenomena such as “binge-watching” “low-cost” and “piercing.” 

Not every ruling has caught on with the general public. Years ago, the Academy announced that the word for “toilet” should be Bet Kavod. Israelis weren’t using the “House of Honor” for going to the bathroom so that necessary little room instead became Sherutim: in English, “services.” It is a long-standing joke in Israel that not by chance is the toilet related to “customer service.”

Ironically, in its very name the Academy has used a bastardization of the corresponding English word. By replacing the last syllable with the Hebrew suffix “i-ya,” “Academy” in Hebrew, becomes Academ-i-ya. The decision to do so drew criticism from purists. In response, the institution clarified that their  main purpose is not to erase all non-Hebrew influence. Given the fact that many Israelis love the attractions of the West, the decision to weave English words into the ancient language has been unavoidable, prudent and popular. Hence, television is televis-iya, a bus is an autobus, and university is ooniversita. 

Many nouns in use today are taken from the Hebrew Bible and given a similar contemporary meaning.  Merkava in the Bible means “chariot.”  The Biblical chariot was used for both war and peace and it is most well-known for Elijah’s means of heavenly transport and for Ezekiel’s vision of future redemption. The Israeli-designed tank, the envy of all military forces, is also called a Merkava. Further, just like the chariot of the Bible, the Merkava has been used for war and peace, for attack and defense. By its very might, it has also served as a deterrent.

The use of opposites of this particular word Merkava mirrors the interchangeable use of the Hebrew language as a whole. Holy, and forever the language of prayer, Hebrew is also the vernacular used to chat about “binge-watching” on Netflix and for complaining that the Pizza did not come with enough cheese.