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An Old Language Reborn
December 15, 1999


Since I've been in Israel for nearly three months I've had a lot of free time. What have I been doing? I've been learning Hebrew! It's by far the most challenging language I've ever studied. You might be wondering why I would choose to spend so much time learning Hebrew when I could be going to the beach every day. Good question! Hebrew can be so difficult to learn that it requires a lot of extra time and devotion to learn to speak it and even more to read and write it.

Hebrew is one of the Semitic languages, which means that it is related to Arabic. It's so old that its alphabet (or alef bet) goes back over 3,000 years. In the second century BC another Semitic language called Aramaic replaced Hebrew and dominated the Middle East, but Jews continued to learn Hebrew as a language of literature and religion. As Jews dispersed throughout the world, they adopted the languages of their new surroundings as their own, causing spoken Hebrew to disappear for 2,000 years.

Vocabulary Box

disperse - to cause to become spread widely
Zionism - an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel
linguistic - of or relating to language

By the last quarter of the 19th century, a Lithuanian, Jewish medical student named Eliezer Perelman had a vision that coincided with a new nationalistic movement called Zionism. He felt that if Zionism was to create a uniquely Jewish state then her people should use a distinct language. For example, the French or the Russians are largely defined by their linguistic unity. In 1881, Perelman, changed his name to Ben-Yehuda, and moved to Jerusalem where he married and established the first Hebrew-speaking home in what Zionists called "Eretz Yisrael". It was there that his son became the first child in modern times to be nurtured with Hebrew as his native language.

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larger view
The man who restored the Hebrew language: Ben-Yehuda

Ben-Yehuda worked as a teacher at the Alliance School where he insisted that Hebrew be the official language of instruction for Jewish subjects. While working as a writer for a Hebrew paper, he personally coined thousands of words (using Hebrew roots) for verbs and objects that never previously existed when Hebrew was last spoken widely in the region. In this way, he transformed an ancient biblical language into a modern language for the 20th century. In 1910, he completed the first volume of his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew. His widow and son continued the project after his death. By 1959, there were 17 volumes in total.

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The study where Ben-Yehuda worked

As Jewish immigration increased in the first half of the 20th century, newcomers quickly learned Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda's dream was to see the establishment of one nation with one language. Hebrew was declared the official language of the State of Israel in the spring of 1948. Immigrants today learn Hebrew by attending Ulpan (Hebrew school). They must be struggling just like me.

To hear me recite the Hebrew "alef-bet" click here

A few reasons why learning Hebrew can be very difficult:

  1. Reading and writing Hebrew goes from RIGHT to LEFT (fortunately still from top to bottom).
  2. The Hebrew alphabet is completely different from the Roman alphabet that we use to spell English words.
  3. There are some different sounds in the Hebrew language that we don't have in English like the chet or the resh which are both pronounced in the back of the throat.
  4. It is so different from languages like English and Spanish that you can't just guess what a word is based on a common root. Every new word must be individually committed to memory.
  5. Hebrew vowel sounds are not indicated in printed Hebrew (unless you're reading text intended for children which uses a system of lines and dots to teach them) and you must guess how to pronounce words without any sort of guidance.
  6. There is also a written form of Hebrew called ktav (as opposed to the printed form called dfus) which uses many characters that are unique and must be learned as well.

Kevin Maes

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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