Tag Archives: Hebrew Language Academy

A history of Hebrew, told one word at a time

Ben and Jerry's ice cream in Israel is labeled "glida," the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel is labeled “glida,” the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Here’s a guest post from Daniel Estrin, who lives in Jerusalem.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of words over centuries.

In Israel, linguists are still compiling a similar dictionary for the ancient Hebrew language.

English as we know it has been around about 860 years.

“Without bragging, the history of Hebrew is much older,” said Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at Israel’s official Academy of the Hebrew Language. About three times older.

Birnbaum’s job is to write the entries for the Hebrew Historical Dictionary. Four days a week, seven hours a day, he sits alone in his small office, surrounded by dusty volumes of ancient Hebrew texts, and types out definitions.

“The ideal is to have all the words with all their history, how they started, when they started to be used, the whole of the treasure of the Hebrew language,” said Birnbaum. “The English have it, the French have it, the Hungarians have it, so we should also have it.”

Hebrew was born around the 12th century BC. It’s the language of the Bible; Jesus knew Hebrew. But a few decades after Jesus’ death, Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, and they adopted different languages.

“Hebrew for 1,700 years wasn’t spoken by anyone,” Birnbaum said. “Some people call it a dead language. But if it was dead, it was a very lively corpse.”

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

It really wasn’t dead at all. Jews wrote their literature and liturgy in Hebrew, and recited prayers in Hebrew, as they do to this day. In the late 19th century, waves of Jews moved to the Holy Land, and revived Hebrew as a spoken language.

But how do you order ice cream in an ancient tongue?

“They didn’t have words for office, or eyeglasses, or for matches,” said Birnbaum. “So from where will we take this? Of course we can coin new words. But first we have to use all the words we have in our sources.”

That’s how the mysterious Biblical word chashmal, referring to God appearing with fire and light, became the modern word for electricity. In an ancient Aramaic translation of a Biblical passage, manna from heaven is described as thin as frost, or glida. Today, glida is the frosty stuff you order at the ice cream parlor.

Hebrew is based on “roots,” patterns of letters that are the building blocks of the language. The three-letter combination in the word “write” also appears in the words for “article,” “reporter,” “letter,” “spelling,” “address,” and anything having to do with writing.

More than half of the roots in modern Hebrew come straight from the Bible.

“If I give you a text of Old English, you won’t understand a word. Those words have changed a lot,” Birnbaum said. “Now you take an Israeli child, you give him a text from the Book of Genesis, or a text from the Book of Samuel, he can understand, not to exaggerate, 70 percent of it. He can understand it.”

The Hebrew Language Academy began compiling its historical dictionary in 1959, but only came out with a first edition in 2005. There are many words from the past few thousand years to comb through, not to mention all the new words of the last century.

Linguists at the Hebrew Language Academy are still coining new words for terms that didn’t exist in the Bible or the Middle Ages – and Israelis often email the language academy to request new words.

Staffer Tzipi Senderov said there’s been high demand lately for one particular word.

“People always write the same thing. ‘I need to know the Hebrew term for cupcake,’” Senderov said. “Then we have to say, ‘There is no alternative,’ and people are like, ‘Why, can’t you find an alternative?’”

They did. The Hebrew Language Academy has posted two options online for the public to choose from. So far the more popular choice is ugoneet, which in English translates to “mini-cake.” The other contender is mufeen mekushat, or “decorated muffin.”

Do these alternatives to cupcake sound tasty?

“No, and it wouldn’t catch, whatsoever,” Senderov said. “That’s the problem.”

All the Hebrew Language Academy’s new words will eventually end up in the historical dictionary. But sometimes, its new words just don’t catch on.

At birthday parties across Israel, a cupcake may just stay a cupcake.


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A Right Brain Religion Translated into a Left Brain Language

Is Ancient Greek a left brain language? And Ancient Hebrew a right brain one? Yes, says Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And, he says, it has a huge bearing on how the Bible has been understood.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. Like most early scripts, Ancient Hebrew was written like Hebrew and Arabic are today—without vowels and written from right to left. It is a right brain language, says Sacks, because to understand the meaning of any word, “you have to understand the total context in which it occurs.”

Sacks sees it this way:

Ancient Greek was the first language ever to be written from left to right, which activates the left brain. You don’t need to understand the total context here. You derive meaning word by word, in small components.

The emergence of the world’s first left brain language also coincided with the first instances of “left brain thinking”: the philosophy of Aristotle, Epicurus and other Greek scholars. This atomistic, evidence-based approach to interpreting the world eventually led to modern-day science.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. It was translated into Greek between 300 BC and 200 BC. It was the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the early Christians used to spread the religion.

Judaism and Christianity began as right brain religions, based on that Ancient Hebrew way of thinking. But early in its evolution, Christianity took a turn. The word of Christianity—the Old Testament—was translated into Greek (and the New Testament was written in Greek).

Sacks concludes that Christianity was a right brain religion translated into a left brain language. And the religion encompassed those two ways of thinking: the metaphysical and the analytical. For many centuries – until the Enlightenment—the prevailing view in Europe was that religion and science were part of the same thing.

I don’t know enough about all this to draw any conclusions. (Readers: please comment…) But I think it’s important to maintain some skepticism. For example, Sacks seems to be arguing that we can infer a certain mindset based on language—that, for example, the lack of vowels in written Ancient Hebrew means that its speakers were big picture rather than piecemeal thinkers. Here’s a good reminder that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about what a language reveals about beliefs.

Aside from Jonathan Sacks, the pod has several other segments, most of them related either to Modern Hebrew or to the Bible:

Nina Porzucki profiles the Hebrew Language Academy, a charter school in Brooklyn, NY.

Matthew Bell takes a tour of Tel Aviv’s Occupy-like tent city, with its Hebrew (and occasional English and Arabic) signs and slogans.

Michael Erard, author of the forthcoming Babel No More, talks about 19th century Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and his policing of erroneous translations of the Bible.

British philosopher A. C. Grayling and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London Giles Fraser debate Grayling’s secular re-imagining of the Bible, The Good Book.

Finally, a conversation with ethnomusicologist Heather MacLachlan. She’s just written a book called Burma’s Pop Music Industry. Particularly popular in Burma are well-known Western songs that sound almost identical to the originals—except they are sung in Burmese with totally different lyrics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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