Birth of a Word

Hebrew word and hevrew letterOne of the Academy’s more prominent committees deals with the creation of new words for general use. Unlike terms associated with specific professions, the initiative for coining general words tends to come from the public, who seek Hebrew alternatives for foreign words that are commonly used in everyday speech. It is difficult to form a rule determining when borrowed foreign terms should remain and when they should be replaced by Hebrew terms. This decision is dependent on how rooted the term already is in everyday speech, whether it is easily pronounceable for Hebrew speakers, whether the term also generates verbs and adjectives, its value as a cultural phenomenon (such as the names of foods), and, of course, whether a Hebrew alternative would be convenient, catchy, and appropriate.

Requests for Hebrew terms often are accompanied by a specific suggestion for a Hebrew word.

If it is decided that a Hebrew alternative is necessary, the committee first turns to existing Hebrew sources for a solution. Many words are “recycled” from the past, sometimes with a slight change in their original meaning. For example, the Hebrew term for “open air museum” uses the word katur to express “open air;” it occurs in the book of Ezekiel and may have dealt with enclosed courts. Most new Hebrew words are built in the usual manner, i.e., with a root (shoresh) and pattern (mishkal). In this way, existent Hebrew roots can be manipulated into new meanings, such as hedbek for the French word “collage”, which is instantaneously recognizable for those familiar with other words based on the root d-b-k (to glue).

One of the more intriguing questions for the Academy and for the general public, is the extent to which new terms are picked up by the public, and whether it is possible to know ahead of time whether a word will enter the mainstream. It appears that one indication is the ease with which the root of the word is perceived and understood; however, it is a challenge to determine objective standards for measuring popularity. In many cases, the quick absorption of a word is dependent upon the mass media, but professionals can aid in a word’s “catchiness” if they include them in their lexicons. More than one hundred years of experience in creating new terms shows that occasionally a word may catch on only after a decade or more. For example, the word “information” (meda) was created in 1959 as a psychological term, and only entered more common usage in the 1990s.

Hebrew Word vs. Foreign Word

Time and again we are asked why the Academy has not created Hebrew replacements for words such as mapletechnologia (“technology”), televizia (“television”), autobus (“bus”), and, of course, akademia (“academy”). Anyone who looks at the dictionaries of the Academy of the Hebrew Language will find many other foreign words such as elektronika (“electronics”), meteorologia (“meteorology”), psychologia (“psychology”).

Like the establishment of new words, it is challenging to determine when to retain a borrowed foreign term or replace it with a Hebrew word. There is also the basic ideological question: Should one aspire to replace every foreign word with a Hebrew alternative?

There are those who believe that we should question that the Academy has chosen to not propose alternatives to various foreign words. For these people, it is imperative for the Academy to find Hebrew alternatives to strengthen the status of Hebrew and its independence. On the other hand, there are those who champion the absorption of foreign words into Hebrew; they believe it is beneficial to connect Hebrew speakers to the global culture. Those scooterwho believe the latter believe that hundreds of words in Hebrew have already been borrowed -in earlier periods from other places, beginning in biblical times, such as the originally Akkadian ikkar (“farmer”) and hechal (“palace”). In rabbinic times Hebrew borrowed many words from Greek, Latin and Aramaic, e.g., partsuf (“face”), Sanhedrin (“council of leaders”), sandal (“sandál”), kirkas (“circus”) and ilan (“tree”). In the Middle Ages, under the influence of Arabic, we find words such as merkaz (“center”) and  ofek (“horizon”).training-suit

Balance is important to the process of deciding whether to create a Hebrew alternative or use an adapted foreign word. The Academy seeks the middle ground: each term is discussed individually and the decision whether to create a new Hebrew term is made accordingly.

Hebrew Language Stamp

The Israeli Philatelic Society and the Academy of the Hebrew Language have joined forces in issuing a new stamp dedicated to the Hebrew language.

The Israeli government has decided to honor the Hebrew language by issuing a stamp that highlights the uniqueness of Hebrew: its continued existence – even after it ceased to be a widely spoken language, the treasures that were added to its vocabulary throughout the ages, and its revival as the everyday language of Israel.
Designed by David Ben-Hador, the stamp’s focus is a luxuriant seedling whose leaves spell the word “Ivrit.” Nurturing the seedling’s roots are the different historical strata of Hebrew, and each root contains rows of words from these strata: biblical Hebrew, rabbinic Hebrew literature, medieval Hebrew works, and Modern Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew provides the most basic words, such as adam (man), yom (day) and mafteah (key), as well as many abstract terms such as ahavah (brotherhood), deror (liberty), and emet (truth). It is represented on the stamp by an ostracon dating from the 7th century BCE and inscribed in ancient Hebrew script. The seedling’s root that derives from it (third from left) features the words: mishpaha (family), ahava (brotherhood), nefesh (soul, spirit), mafteah (key), tsedek (justice), merkava (chariot), deror (liberty), kazav (untruth), ra’am (thunder) and kefir (lion cub).

Mishnaic Hebrew added an abundance of synonyms such as Ilan (tree), Hazar (Shabbat), and also words that were not known from the Bible such as Keveret and Gesher. Quite a bit of this abundance was drawn from contact with Aramaic. The Mishnaic Hebrew  is represented on the stamp by a parchment scroll featuring a Mishnaic passage, reflecting the Hebrew that was spoken in Eretz Israel in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The seedling’s root that draws on this level of the language (represented by the parchment) rises to the right of the biblical root and features the words: keneset (assembly, parliament), ilan (tree), gesher (bridge), tinok (child, baby), lakoah (customer), kavveret (beehive) and hotem (nose).

From Medieval Hebrew we inherited abstract words such as eichut (quality), as well as several terms borrowed directly from Arabic, such as ta’arikh (date)New words created in Medieval Hebrew poetry are also in use in Modern Hebrew, such as ma’as (action, deed) and mivhan (test).
Hebrew is represented on the stamp by bound codices with bindings typical of the period. The root rising out of them (second from left) features the words: eichut (quality), kammut (quantity), shlemut (completeness), ta’arich (date), ofek </em (horizon), koter (diameter), lachan (melody), hashva’a (comparison) and mivchan (test).


Modern Period – Hebrew has faced the ongoing challenge of adapting to modernity while trying to preserve the ancient spirit of the language starting with the re-emergence of modern Hebrew literature in the mid-18th century onward, and especially since Hebrew’s revival as a spoken tongue in the early 20th century. New terms to accommodate modern society and technology had to be wrested from old roots and paradigms. Some of these innovations were created by individuals on their own initiative, while others originated from institutions – the Hebrew Language Committee and its successor, the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Modern Hebrew is represented on the stamp by a computer keyboard, today’s alternative to the book. The roots deriving from it (on the far left and right) feature new words: havaya (experience), hamtsan (oxygen), misron (text message, SMS), adivut (courtesy), monit (taxi), mahshev (computer), taklitor (CD), midgannim (cereals),mir’ash (sensation), nevita (germination) – the word that appears on the stem.


The phrase at the bottom of the stamp, “Ancient Language in a New Reality,” was coined by Professor Ze’ev Ben-Hayim, a prominent Hebrew linguist and one of the founders of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, serving as its president from 1973 to 1980. This phrase is taken from the title of his 1953 article, in which he discussed the special character of Modern Hebrew. According to Ben-Hayim, “the unique characteristic of Hebrew is not changes in meanings of words (as is typical of every language)… but rather its uniqueness lies in the fact that nothing was lost… thus our language has… multiple layers alongside each another and not atop one another as in the case of other languages that have continued to exist over time”. The Modern Hebrew language is forever a work in progress, a vigorous new idiom growing out of ancient roots.

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