When Should Foreign Words Be Replaced By Hebrew Words?

Time and again we are asked why the Academy didn’t create Hebrew replacements for words such as technologia (“technology”), televizia (“television”), autobus (“bus”), and, of course, akademia (“academy”). Anyone who takes a look in the dictionaries of the Academy of the Hebrew Language will find many other foreign words such as elektronika(“electronics”), meteorologia (“meteorology”), psychologia (“psychology”). 

It is difficult to form a rule as to when borrowed foreign terms should remain and when they should be replaced by Hebrew terms. Such a decision is affected by how rooted the term is already in everyday speech, whether it is easily pronounceable for Hebrew speakers, whether the term also generates verbs and adjectives, how much it is a cultural phenomenon (such as the names of foods), and, of course, whether a Hebrew alternative would be convenient, catchy and appropriate. 

Alongside these concerns is also the basic ideological question: Should one aspire to replace every foreign word with a Hebrew alternative? There are some who say yes, among them those who protest that the Academy has not proposed alternatives to foreign words. For these people it is imperative for the Academy to find Hebrew alternatives in order to strengthen the status of Hebrew and its independence. On the other hand, there are those who are not upset by the absorption of foreign words into Hebrew; indeed, they claim it is a positive step since these are words that connect Hebrew speakers to the global culture. Those who follow the latter approach base their outlook on the hundreds of words Hebrew has borrowed in earlier periods from neighboring countries, 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”).

Balance is important to the process of deciding whether or not to create a Hebrew alternative, for it is jarring to have too many foreign words or jargon in a written or oral “Hebrew” text. The Academy seeks the middle ground: each term is discussed individually and the decision whether or not to create a new Hebrew term is made according to the factors discussed above.

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