How was the Hebrew language revived


The death of a language is not the end of its existence. That is why they can be learned, researched, used for specific purposes and, under particularly favorable circumstances, even reanimated in the full sense.

Eliezer Ben-Jehuda is considered to be the father of New Hebrew. © Historical

"Just a pious wish"

The only successful revival of an ancient language to date in the world of languages, namely Hebrew, began in the 19th century. At that time, some Jewish linguists, especially Eliezer Ben-Jehuda, called for Hebrew to be introduced as a colloquial language, at least in the Jerusalem Talmudic schools. This invitation was welcomed, but was seen as a pious wish.

But the wish came true - among other things, benefiting from Ben-Yehuda's emigration to Palestine, his consistent use of Hebrew in his own family and the publication of his general dictionary of the Hebrew language. In addition, there was the fact that more and more Jews immigrated to Palestine with very different mother tongues who could only communicate in Hebrew

As a result, the demand for the reintroduction of Hebrew found more and more supporters. But there were also numerous opponents who were of the opinion that "scientific disciplines cannot be taught in the Hebrew language". The battle over the Hebrew language took place in 1913/14 when German was decided as the language of instruction at the Technion in Haifa.

Today, New Hebrew (Ivrit) is next to Arabic the official language of Israel © in the public domain

From the dead language to the state language

Protests from all over the Jewish world ultimately led to the decision being revised and, when the State of Israel was founded, the new state language already had thousands of native speakers. The Hebrew language was also able to assert itself because, even after its end, it had created an entire philosophical literature with an extremely rich terminology for all terms of the older philosophy. This enabled it to adapt to all the requirements of modern scientific terminology.

Numerous schools and kindergartens, in which "Hebrew in Hebrew language" (Ivrit b-Ivrit) was taught using a new method, certainly also contributed to the success. But the triumphant advance of Hebrew also has a downside: It displaced numerous languages ​​and dialects of Judaism, including the traditional Ladino and many Jewish dialects of Aramaic.

The Isle of Man, off the northwest coast of England, is home to a special form of Gaelic. © NASA / Chris Hadfield

Manx Gaelic as "Lazarus"

Another example of attempted reanimation of a language is Manx Gaelic, which was formerly spoken on the Isle of Man until it died on December 27, 1974 with the last remaining native speaker. While the last speaker was still alive, it was documented with the aim of quickly reviving it after its foreseeable death.

So the same linguists who had been the dying companions of the old Manx were also the obstetricians of the new one. Efforts to improve language skills, especially teaching in kindergartens and schools, have resulted in two percent of the Isle of Man's population claiming to have knowledge of the Manx, including the first new native speakers.

Curiously, the UNESCO declared Manx to be extinct in 2009. Many speakers protested, one school class wrote: “If our language is extinct, what language do we write here?” UNESCO bowed to the evidence and changed the status of Manx to “critically endangered”. The resurrection from the dead means for languages, unlike people, only a preliminary promise of salvation.

Werner Arnold and Gerrit Kloss, University of Heidelberg / Ruperto Carola
As of March 10, 2017

March 10, 2017