No. 2882:
Eliezer Ben Yehuda

Today, the revival of an ancient language. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

Robinson Crusoe, Bulgarian nationalism, and Daniel Deronda seem to have little in common. Strange as it may sound, the influence of these three things led indirectly to the revival of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language.

The father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, was born Eliezer Perlman in the Russian Empire in 1858. Beginning at age three, he was educated in the traditional way: rote memorization of basic Jewish texts, the Torah and Talmud. Ben Yehuda's life was radically transformed when a beloved teacher gave him a Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe. He later wrote that from that moment, "the fire of love for the Hebrew language burned within me."

Ben Yehuda working

Not long after, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in order to liberate Bulgaria. Ben Yehuda was impressed by the creation of the Bulgarian nation and dreamed of a similar national revival for world Jewry. Around this time Ben Yehuda read a Russian translation of George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, in which a main character advocates for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Together, these three disparate events led to a metamorphosis. Ben Yehuda emerged from the chrysalis of his youth committed to Zionism and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken tongue. In 1881 he moved to Palestine to begin his grand experiment. For nearly two thousand years, Hebrew had been the language of Jewish prayer and liturgy. But with a few exceptions, Hebrew had not been spoken since the fourth century. It lacked words for the basics of modern life: ice cream, bicycle, handkerchief.

Yehuda working on dictionary

First, Ben Yehuda began to compile a dictionary of this new-old language, including both ancient vocabulary and words that he himself created. As he worked, Ben Yehuda realized that he had no simple way to refer to his own project. So he coined a concise word for dictionary, milon, to replace the cumbersome sefer milim, meaning "book of words." Even as I write, there is a small red book on my desk with the word milon on its cover. 

dictionary cover

Ben Yehuda also practiced what he preached, committing his family to the cause. When his first son was born in 1882, Ben Yehuda ensured that the child would be the first native speaker of Hebrew. His sickly wife had no household help for fear that the boy would overhear another language. Itamar Ben-Avi, Ben Yehuda's son, wrote later that his father would not let him listen to "the chirping of the birds and the neighing of horses, the braying of donkeys and the fluttering of butterflies, because even they are, after all, foreign languages."

Eliezer Ben Yehuda died of tuberculosis in 1922, but the dream he dreamt lives on in the homes and on the streets of the state of Israel, where people shop, chat, and argue in the language he helped to shape.

I'm Melissa Weininger, for the University of Houston, and interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. A Dream Come True, trans. T. Muraoka, ed. George Mandel (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).

Jack Fellman, The Revival of a Classical Tongue: Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1973).

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Revival of Hebrew web biography

This episode first aired on May 10, 2013.