Museum visitors look at a sculpture made of sand of the 'Tower of Babel,' during the exhibit 'Tales in the Sand' at the Eretz Israel Museum several years ago (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Main image: Museum visitors look at a sculpture made of sand of the 'Tower of Babel,' during the exhibit 'Tales in the Sand' at the Eretz Israel Museum in 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
'For all those 31 centuries the Hebrew language never died'

For Israel’s language czar, reviving Hebrew means bringing it down from the tower

Moshe Bar-Asher has brought the Academy of the Hebrew Language to the street with popular input and viral campaigns. But plans for a new home to crown his vision remain unrealized

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Main image: Museum visitors look at a sculpture made of sand of the 'Tower of Babel,' during the exhibit 'Tales in the Sand' at the Eretz Israel Museum in 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

How do you say “spyware” in Hebrew? Until recently, Hebrew speakers who wanted to talk about the Israeli company NSO and its notorious Pegasus spyware had to rely on the English term, Israelifying it to fit their cadence and pronunciation and tossing it into the torrent of Hebrew vernacular.

A bombshell investigative report in the Calcalist financial daily in January 2022 changed all that. The staggering report claimed that Israel’s police had been using the spyware to illicitly hack into Israelis’ cellphones, including those of senior governmental officials.

Police have denied the affair and the report has since come under heavy scrutiny, but it still managed to thrust phone hacking tech into the spotlight. As the spyware story roiled the country, the English loanword fell out of use in favor of a Hebrew word coined 20 years earlier but rarely used: rogla.

For most languages, the idea that a word could be coined but stored away collecting dust for two decades until a need is found for it would be a preposterous inversion of the way vocabularies develop: Generally, old words find new meanings and new words percolate through society until they become popular enough for canonization.

As a revival of an ancient tongue, though, modern Hebrew is unique in being a product less of grassroots innovation than of top-down instruction — first from lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and today from a state-sponsored gatekeeper, the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Rather than wait for teens on the internet to memify a new term into existence or for one to snake its way through the media and society, the academy’s linguists hand down new words from on high, coining them based on research, with input from experts and laypeople.

Sometimes the word fails to catch on in contemporary parlance; sometimes it lies dormant in a dusty corner of academia until some event pushes it into mainstream usage by Hebrew speakers, and sometimes the word catches fire right away. The person in charge of knowing which words are which is Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Next year, Bar-Asher, 82, will mark 30 years as the final word on Hebrew words. During that time, he has helped keep the institute relevant and approachable, with a social media presence that has helped bring in a younger, more diverse audience. That vision is capped with plans for a new home with a museum dedicated to teaching visitors about Ben-Yehuda, widely regarded as the father of modern Hebrew, and the language’s long history. But while the government has endorsed the idea, money for the project remains elusive.

Moshe Bar-Asher in his office on February 28, 2022. (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

While the work of developing a language can seem incredibly academic and stuffy, its impact can often be felt immediately and in profound ways, providing the country with a linguistic roadmap as it navigates an ever-shifting world.

Bar-Asher recalled a time in the mid-1980s when then-finance minister Moshe Nissim approached him for a word to describe a process ramping up across the country: the transfer of state-owned or common-held businesses or communities into private hands.

Moshe Nissim (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

“[Nissim] called me and said: ‘I have an interview on the ‘Erev Hadash’ TV show and I’m supposed to talk about the privatization process in Israel. Do you have a word in Hebrew that can introduce our privatization plan?’ I told him, ‘you should use hal’ama and hafrata,” Bar-Asher said, using the Hebrew words for nationalization and privatization, respectively. “Nissim went on TV and for the first time in Israel he used the term hafrata. It caught on immediately.”

As for hal’ama, without much in the way of nationalization, the word fell by the wayside. A 2020 article in Ynet about El Al exploring the option of nationalization used the word, for example, but also included a sidebar explaining what it means.

How do you say renew? (חידוש)

Moshe Ben Harush was born in 1939 in Ksar es Souk in east-central Morocco, a large town now known as Errachidia. He immigrated to Israel at age 12 in 1951 with other youths, Hebraicized his name to Bar-Asher, and in 1976 received a doctorate in linguistics and biblical studies from Hebrew University.

Since 1993, he has served as president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. That same year he was awarded the Israel Prize in the field of Hebrew language and Jewish languages, one of several prestigious honors he has received for his work researching both lexicography and Mizrahi Jewish culture. He has authored 18 books, and is a professor emeritus at Hebrew University — despite his knit kippah and Mizrahi heritage making him something of an outlier in Israeli academia, which for decades was dominated by secular Jews of European extraction.

President Reuven Rivlin, right, with Moshe Bar-Asher during an event marking Hebrew Language Day on January 3, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Sitting in his cramped office at the old building of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem recently, Bar-Asher evades a journalist’s attempts to get the academy’s read on a gamut of newer terms: engagement, newsletter, coronavirus, meme, Zoom, whataboutism, blockchain, streaming — all without Hebrew translations.

But coining words is a lifetime of work, not something one recklessly tosses off. Well, maybe to a minister about to go on TV, but not to a journalist.

“We have been waiting more than 3,000 years,” he replied. “Why not wait another year or two for the academy’s professional boards to make a decision on the matter?”

Those boards, which include panels that decide on words or grammar for general usage as well as specialized groups who mull new words or rules for specific professions or fields, form the heart of the academy’s work. Rather than coin totally new words, the academy “renews” them, which helps emphasize the link between ancient forms of Hebrew and the modern version.

Poster blaming the coronavirus pandemic on a lack of modesty among Orthodox women. (National Library of Israel)

Bar-Asher quoted Yechiel Pines, an early Zionist who served on the Hebrew Language Committee over 100 years ago: “‘The beauty of a new word is that it is not new,’ meaning that we often take words that exist in earlier Jewish texts and renew them.”

And sometimes they decide not to renew. Like with coronavirus — or “corona,” as most Hebrew-speakers refer to it. Bar-Asher said the academy briefly considered a Hebrew word, but realized it would probably never catch on after seeing Germans — who coined 1,200 words related to the pandemic alone — refuse to cotton to a German term for the virus.

“We decided it would stay an international word,” he said.

Counter-protesters make noise from their balcony where a banner reading ‘No place for Corona deniers and Nazis’ is fixed during a silent march against measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Berlin on November 22, 2020. (Tobias Schwarz / AFP)

Bar-Asher knows plenty about words that don’t catch on. When the academy landed on a term for jetlag, ya’efet, the author Aharon Megged called to tell him how beautiful the word was, fitting the root consonants for fatigue into a linguistic pattern usually reserved for medical ailments, such as ademet, the word for rubella.

“But I told him, ‘This beautiful innovation won’t be used. Because everyone who travels abroad will use the [English] word ‘jetlag’ and those who don’t travel outside the country don’t need the word. It will be found exclusively in crossword puzzles,” he recalled.

But he knows plenty about words that do stick, too. Today, the Hebrew word for integrity, yoshra, is in wide use, and many do not realize that the academy only came up with the word in 1996. Bar-Asher credits its success to a column by popular Haaretz writer Yoel Marcus shortly after, in which he used the term three times.

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi waves a copy of Haaretz in the Knesset on January 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“First he wrote ‘integrity’ with Hebrew characters and in parentheses he added yoshra. Then 10 lines down he wrote yoshra and in parentheses he added ‘integrity,’ and after another 10 lines he repeated the word again, but this time without a parenthetical. And it caught on.”

How do you say home? (מנווה)

The Academy of the Hebrew Language was established in 1953 out of the existing Hebrew Language Committee, which Ben-Yehuda created in 1890 to help develop the language.

A law that year legislated the creation of the state-supported research body “to direct development of the Hebrew language on the basis of research into the language over time and its branches.”

Today, the academy’s decisions on grammar, spelling, terminology, and transcription are published in the gazette of record for the State of Israel. State institutions such as the army, government bodies, and public media are mandated to adopt the new rules, though on the street a switch from something like linguistika to balshanut can take much longer.

Despite being one of the oldest continuously running institutions in the country, it can sometimes feel like the academy has no home. The organization is run out of two adjacent buildings on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, among the first built by the school when it opened the satellite location in the 1950s.

Illustrative: Students seen at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, October 27, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Academy staff complain that the buildings are dilapidated, too small, and unsuited to their needs. When the academy hosts lectures, seminars or other events, it must rent space elsewhere because its headquarters can’t host a large number of guests.

A decade ago, the government okayed the creation of a new home for the academy, to be built between the National Library and the Bible Lands Museum on Ruppin Road in Jerusalem, a corner of the city that hosts other large national edifices such as the Knesset and the Israel Museum.

Bar-Asher coined a new word in celebration of the academy’s new home: minveh. The word takes a term that evokes both beauty and an abode and aligns it with a linguistic pattern used for physical sites, like an encampment (mahaneh) or lookout post (mizpeh). Once the word was approved, it was decided that it should be used not only for the academy but also for other august institutions.

He envisions the academy’s eventual minveh not only as a cloistered academic center for research into linguistic minutiae, but as a way to reach the public. Plans for the new center call for a museum of the Hebrew language. Exhibitions will explore the over 3,000-year history of written Hebrew,  and will tell the story of the revival of modern Hebrew, starting in the 1880s with the arrival of Ben-Yehuda, according to Bar-Asher.

“I want the museum to the tell the story of the language century by century,” he said. “For all those 31 centuries the Hebrew language never died.”

But after a decade, the academy’s minveh is as much on the shelf as the word rogla used to be. In this case, though, the missing ingredient is money (along with a surplus of municipal red tape).

The new building is slated to cost some NIS 300 million ($93 million), about NIS 100 million ($31 million) less than the new National Library, set to open later this year, or the revamped ANU – Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which reopened last year.

Construction site of the new National Library in Jerusalem on November 11, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The state has so far kicked in NIS 1.2 million ($360,000) and has agreed to contribute as much as NIS 9 million ($2.7 million) for the project. Donors have added another NIS 9 million, leaving the museum just some NIS 280 million shy of the goal.

To get the rest of the way to the goal, the academy is launching a fundraising campaign in Israel and abroad. Despite the high hurdles, Bar-Asher is confident that the funding can be found, citing a recent agreement with the head of the Jewish National Fund to contribute what he calls a “good amount.” The exact figure can’t be published yet, but he said it comes to less than a tenth of what the academy needs.

Nonetheless, Bar-Asher hopes Diaspora Jews will be willing to open their wallets once they understand the importance of establishing a museum and a national research institute for the Hebrew language. It’s an area where he has had success before.

“I remember back in the 80s when I was sent to raise funds in the United States for Hebrew University. Out of 100 people we met, two agreed to donate and it was a sensation. I flew back to Israel with a check in my hand written out for $20 million.”

How do you say viral? (ויראלי)

The museum is part and parcel of Bar-Asher’s larger campaign to make public involvement a cornerstone of the academy. That drive also includes seeking input from laypeople when formulating new words.

“Seventeen years ago I decided that we needed to hear from the wider public on every general word renewed by the academy, as in words that don’t fall under professional jargon. Israel has people who are sixth-generation Hebrew speakers,” he said. “We renew around 200 words a year.”

The public input has helped the academy remain relevant, keeping it on top of shifting attitudes and changing standards. Bar-Asher noted that at a recent meeting of the academy’s committee on words affecting the LGBT community, some 10 members of the community attended and pushed several changes, including discarding the term ach-choreg for step-sibling.

“They say it has a negative connotation,” Bar-Asher recalled. The word choreg can mean to deviate or diverge. Instead, they replaced it with shaluv, or integrated.

“You can say ach-shaluv or just shaluv,” he said. “People have yet to get used to the word, but it’s already appeared in some research articles and editorials.”

The academy has also found surprising success engaging with the public online, largely thanks to its slickly and wittily packaged announcements of new words, grammatical rulings and other linguistic bric-a-brac, usually designed with virality in mind and often timed with news events for extra topicality.

The academy’s Facebook page boasts nearly 350,000 followers, an impressive number considering the stuffy academic subject matter and relative paucity of Hebrew speakers, who total just an estimated 9 million worldwide. For comparison’s sake, the Modern Language Association and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, standard-bearers for American English, have 150,000 and 450,000 followers respectively on Facebook.

A girl browses Captain Underpants in Hebrew during the annual Hebrew Book Week festival, at Sarona, Tel Aviv on June 15, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The academy also has substantial followings on Twitter and Instagram, though not as large, underscoring the challenges it faces in reaching younger people.

According to Naftali Carmon, who runs the academy’s social media pages, some 70% of followers on Instagram are under age 34.

“We also recently opened a TikTok account, with an academy associate uploading short videos with new words and light content,” he told The Times of Israel.

Naftali Carmon on the Hebrew University campus, February 28, 2022. (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

The academy initially geared its social media presence toward educators and linguistic experts, according to Carmon, but about five years ago its leadership made a decision to reach out to a younger, more diverse audience, and social media has led the way.

One recent post featured advice on the correct usage of an idiom for burning the midnight oil, which translates as “working nights as days,” along with a possible explanation of why many Israelis say they work “days as nights” even though it’s “not in order and not logical.” The explanation sits above an illustration of a worker napping at his desk. (Spoiler alert: It’s because they are used to saying day and night and not vice versa.)

עובדים קשה או בקושי עובדים? אנחנו לא שיפוטיים…רק שימו לב שאומרים: "עושים לילות כימים" ולא "ימים כלילות" ‍‍‍…

Posted by ‎האקדמיה ללשון העברית‎ on Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Another shared a picture of the single “Three Girls” from singer Noa Kirel pointing out that she used the masculine form of “three.”

“We saw. No need to keep tagging us,” the academy wrote with faux annoyance.

ראינו, אין צורך להמשיך לתייג אותנו… ????‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍אומרים שלוש, נועה! ????

Posted by ‎האקדמיה ללשון העברית‎ on Monday, June 6, 2022

“The academy’s website has a more earnest outlook, but when we engage on social media, we choose larger fonts, lighter headlines, as we are looking to simplify the linguistic content,” Carmon said.

Among the most popular — or controversial — posts are ones dealing with changes in spelling standardizations, such as simplifications to remove letters once used to denote missing vowels.

“It causes havoc on our Facebook page,” Carmon said. “People cry that it can’t be, because it is different from how their mom taught them to spell.”

Some posts garner thousands of comments — “Israelis take huge pride in their language,” Carmon quipped — and the academy also fields questions from students, teachers and others about new words or correct usage.

But even if some posts don’t get people worked up, Carmon says tying announcements to current events often does the trick and then some.

הינשאי, ספינה, ושוטי –מה רבים הכיסופים;לי נערה יש ושמה רותי,המצפה באלה החופים. ‍‍שתפו ותייגו כל רות וכל רותי שאתם…

Posted by ‎האקדמיה ללשון העברית‎ on Friday, June 17, 2022

“Once a week we put together a linguistic explanation of some trend, or something in the public eye and topical. We try to mix in less-familiar words, punctuation, dialects,” he said.

On June 9, the academy posted online about usage and pronunciation of words related to LGBTQ issues, connecting its work to Pride Month. It also posted an announcement of new words approved by the academy in the field of political science, many of which have their own links to current events.

Among the ideas that are now included in the 3,000-year story of Hebrew: political alignment and de-alignment, ethnicity, nepotism, realpolitik, capitalism, totalitarianism, patriotism, consensus, demagoguery and, at long last, filibuster.

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