Language of the Hebrew man

Celebrating Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s 157th birthday with Hebrew Language Day

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, credited with helping modernize the Hebrew language, at his desk in Jerusalem in 1912. (Shlomo Narinsky, first published 1918 in Jerusalem, via Wikimedia Commons)
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, credited with helping modernize the Hebrew language, at his desk in Jerusalem in 1912. (Shlomo Narinsky, first published 1918 in Jerusalem, via Wikimedia Commons)

If it’s January 12, it must be Hebrew Language Day, organized by the dedicated linguists at Hebrew University’s Academy of the Hebrew Language.

The day — which is stretched out for the entire week — is an opportunity to think about the Hebrew language, its vocabulary, idioms and turns of phrase.

“It’s a real event for us,” said Tzipi Senderov, who handles press relations for the academy.

Besides a four-day conference on language — which is not organized by the academy — being held in Rishon Lezion, in which the academy’s scientific secretary Ronit Gadish will receive the Prime Minister’s Award for the Fostering and Preservation of the Hebrew Language, the academy wants to engage the public, and get them thinking about Hebrew.

To that end, they set up a questionnaire for people to send in their favorite Hebrew words; a stamp in honor of the Hebrew language; and the opportunity for Hebrew speakers to ask questions, via their website, about the etymology and history of any Hebrew term.

A new stamp about Hebrew in honor of National Hebrew Day (Courtesy Academy of Hebrew Language)
A new stamp about Hebrew in honor of  Hebrew Language Day (photo credit: Courtesy Academy of the Hebrew Language)

“We always have people sending in words and stories about Hebrew words,” said Senderov. “We just expanded on that.”

Prior to Hebrew Language Day, some 60 government ministries, nonprofit organizations and private companies asked the academy to guide them in finding new terms for foreign words commonly used in Hebrew, explained Senderov.

Tech blog Geektime got “chevrat heznek” as an alternative to saying “start-up” with an Israeli accent, while Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s Initiative for Social Change, asked for a term for “wellness,” and was told to use “shlomut” and “zulatanut” for altruism.

The academy offered “tamli,” with the letter “aleph” on the end, for a pastry chef who wanted another word for “pie,” those pastry shells filled with fruit or vegetables. And a landscape artist received the words “deshonet” for compost and “madshan” for composter.

Senderov made it clear that the academy isn’t always trying to get rid of foreign terminology in the Hebrew language. “But it’s good to have local terms,” she added.

That said, the academy does like to emphasize use of proper terms for school-age children, as shown in a series of YouTube videos made at the start of the school year.

In one of the 34-second videos, viewers were reminded of the word “mehikon,” or “white-out,” for the gluey, white correction fluid used to cover an incorrect word written on paper. The term generally used is “Tipp-ex,” for one of the brands commonly available in local stores.

Never mind that most kids, accustomed to the backspace or delete keys on their computers, won’t even be using much white-out in the future. For now, they’re still carrying it in their “kalmar,” or pencil case, from the Greek “kalamarion,” which once meant “reed” or “reed pen,” a word used in the Talmud.

Want more? Linguists and linguist wannabes can hear more about the Hebrew language — and language in general — at Lashon Rishon 8, the Prime Minister’s Conference on Hebrew Language, being held this week in Rishon Lezion.

The conference is in honor of the 157th birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, considered the father of the modern Hebrew language, who taught in Rishon Lezion, the second settlement established in Palestine in the 19th century.

Besides sessions about the connections between Hebrew and Arabic, or the challenges in finding a feminist footing in the Hebrew language, there will be writers and poets speaking about Hebrew, as well as exhibits — on Hebrew and its development — in local galleries and museums.

For more information, go to the Rishon Lezion website.

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