Israel is a young state defining its own culture with a strong commitment to reviving the language of Hebrew for the modern world.
In Israel a deep rooted sense of nationalism is evident in their compulsory national army service for both men and women, exceptions only being made in the case of conscientious objectors amongst Orthodox Jews. An ethos of hard work and dedication to their country applies equally to the language a people speak on a daily basis.
The revival of Hebrew as a modern language started in the late nineteenth century with Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement. According to one commentator there existed
The determination to revive the Hebrew language as part of the revival of the Jewish culture, in its own country.
Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, advocated for the establishment of a Jewish state. But when it came into existence they found that the lack of a common language was one of the biggest challenges they faced.
Professor Chaim Rabin is a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language explains that as Hebrew represents a shared history for Jews, it was the best fit for a modern language of a Jewish state, even if many people had to learn it from scratch.
It’s the only language which fits our culture exactly.
What motivated and continues to motivate people to adopt a new language? You have to give people a reason to speak it, says linguist, philosopher and mathematician Yehoshua Bar-Hillel,
You have to...motivate the people to be interested in using your language to convey an idea.
The Hebrew revivalist movement however, faced opposition from Orthodox Jews, who maintained that language used for worship was too sacred to be adopted as a lingua franca.
Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews, was widely spoken in most countries with Jewish populations at the turn of the twentieth century, and it was also put forward as a potential common language. At the end of the day however the diversity of nationalities in the state of Israel meant that
The only language they could all agree on was Hebrew which besides was the language of religion, the language of the nation, the language of the great past.
Even in the very early days, as former Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion explains, the will to learn a common language was strong, as the most committed Yiddish speakers came around eventually,
After the First World War, when they came, they already knew Hebrew, and then little by little it became a spoken language.
The Academy of the Hebrew Language ensures that modern Hebrew keeps pace with the rest of the world. It standardizes the language, finding and translating new words and terms, sets the official linguistic standards and publishes dictionaries.
Often criticised for not reacting fast enough to foreign words, its work is necessary for the language to survive and thrive, and is ultimately for the common good, says Professor Rabin. He believes the organisation's work is,
One of the things which has given Israel its bounce and its peculiar feeling of sharing everything.
This episode of ‘Watch Your Language’ was broadcast on 27 January 1970. The reporter is Jim Sherwin.