Hebrew’s revival has lessons for the Irish language
How a people switched from one common language to a new one is relevant to Ireland
Members of the Hebrew Language Council, 1912. On the right is Lithuanian-born Jewish scholar and leader Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), the father of Modern Hebrew. Photograph: Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images
If there is one thing Irish people know about the revival of Hebrew, it is that its story has no relevance for language policies here. As one scholar put it: “the cases of Hebrew and Irish revival are about as comparable as chalk and cheese… Jewish colonists needed a common tongue since they were of different linguistic backgrounds”.
Hebrew was only revived for practical reasons. The new Israeli state had to find a common language for the polyglot immigrants who arrived there. The desire to revive Irish is entirely ideologically motivated, and therefore incomparable with Hebrew.
This is largely accepted as conventional wisdom in Ireland. Yet it is based on a complete misunderstanding of how and why Hebrew was revived.
Hebrew was the language spoken by the ancient Israelis, but ceased to be anyone’s first language about 200AD. However, it retained a ceremonial use through the ages, and many Jews would have had some familiarity with the language through learning Jewish prayers and reading the Torah.
In the 19th century, a series of anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian empire caused many Jews to flee. Some Jews felt it might be time to create a homeland where Jews could live free of persecution. Beginning in the 1880s, thousands of Jews began migrating to Palestine, a province of the Ottoman Empire.
One was a man named Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who didn’t just want to recreate biblical Israel, but also wanted to restore the ancient Hebrew language. Ben Yehuda and his wife moved to Palestine in 1881. When they had a son in 1882, Ben Yehuda vowed to only speak Hebrew to him. Therefore Itamar Ben-Avi became the first native speaker of Hebrew in almost 2,000 years.
The burdens brought on by this decision are staggering to think about. Ben Yehuda had studied Hebrew for years, so he was reasonably well-prepared for the task, but his wife, Dvora, did not know any Hebrew. Since Eliezer forbade her from speaking any other language, she could only speak to her son in a language she was learning herself. Itamar later recalled a lonely childhood, when his parents would not allow him to speak to other children, fearing he would learn other languages.
Two factors that made the situation even more difficult. Firstly, many Jews who lived in Jerusalem were strictly Orthodox. They believed that Hebrew was a divine language that should not be tarnished by being used for daily life. As such, they were disgusted by Ben Yehuda and his family, and refused to interact with them.
Secondly, Hebrew lacked the vocabulary for day to day use. Ben Yehuda began the task of creating a modern Hebrew dictionary. He had to coin thousands of new words in Hebrew. To do this, he scoured ancient and medieval Hebrew dictionaries, creating either compound words or repurposing old Hebrew words for modern concepts.
Initially, Ben Yehuda’s efforts bore little fruit. While he was successful in making Hebrew the language of his home, he only managed to convince a few other families in Jerusalem to copy his example. But word of his project had spread among the other Jewish communities in Palestine, as well as back to Eastern Europe. Many were astonished at his family’s dedication, and some decided to follow in their footsteps.
But how could a revival of Hebrew be achieved? For Ben Yehuda, the answer was obvious: education. He took a teaching position in a school in 1883 and taught his classes by speaking only Hebrew. This belief in the importance of teaching through Hebrew spread to the immigrant colonies that were springing up around Palestine. By 1903 Hebrew was the language of instruction in almost every colony school.
The revival effort received a boost from a new wave of Jewish immigrants that began to arrive at the turn of the 20th century. Many of them were inspired by Ben Yehuda and were determined to make Hebrew their first language. David Ben Gurion, who would become the first prime minister of Israel, established a youth group to help Jewish teenagers in Poland learn Hebrew before moving to Palestine.
The 1916 census showed that 40 per cent of the Jewish community in Palestine claimed Hebrew as their daily language, with this percentage rising in the ensuing decades. The British government, which took over the management of Palestine after the first World War, made Hebrew, alongside Arabic and English, the official language of the territory in 1922. The revival, to all intents and purposes, was complete.
The decision to revive Hebrew had nothing to do with practicality, because the majority of Jews in Palestine already spoke a common language: Yiddish. Firstly, a small Jewish community existed in Jerusalem before the mass migrations from Russia. An exact figure is impossible to know, but perhaps 70 per cent of the Jewish population in 1870s Jerusalem used Yiddish as their daily language.
Then came a surge of Jewish migration to Palestine. Between 1880 and 1940, just under half a million Jews settled in Palestine. Not all stayed, but enough did to help grow the Jewish population in Palestine to about 475,000 by 1940. All of the evidence suggests that a large majority of these migrants came from eastern Europe or Russia, where Yiddish was the Jewish community language. That at least 60 per cent of the migrants who came to Palestine were Yiddish speakers is quite likely. Jewish Palestine before the formation of Israel was no Tower of Babel.
Given that, one might reasonably ask why Yiddish, and not Hebrew, did not become the national language of Israel. The problem was that Yiddish, a blend of Hebraic, Aramic, Germanic and Slavic elements, developed among Jews after their forced dispersal from the Holy Land. Those who wanted a new Israel did not want to make Yiddish the national language because its existence was a reminder of their expulsion in the first place.
The decision to try and revive Hebrew as the language of Jews living in Palestine was based entirely on ideology, not practicality. Indeed, the earliest efforts to revive Hebrew were disproportionally made by people who already had a common language. Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli linguist, notes that in 1916, 62 per cent of Ashkenazi children and 28.5 per cent of Ashkenazi adults were speaking Hebrew (Yiddish was the language of Ashkenazi Jews), but for Sephardic Jews, (who spoke Ladino, a Jewish language with a heavy Spanish influence), the figures were only 18.3 per cent and 8.4 per cent respectively. Hebrew was mostly being learned by people who already spoke a common language.
When Israel was formed in 1948, it was dedicated to maintaining the Hebrew revival, not kick-starting it. In fact, far from needing to find a common language to unite the refugees moving to Israel, the government was afraid that too many of the newcomers already spoke a language that threatened to wash away the gains Hebrew had made. Once again, that language was Yiddish. Between 1948 and 1953, just under 700,000 Jewish refugees migrated to Israel. The single biggest group (about 45 per cent of the total) came from Yiddish-speaking eastern Europe. The Israeli government was so concerned that Yiddish might undermine Hebrew that it closed down Yiddish theatres and banned Yiddish from radio broadcasts until the 1970s.
There certainly are differences between the case of Hebrew and Irish, but undeniably lessons can be learned. The revival of Hebrew is, at its core, a story of how a group of people switched from one common language to a new one. That is very relevant if one wants to discuss reviving Irish.
Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution by Caoimhín de Barra is published by Currach Press. It is launched on March 15th as part of a panel discussion on reviving the Irish language, including Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, Áine Ní Bhreisleáin, Harry McGee and the author. The event will begin at 1pm at An Siopa Leabhair, 6 Harcourt Street. That evening, the author will give a lecture on “Gaelophobia” at Club na Múinteoirí on Parnell Square at 6.30pm. Both events are free and open to the general public