Hapax Legomenon – a Riddle

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From Biblical to Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda (7 January 1858 – 16 December 1922) is considered to be the father of modern Hebrew.

Ben Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Luzhki, Lithuania. He attended cheder where he studied Hebrew from the age of three. By the age of twelve, he had read large portions of the Torah, Mishna, and Talmud. His parents hoped he would become a rabbi and therefore sent him to a yeshiva. There, he continued to study ancient Hebrew and was also exposed to the Haskalah movement, including secular writings. Later, he learned French, German, and Russian.

Witnessing national movements towards independence in various European countries, and envisioning the Jews as a nation like the Bulgarians, Greeks and Italians, Ben-Yehuda became determined to help create a nation where the Jews could adopt Hebrew as their national language.

He moved Jerusalem in 1881 and immediately put his plan of Hebrew revival into action. He left behind his birth name and with his wife, Deborah Jonas, created the first Modern Hebrew-speaking household and raised the first modern Hebrew-speaking child, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda.

The Committee of the Hebrew Language (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language) was created by Ben-Yehuda as a means of furthering the development of Hebrew. Ben Yehuda recorded older Hebrew usage in Biblical writings and the Talmud as well as in more recent printed works.

A linguistic purist, Ben-Yehuda insisted that Modern Hebrew should coin new words (neologisms) based on ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and, where necessary, Arabic. In other words, he suggested that Hebrew should retain a strictly Semitic structure. This resulted in his sixteen-volume dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis, some of which were published posthumously.

Of him, the historian Cecil Roth wrote: ‘Before Ben-Yehuda… Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.’

Today’s modern Hebrew vocabulary reflects Ben-Yehuda’s work:

– Numerous words are similar to the Biblical words, both in meaning and spelling. For instance the word אוֹר (or) still means light. About 80% of Modern Hebrew is based on biblical Hebrew.
– Some words still exist but their meaning has evolved. For example בא (ba), used to be translated as both ‘to come’ and ‘to enter’, now it only means ‘to come’.
– New words were coined using existing roots. Thus the verb ייצא (yitze) – to export – was derived from יצא (yatza) – to go out.
– Finally sometimes Hebrew resorts to hapax legomena to create a word for a new object or concept.

What is a hapax legomenon? Can you provide an example of such a Hebrew word?

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10 thoughts on “Hapax Legomenon – a Riddle

    • Well, I had read about it and rememberedd the principle but would have been incapable of giving the name if I had not re-read about it this morning. Do you think you give us another example beside electricity, which is also the one I came across?

      • One example I found is the word “shablul.” The only Biblical source is Psalms 58:9, where it’s usually translated as “snail.” In modern Hebrew, “shablul” can mean either “snail” or “spiral.”

  1. I don’t remember the Greek term, but I vaguely remember this is how they came up with some modern Hebrew. And somehow I remembered that electricity was one of them. Sure, enough, when I Google, I found: “Perhaps the best example of such a ‘hapax legomenon’ is חַשְׁמַל, found in the book of Ezekiel. “

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