Hapax Legomenon – a Riddle


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?

Tips for Language Learning on One’s Own


Have a goal. You feel you want to start learning a language or improve one you learned but fear you can’t remember. However if you just fancy learning a language without really knowing why, your enthusiasm will probably soon disappear. Learning a language is not very hard but it takes a little time.There are all sorts of good reasons to learn a language: a trip abroad, a book you want to read or a series you want to watch in the original version, family history you want to investigate… What is yours?

Find your own method. Remember how the way you revised for exams was different from the way your friends did, this still holds true. Try to imagine yourself working – with a book, on the computer, with your mp3 player – and find a method that suits your style.

Search the Internet. Whatever the method you have settled on, do some research before you spend your money. You will need to know the strong and weak points of the method you have set your eyes upon. Read what other people think of a language book on online bookstores and search inside the book if you can, visit the local university bookseller and talk with the shop assistants, type key words and see what people have written on forums. Some websites have a few free lessons before you are asked to pay, try them.

Take advantage of free language learning tools. There are lots of them on the web. They may not all be great but they are free. Here is a short list.

Set a specific time for your lessons. Don’t think you will work when you have the time, you may never start. Ten minutes a day is easier to find and much more effective than an hour once a week. Set this time for yourself and keep to it.

Get a dictionary. Whether you prefer a paper version or a smart phone app (some are quite cheap and good), you need a dictionary. You may also find it useful to have a small notepad where you write the vocabulary you acquire and which you can use as a revising tool every now and again.

Vary the sources. Once you start making progress, try to broaden the way you learn by incorporating authentic documents in your learning process. Follow a recipe in your target language, watch movies, read articles online, play vocabulary games…

Good luck!

Sign Language for Babies


It is the second time in three days that I have heard about sign language for babies: a FB friend mentioned a baby she has in care learning the sign for “more”; the other was a colleague who teaches History and Geography in German in a special program we have in my school and who has taught her son a few signs.

I therefore googled some key-words and found numerous articles related to babies and sign language. The main idea is that a child can sign before she can speak and is thus able to express herself at an early age in a few key situations.

One of the advantages of sign language is that it reduces the frustration linked to the inability for a very young child to express himself. Fewer tears and tantrums certainly can’t hurt a child-parent relationship.

In addition, it seems that by developping this skill, a child develops other skills and in the end talks more and more fluently than his peers.

Specialists recommand starting with easy and common words such as milk, more, eat, sleep and saying them at the same time. Once the child starts using them, add more words.

More on this topic:
Signing with your baby
Signing Babies
Sign Language – Start Baby Signing: Five Simple Steps

Hebrew Quiz II


The Maters Lectionis or in Hebrew imot kri’ah, in other words the letters mentioned in yesterday’s quiz – א ה ו י – were added before the Masoretes produced the Masoretic text – the authoritative Hebrew text of the Torah including its vocalization and accentuation.

When they added the diacritical notes – the little dots and signs which indicate the vowel sounds – why didn’t the Masoretes do away with א ה ו י? In other words they could have deleted the Mater Lectionis as they now had the vowel sounds expressed twice in a single syllable.

For instance, if you take a simple and well-known word: תּוֹרָה (Torah). The sound o is expressed both by the holam (the dot) and the vav while the ha sound is expressed twice thanks to the kamatz (the little sign) and the he.

Question 2:
Why did the Masoretes keep the Maters Lectionis?

Hebrew Quiz I


In an attempt to encourage myself with my Biblical Hebrew lessons, I have decided to start a Hebrew quiz.

Note that the course I am using is targeted at linguists and therefore combines easy notions with more complex ones.

Question 1:
What do the following letters have in common?
א ה ו י

Do not hesitate to elaborate.