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Spectra and Corpora of a New Mother Tongue

The Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Library
Keren Gitai
Traduction de Judith Grumbach
Cet article est une traduction de :
Spectres et corpus d’une nouvelle langue maternelle


An everyday secular language whose basis is spiritual, cultural and religious, Hebrew, assesses the genesis of a contemporary mother tongue. How is a new mother tongue formed? Are there, in this specific language of verbal transmission between generations, versions, attempts, explorations or experiments, which could trace this process? The study of multifaceted Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, figure of the "resurrection" of Hebrew, as well as the study of the corpus of his personal library, allow us to explore the essential place of the text in the Hebraic mother tongue.

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"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. […] In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue."
Karl Marx,
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

1How is a new mother tongue formed? Are there, in this specific language of verbal transmission between generations, versions, attempts, explorations or experiments, which could trace this process? What are its fundamental components and how can a hierarchy be found? How can it be structured?

  • 1 E. Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, t. 1, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, p. 20-21.
  • 2 F. de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale, Paris, Payot, (1913) 1995, p. 317.

2Linguistic science has of course looked at Hebrew as a case study. According to Saussure, this field of study tends "not to include any theoretical or historical presupposition to its portrayal and to analyze the language in its proper formal basis." Thus, "descriptively, linguistic science attaches equal interest to all types of written or non-written languages and it must adapt its methods to it."1 In the positive sciences, the answer that the linguistics offer to the questions concerning the beginnings of a language is a methodical approach that answers the imperative of the famous sentence that ends Saussure's Course in General Linguistics where basically, the analysis of the language is inevitably reflexive: "linguistic science has as its sole and true aim the language in itself and for itself."2

  • 3 One can clearly see that these terms are problematic. The term "spoken Hebrew" for example, ignores (...)

3Several approaches analyze the elements and the origin of Hebrew through morphological, syntactical, phonetical and lexical characteristics, which vary with the typological study. There is quite a hodgepodge within the terms that are used in the scientific field and in the field of linguistic science, especially: modern Hebrew, new Hebrew, living Hebrew, contemporary Hebrew, Hebrew today, Israeli Hebrew, Sabra Hebrew, our Hebrew, Hebrew spoken today or just plain the "Israeli"3 (that has the advantage of having gotten out of this qualificative deadlock). This absence of consensus regarding the nomenclature of Hebrew shows that this language must still be identified and that it is still difficult to characterize it: is this the language that was spoken in the past by the ancestors of the land of Israel, before their exile? Or rather, is it on the contrary, a perfectly new language? Is this a matter of a birth, strictly speaking, or rather a "revival", such as the Hebrew designers perceived it, in the sense of a "resurrection," as a "messianic" one, of a bygone age?

  • 4 The first thesis relates to the discourse of philology or historical comparative linguistics of the (...)
  • 5 The linguist A. Bar Adon is one of the first to compare Hebrew to Creole languages, which emerged f (...)
  • 6 According to Y. Kutscher: "The Hebrew writers were sometimes unconsciously influenced in the use of (...)
  • 7 Since the 20's, voices have been raised in order to question the Semitic characteristic of Hebrew b (...)

4Essentially, it seems to be possible to classify the different linguistic approaches according to three paradigmatic models. The first model, Hebrew – Semitic language, which has been adopted by the majority of linguists, extending the Zionist ideology, considers Hebrew in its historical and linguistic unity. It grants the Hebrew constituent, which would be the principal source of the language, a paramount place.4 The second model that reflects the hybridity of the Hebrew language, in particular regarding the theories on Pidgin, Koine or the creolization of the language, concentrates on a hexarchy of synchronic and diachronic aspects of the language. This approach of HebrewSemitic-European language5 emphasizes in particular the influence of the native speakers' mother tongues – and specifically, the unconscious substrate of Yiddish.6 According to this theory, Hebrew would be a genetically Semitic and typologically European language. Finally, the third model, which is considered radical7, categorically rejects the connection of Hebrew with Semitic languages by asserting that it is a Yiddish dialect.

  • 8 Cf. H. Rosen, "Unconscious Innovations in the Language", Leshonenu La’am, t. 11, p. 17-21.
  • 9 See above footnote 5.
  • 10 The term "schizoid" appears in particular in the psychopathological fields of schizophrenia and aut (...)

5Although they have offered fundamental explanations, the linguists confined themselves to describing the composition of the language. The metaphoric use of terms evolve from other disciplines, i.e., archeology ("adstratum" – that for Rosen8 represents Yiddish in Hebrew), psychology ("subconscious"9) or even more strikingly, psychiatry ("schizoid"10), thus asserting the intuition that extra-linguistic phenomena might occur as a mental event – yet, this is still vague and rather non-conclusive. Furthermore, the purpose of linguistic science is not to analyze the individual or collective phenomena, the mental mechanisms that occur with the historical development of a mother tongue. Therefore, it doesn't appear improper to broaden the scope of research in this context.

6Generally speaking, there is no language without words and in the case of Hebrew, there would be no language without text. When a mother tongue descends from texts, why should we then study the language beyond these texts and beyond their common existence? Why should we avoid the textual source, the primary source in the creation of the mother tongue?

7A short study of the different faces of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the key figure of the "resurrection" of Hebrew as well as of the particular corpus of his personal library, will allow us to explore the role of the text in the emergence of the Hebrew mother tongue.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the resurrection of Hebrew? Do the "non-fools err"11?

  • 11 After having theorized on the concept of the Name of the Father in 1953, at the beginning of the 70 (...)

8To "revive", to "rekindle", a "dead" language, a language that has started "living": so many terms used in order to refer to the "miracle" of the "resurrection" of the Hebrew language. They are the identity of the spectrum's "appearance", of the paradox revival of the here and now of yore. By becoming reality, the language will belong to another world, to the next world, a scission and collision of two temporal dimensions. By not dealing anymore with the question of a rejected language, these terms will then raise another question, i.e., the attribution of this historical development to a person or to a group of individuals.

  • 12 Eliezer Isaac Perlman Elianov (1858 Luzhky, Lithuania – 1922 Jerusalem) is considered the main figu (...)
  • 13 In Hebrew, it concerns people participating mainly in the literary field (writers, poets, journalis (...)

9There are numerous portraits of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda12 and they often take the shape of the "founding father", his son being the "first speaker" of the Hebrew mother tongue. Amongst those who are considered to be the "restorers" of the Hebrew language13, he is regarded as the prominent figure of the History of Hebrew. More precisely, his name is attached to what is being called the "rebirth" of Hebrew and its appearance as the new mother tongue of the 19th century.

  • 14 G. Haddad, La renaissance de l’hébreu, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1998, p. 44.

10The name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda evokes spectral illustrations. Born Perlman, it is only at the moment of the publication of his article The Burning Question in 1879 that he uses for the first time the pseudonym Ben-Yehuda, which will become his patronym. The explanations of this name's origin differ quite a bit. First, this name calls to mind the last territory on which the Jews lived and where the Hebrew language had still been a living language: the kingdom of Judea ("Yehuda"). Further, Ben-Yehuda literally means in Hebrew "son of Yehuda." Ben-Yehuda's father, whose name was Yehuda, died when the son was not even 5 years old. In his introduction to the translation of Ben-Yehuda's memoirs, the psychoanalyst Gerard Haddad allocates a psychoanalytical meaning to repeating the name of his father by remarking that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's acrostic is avi (in Hebrew "my father") and by bringing about an anamnesis of the Hebrew mother tongue. Yet, we will still make a few reservations on the over-determination of the phenomena of the name change to the "father's name" in terms of symptoms, describing the so-called "reverse psychosis," meaning that the a priori mechanisms characterize the psychosis – the creation of neologism, the transformation of sense and use of the divine's language into the secular one – and thus allowing a healing. With its precarious foundations, Hebrew would have avoided its debarment. According to Haddad "before Ben-Yehuda, Hebrew resembled the collective Grundsprache of the entire Jewish people who had been living in a collective encysted psychosis for centuries."14 The analogy and the comparison between Hebrew and the psychotic language of President Schreber do not seem to give a plausible explanation on the mechanism of this supposedly underlying psychosis, of which the entire Jewish people would be attained and of which Ben-Yehuda would be the liberator.

11The above-mentioned hypotheses aim at explaining the choice of Ben-Yehuda's patronym. Yet, even though he was born Eliezer Isaac Elianov Perlman and he had thus kept his original first name, there could be another meaning to the name, which he had chosen. The name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is indeed also the name of a homonymous rabbi and this name was probably framed by Ben-Yehuda himself in his own Talmud.

12This rabbi – who is often recognized as Elazar Ben-Yehuda – is hardly ever cited in the texts and only a few things are known about him, mainly that he belonged to the Tannaim. This group of rabbis, who participated in the compilation of legal texts and in the establishment of an ethical code during the first two centuries of our era, was deeply marked by two major historical events, of which the first is the loss of the religious center and the second the loss of the political entity: the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AC and the capitulation of Bar Kokhba's revolt in the year 135. The Tannaim, as their name shows (literally "teaching" and "oral passing on"), tried to pass on the teachers' words that had been conveyed orally after this profound shakeup in the Jewish society. This codification of customs and laws would last until the 2nd century and would be called the Mishna.

13Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's substantial lexicographical work of the dictionary of the Hebrew language aimed to list all the revived words in the entire textual Hebrew corpus through quoting texts; this perfectly coincidences with the aim to reiterate and transmit the teachers' words. The connection to this Tanna allows us to discover another facet of Ben-Yehuda, thus granting him a place in the lineage of great authors of Hebrew texts, i.e., of a scriptural interpreter.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda usually used black ink. This document formed a part of his personal library and thus, it is likely that it was the author himself who had framed the quote of his homonym in the text (Talmud of Babylon, Treaty of Hullin, 55,2).

The Academy of the Hebrew Language of Jerusalem

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's library: The archeology of a mother tongue

  • 15 The first volume of the dictionary appeared in 1908 in Berlin. Only five volumes were published dur (...)
  • 16 Jack Fellman, The Revival of a Classical Tongue: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew Language, (...)

14To compose his Dictionary of the Ancient and Modern Hebrew Language15, Ben-Yehuda had to collate and collect almost 40,000 books and 500,000 quotations.16

  • 17 Reuven Mirkin briefly alludes to it in his article “La lexicographie hébraïque au XXe siècle. Premi (...)

15Today, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's personal library is kept among the walls of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem. This library includes almost 1,000 pieces of work, whose origins and dates of arrival can hardly be listed. Generally speaking and as far as we are aware, this library has never been the subject of a study and only a very few works refer to this corpus.17 This research study represents a preliminary analysis.

16The selection of this library covers the entire literary stratum of Hebrew: biblical, Talmudic, medieval and modern. Yet, works concerning Semitic languages, as for example Armenian, Arabic, etc., or European languages, like German, French, English, are also found there. Yiddish and Russian are rather excluded (although they are the languages that Ben-Yehuda had spoken in his youth).

17While looking for information on the dictionary, I started researching this library. Out of curiosity, I was leafing through one of the works when, almost by chance, I discovered original colored distinguishing marks. In the beginning I thought they were only simple scrabbles but then, I noticed that the work appeared in the dictionary's bibliography. After checking the matter, I found out that it was not an isolated phenomenon and an important number of these words, which were marked in the pieces of works, appeared in the dictionary.

  • 18 My translation of the memoirs of Hemda Ben-Yehuda, The War with Satan, manuscript kept in the Zioni (...)
  • 19 Op. cit., my translation.

18This allows me to maintain more conclusively that these distinguishing marks were possibly made by Ben-Yehuda himself – a hypothesis supported by a passage in the memoirs of his second wife, Hemda, which have not been published yet and which relate to the dictionary's make-up: "Our four hands do not suffice anymore to copy out the essentials and the old librarian Cohen started to holler that Ben-Yehuda impaired all books of his library with his markings and notes in all colors on each page."18 This gives us information on the methodology, which was used by her husband, in order to isolate and organize the elements of this corpus. This part of Ben-Yehuda's work resembles archeological excavations. With blue, red and purple pencils, yet also with black ink, Ben-Yehuda extracted from the texts the words that would constitute his dictionary, thus gathering the entire stratum of the Hebrew language. For, "the teachers and lecturers need words, the writers too, the winemakers and the peasants, the artisans, the small shopkeepers, the cooks (…) and if they have none available, they will not speak Hebrew!"19 But on which criteria is the choice of considered words and their classification completed? Which place does the interpretation of the texts occupy in order to "revive" a word in the language?

The method: the language's analysis

19Ben-Yehuda's method answers an archeological logic of the language. The language's corpus is firstly material, textual. The summa of all these language layers generates Hebrew that becomes the meeting place among the various literary styles, which maintain the productive intertextual relationships, a permanent contact with the cultures of the Diaspora and the precedent texts that become the substratum of a spoken language. The incorporation of a different textual corpus allows the "implementation of the language."

  • 20 My translation.

20Anastylosis is an archeological term, referring to the reconstruction of an edifice in ruins, primarily with elements that were found on the location. It corresponds exactly with Ben-Yehuda's work. He states the following in his introduction to the Dictionary of the Hebrew Language: "I had been working for many years on my research of the Hebrew language and I collected materials and bricks in order to put together a general dictionary"20. Ben-Yehuda did thus find bricks on the location: the words. How will he organize them?

  • 21 The Talmud of Babylon was written between the 3rd century and the middle of the 7th century.

21Let us take the example of an excerpt of the Covenant of Easter (Talmud of Babylon21) that was studied by Ben-Yehuda (see below picture). Ben-Yehuda distinguishes between two groups of words: some are marked in blue, some in red. Let us continue with the hypothesis that these colors have a meaning. The first explanation that seems plausible to me for the organization of these "bricks" is the classification according to their grammatical nature. Yet, after verifying the matter (by comparing the books of the library and the dictionary), I noticed that the words marked with different colored pencils do not distinguish the verbs from the nouns, articles, etc. and that Ben-Yehuda did not carry out any grammatical analysis. He categorized the words only into their source and chose his lexical material by marking the words in a particular manner: the colored diagonal mark in red is used for words from the Bible, in blue for the sources of the Mishna and Talmud, and in black for the period after Hazal. This range of colors is called the chromatic spectrum.

The chromatic spectrum

22In the dictionary each word is preceded by a symbol that designates its textual source. Before defining each word in Hebrew, Ben-Yehuda indicates its nature. It is then translated most of the time into three languages: German, French, and English. Finally, Ben-Yehuda quotes the occurrences in chronological order.

23Ben-Yehuda identifies four periods or stratums that he distinguishes by specific symbols. In fact, these symbols will even appear before the words and their word definitions in the dictionary:

  • The Bible: considered as the language's natural source because it doesn't have to be designated by a symbol;

  • The Mishna and the Talmud: marked by a star *;

    • 22 The Hazal era spreads from the end of the Second Temple to the 9th century.
    • 23 The Even Shoshan dictionary identifies these sources according to the same principle: no symbol is (...)

    The era after the Sages (Hazal22), which includes the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, the modern era until the 19th century: marked by a Segol ֶ23;

  • The novelties or neologisms: marked by the paragraph symbol § after a 90° rotation – in order to mark the words that weren't available to represent everyday life (for example, words like “doll”, “envelop”, “socks” or even “politeness”, “boredom”, “identity” were absent from the language).

24In the following excerpts, the words in italic are the translation of the words marked in blue, red and black in the source.

  • 24 Primarily his second wife Hemda, his son Ehud and the first two presidents of the Academy of the He (...)
  • 25 Cf. supra, note 15.

25Even if it can be noticed that Ben-Yehuda's successors at the editorial offices of the dictionary24 follow his impulse, we have chosen to discuss only the words that were published during the lifetime of Ben-Yehuda.25

26I shall proceed to a brief analysis of this chromatic system.

The red color

  • 26 This covenant forms a part of the Talmud of Babylon. As it belongs to the order of the holidays (Se (...)

27In the extract cited in the Covenant of Easter26 (III, 7), the word "non" לאו (pronounced lav) gives some light on the classification of the red marked words; in particular, why certain words marked in red in Ben-Yehuda's books appear in the dictionary with the star symbol, which is usually reserved for the blue color. In the dictionary, at the bottom of the page, referring to the word "non" לאו (lav) that stems from the second archeological layer of the Hebrew language (the Mishna and the Talmud), it is specified that this word originated from the first biblical layer לא (pronounced lo). Thenceforth, the red color indicates not only the purely biblical words but also those that have a biblical root.

  • 27 Covenant that forms a part of the Nezikin order of the Mishna. Written in the second century by Rab (...)

28Let us take now an extract from the Covenant of the Fathers27 (see picture below). The words in italic are those marked in red by Ben-Yehuda in an extract of the second chapter of this covenant:

29Verse 6: "[…] those who trade a lot will not all become sages חכמים […]"

30"When seeing a skull גלגלת float שצפה on the water surface, he tells (him): Since you have drowned, you were drowned and whoever drowns you will himself be drowned."

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