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For Israel’s language czar, reviving Hebrew means bringing it down from the tower

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How do you say “spyware” in Hebrew? Until recently, Hebrew speakers who wanted to talk about the Israeli company NSO and its notorious Pegasus spyware had to rely on the English term, Israelifying it to fit their cadence and pronunciation and tossing it into the torrent of Hebrew vernacular.

A bombshell investigative report in the Calcalist financial daily in January 2022 changed all that. The staggering report claimed that Israel’s police had been using the spyware to illicitly hack into Israelis’ cellphones, including those of senior governmental officials. Advertisement

Police have denied the affair and the report has since come under heavy scrutiny, but it still managed to thrust phone hacking tech into the spotlight. As the spyware story roiled the country, the English loanword fell out of use in favor of a Hebrew word coined 20 years earlier but rarely used: rogla.

For most languages, the idea that a word could be coined but stored away collecting dust for two decades until a need is found for it would be a preposterous inversion of the way vocabularies develop: Generally, old words find new meanings and new words percolate through society until they become popular enough for canonization.

As a revival of an ancient tongue, though, modern Hebrew is unique in being a product less of grassroots innovation than of top-down instruction — first from lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and today from a state-sponsored gatekeeper, the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Rather than wait for teens on the internet to memify a new term into existence or for one to snake its way through the media and society, the academy’s linguists hand down new words from on high, coining them based on research, with input from experts and laypeople.

Sometimes the word fails to catch on in contemporary parlance; sometimes it lies dormant in a dusty corner of academia until some event pushes it into mainstream usage by Hebrew speakers, and sometimes the word catches fire right away. The person in charge of knowing which words are which is Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Next year, Bar-Asher, 82, will mark 30 years as the final word on Hebrew words. During that time, he has helped keep the institute relevant and approachable, with a social media presence that has helped bring in a younger, more diverse audience. That vision is capped with plans for a new home with a museum dedicated to teaching visitors about Ben-Yehuda, widely regarded as the father of modern Hebrew, and the language’s long history. But while the government has endorsed the idea, money for the project remains elusive.

While the work of developing a language can seem incredibly academic and stuffy, its impact can often be felt immediately and in profound ways, providing the country with a linguistic roadmap as it navigates an ever-shifting world.

Bar-Asher recalled a time in the mid-1980s when then-finance minister Moshe Nissim approached him for a word to describe a process ramping up across the country: the transfer of state-owned or common-held businesses or communities into private hands.

“[Nissim] called me and said: ‘I have an interview on the ‘Erev Hadash’ TV show and I’m supposed to talk about the privatization process in Israel. Do you have a word in Hebrew that can introduce our privatization plan?’ I told him, ‘you should use hal’ama and hafrata,” Bar-Asher said, using the Hebrew words for nationalization and privatization, respectively. “Nissim went on TV and for the first time in Israel he used the term hafrata. It caught on immediately.”

As for hal’ama, without much in the way of nationalization, the word fell by the wayside. A 2020 article in Ynet about El Al exploring the option of nationalization used the word, for example, but also included a sidebar explaining what it means.

Moshe Ben Harush was born in 1939 in Ksar es Souk in east-central Morocco, a large town now known as Errachidia. He immigrated to Israel at age 12 in 1951 with other youths, Hebraicized his name to Bar-Asher, and in 1976 received a doctorate in linguistics and biblical studies from Hebrew University.

Since 1993, he has served as president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. That same year he was awarded the Israel Prize in the field of Hebrew language and Jewish languages, one of several prestigious honors he has received for his work researching both lexicography and Mizrahi Jewish culture. He has authored 18 books, and is a professor emeritus at Hebrew University — despite his knit........

© The Times of Israel

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