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Academy of the Hebrew Language

ACADEMY OF THE HEBREW LANGUAGE, Israeli institution that is the supreme authority on the Hebrew language. Established by the Knesset in accordance with the "Law for the Supreme Institute for the Hebrew Language, 1953," it succeeded the Hebrew Language Committee (Va'ad ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit) inaugurated in Jerusalem in 1890. In 1889 a group calling itself "Safah Berurah" had been formed, with the object of "spreading the Hebrew language and speech among people in all walks of life." This group elected the Committee, the first members of which were Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, David *Yellin, R. Ḥayyim *Hirschenson, and A.M. *Luncz. Initially the Committee devoted itself to establishing Hebrew terms needed for daily use and to creating a uniform pronunciation for Hebrew speech to replace the then current variety of pronunciations. After only one year of existence, organizational problems disrupted the Committee's activities, but in 1903 at the Teachers' Conference in Zikhron Ya'akov, it was reconvened with an enlarged membership, and thereafter held regular monthly meetings.

In Principles of the Committee's Activities, drafted by Ben-Yehuda, its purpose was declared to be: (1) "To prepare the Hebrew language for use as a spoken language in all facets of life – in the home, school, public life, business, industry, fine arts, and in the sciences." (2) "To preserve the Oriental qualities of the language and its distinctive form, in the pronunciation of the consonants, in word structure and in style, and to add the flexibility necessary to enable it fully to express contemporary human thought."

The sources used by the Committee were Hebrew literary vocabulary of all periods; Aramaic, provided it was given Hebrew forms; Hebrew roots from which new forms could develop; and Semitic roots, especially Arabic. Non-Semitic words found in the sources were used only if they already had a Hebrew form or had been absorbed into the language and were in common use.

Scientific problems of linguistic principle were discussed in the Zikhronot ("Records of the Committee on Language"). In 1912, the Committee was recognized by the Teachers' Organization and the Committee for the Propagation of Hebrew as "the final authority in authorizing and choosing new words." In a lecture given at the convention of the Organization for Hebrew Language and Culture in Vienna in 1913 (published in Zikhronot, 4 (1914)), David Yellin defined the Committee as not merely a factory for new words, as its opponents alleged, but the highest authority for all matters of language, encouraging the coordinated work of all Hebrew linguists and writers. At the 11th Zionist Congress (1913), M. Ussishkin proposed a resolution authorizing the Committee "to serve as the center of the renaissance and development of the Hebrew language" and urging the Zionist General Council to give it the necessary moral aid and material assistance. After World War I, the beginning of the British Mandate and the Jewish National Home, Hebrew became an official language in Palestine. The Committee, which had been largely inactive during the war, now felt an obligation to expand the program of the Language Committee far beyond its previous range. Practical linguistics and the supply of new words were to be increased, and it engaged in language research, intended to lay the scientific foundations for the practical work.

With an increased membership, the Committee met frequently, establishing and publishing professional terminology. To prepare for the establishment of the Haifa Technion and the Hebrew University, as well as to facilitate the development of trade and industry, work in the various subjects was divided among subcommittees, consisting of members of the Committee and experts in the particular field. These met in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, referring their findings to other specialists in the field as well as to all members of the Language Committee. After final approval, lists were published in the Hebrew Language Committee's quarterly, Leshonenu, or in a special dictionary.

The Sephardi pronunciation was established as the standard for spoken Hebrew and instruction in the schools. Rules of spelling were established: grammatical when the writing was vocalized and "full" (plene) in unvocalized writing. Rules of punctuation were determined, and doubtful matters of grammar clarified. While developments in technology and the sciences forced the committees on terminology to include many non-Semitic words in the Hebrew dictionary, the formation of verbs from foreign words was deliberately restricted because, while nouns are easily assimilated into Hebrew, verbs are not. Nevertheless, the formation of verbs such as טַלְפֵּן (talpen, "telephone") and גַּלְוֵן (galven, "galvanize") proved unavoidable. Grammatical nouns encountered certain scholarly and practical obstacles: the establishment of spelling rules was long delayed by disputes between adherents of biblical spelling and those of the "full" spelling current in post-biblical literature.

The law adopted by the Knesset in 1953 established the Academy and defined its function as the "development of Hebrew, based on the study of the language in its various periods and branches." The maximum number of members is 23. Well-known scholars in various fields of Jewish and Hebrew studies were appointed as members of the Academy, together with practicing writers, and a number of advisory and honorary members were invited to join them. N.H. Tur-Sinai was chosen to be president of the Academy, a position he held until 1973. Subsequent presidents were Ze'ev Ben Ḥayyim (1973–1981), Joshua *Blau (1981–1988), and Moshe Bar-Asher (1988– ).

The supreme body within the Academy is the plenum, to which linguistic problems discussed in the various committees are referred for final discussion and approval. The plenum meets five or six times a year. The committees on terminology hold weekly or biweekly meetings attended by at least two members from the Academy as well as by specialists in the areas under discussion. Scientific secretaries assemble the available linguistic material in each area, which is then checked against literary sources and decisions already taken in other areas. After discussion, the secretary collates the material and transmits it to all Academy members and to further specialists in the field, who are entitled to comment on, or take issue with, the committee's findings. The material is finally presented to the plenum for discussion, authorization, and publication, either in the Zikhronot ha-Akademyah or in the series of technical dictionaries, originally instituted by the Hebrew Language Committee. Among dictionaries published in recent years are those on electronics, chemistry, molecular biology, psychology, library science, diplomacy, medicine, and home economics. Committees on terminology are at work in the fields of banking, law, sociology, nomenclature of plants, and artificial intelligence. The Haifa office for technical terminology is a joint body of the Academy and the Technion. Committees on grammar and spelling follow a similar work pattern, but since the problems in this area are complex, there are usually greater differences of opinion and theory, centering, as a rule, on the conflict between the dictates of historical grammar and those of living speech and practical teaching. Language forms created outside the Academy, whether originating in foreign influence, in slang, or in the language of children, also demand a clear decision by the Academy.

A practical problem over which the Academy, in common with its predecessor, has labored for many years, is the determining of Hebrew spelling. Hebrew writing is mostly consonantal, the vowels being represented by vocalization signs. This spelling, inadequate in the past, is even more so in the present, since the vowels are rarely indicated either in script or in print. The spelling used in the past generations, which substitutes matres lectionis for vowels, is incomplete (although it is called "full"), lacks uniformity, and is not universally accepted. The rules for unvocalized spelling, established by the Hebrew Language Committee, were never generally accepted and various systems have been retained. In 1968, after prolonged debate, the Academy decided to maintain two modes of spelling: one vocalized according to all the established grammatical rules, the other an unvocalized spelling in accordance with the rules of the Hebrew Language Committee. A related question is how to transliterate Hebrew into Latin letters in such a way that the non-Hebrew reader is able to pronounce the name as it is said in Hebrew, and after much discussion, a system was approved. In addition, rules have been determined for the transliteration of foreign names into Hebrew as well as for transliteration from Arabic into Hebrew. Rules have also been established for vocalization of foreign words. New rules for Hebrew punctuation were approved in 1993. The Academy assists public bodies requiring linguistic guidance, such as the National Committee on Names, scientific projects, the state broadcasting system, etc.

Academy decisions are published either as technical dictionaries, in lists of terms, or as collections of rules in the annual Zikhronot ha-Akademyah la-Lashon ha-Ivrit. A special project of the Academy is the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, begun in 1954 by an editorial board headed by Z. Ben-Ḥayyim, planned to include all Hebrew words and their uses from the earliest sources until the present. Preparatory work on material from tannaitic literature, the Talmud, and Midrash has been completed. Work continues on readying ancient piyyut, geonic, Karaite, and North African literature, and modern Hebrew literature (dating from 1750). The historical dictionary project is fully computerized and applies programs especially adapted to the dictionary's requirements. In 1994 the Academy established the "Masie Institute" to bring the Academy closer to the public and for research into the history of the revival of Hebrew in Israel and the Diaspora from its earliest stages to the establishment of the State of Israel. The publications of the Committee and of the Academy are Zikhronot for the years 1920–28, vol. 5 edited by J. Klausner, vol. 6 by S. Ben-Zion, D. Yellin, and A. Ẓifroni. Afterwards the committee decisions were published in Leshonenu (see below) up to 1954. Then, when the Academy was established, a new series of Zikhronot was commenced under the name of Zikhronot ha-Akademia la-Lashon ha-Ivrit: vols. 1–2 (1954–55), 3–4 (1956–57), 5 (1958), 6 (1959), 7–8 (1960–61), 9 (1962), 10–11 (1963–64), 12 (1965), 13 (1966), 14 (1967), 15 (1968), 16 (1969), 17 (1970), 18 (1971), 19–20 (1972–73), and 21–24 (1974–77) of the new series were probably edited by Meir Medan, but no name of an editor is specified; vols. 25–27 (1978–80), 28–30 (1981–83) and 31–34 (1984–87) were edited by Y. Yannai; 35–37 (1988–90) by Y. Yannai and J. Ofer; 38–40 (1991–93) and 41–43 (1994–96) by J. Ofer; and vol. 44–46 (1997–99) by D. Barak. Leshonenu, a quarterly, was edited by A. Ẓifroni (1929–34, five volumes) and N.H. Torczyner (Tur-Sinai) from 1934 to 1954. These continued under the auspices of the Academy and were edited by Z. Ben-Ḥayyim from 1955 to 1965, by E. Kutscher from 1965 to 1971, by S. Abramson from 1972 to 1980, by Y. Blau from 1981 to 1999, and from 2000 by M. Bar-Asher. Leshonenu la-Am, popular pamphlets on matters of language, consist of six pamphlets edited by A. Avrunin, M. Ezraḥi, and I. Pereẓ (and more regularly from 1949 to date, a few pamphlets a year). There is also a series of technical dictionaries. The Academy's lexical innovations used to be disseminated among the public through Lemad Leshonkha ("Learn Your Language") pages published bimonthly, and since 1989 in the framework of a regular newsletter called Aqaddem. Among the most important recent publications are the Ma'agarim cd which includes all the sources of the ancient period, the critical edition of the Talmud Yerushalmi according to the Leiden MS, and the second part of Sefer ha-Mekorot (the Book of Sources) for the North African Hebrew literature from 1391 to date (1,941 pages).


Ben-Ḥayyim, in: Ariel, 13 (1966), 14–20 (Eng.); Zikhronot Va'ad ha-Lashon (ha-Ivrit), 1–3 (1912–13; second printing in one volume, 1929); 4 (1914); 5 (1921); 6 (1928); Yellin, in: Leshonenu, 10 (1940), 269–77; Klausner, ibid., 278–89; 16 (1949), 250–67; 18 (1953), 227–38; Zikhronot ha-Akademyah la-Lashon ha-Ivrit, 46 vols. (1954–99); S. Eisenstadt, Sefatenu ha-Ivrit ha-Ḥayyah (1967); Ben-Ḥayyim, in: Leshonenu, 23 (1959), 102–23; for bibliography see Leshonenu, index vol. for vols. 1–25 (1967), 70–72.