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The process of Hebrew's return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a natural language without any native speakers subsequently acquiring several million such native speakers, and no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language with millions of "first language" speakers.
The language's revival eventually brought linguistic additions with it. While the initial leaders of the process insisted they were only continuing "from the place where [Hebrew's] vitality was ended", what was created represented a broader basis of language acceptance; it includes characteristics derived from all periods of Hebrew language, as well as from the non-Hebrew languages used by the long-established European, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, with Yiddish (the European variant) being predominant.
The existence of Hebrew is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period (lasting to c. 70 CE), after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. (From about the 6th century BCE until the Middle Ages, many Jews spoke the related Semitic Aramaic language.) From the 2nd century CE until the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language circa 1880, Hebrew was employed as a literary and official language and the language of prayer. Ever since the spoken usage of Mishnaic Hebrew ended in the 2nd century CE, Hebrew had not been spoken as a mother tongue.
Even so, during the Middle Ages, the language was used by Jews in a wide variety of disciplines. This usage kept alive a substantial portion of the traits characteristic of Hebrew. First and foremost, Classical Hebrew was preserved in full through well-recognized sources, chiefly the Tanakh (especially those portions used liturgically like the Torah, Haftarot, Megilot, and the Book of Psalms) and the Mishnah. Apart from these, Hebrew was known through hymns, prayers, midrashim, and the like.
During the Middle Ages, Hebrew was used as a written language in Rabbinical literature, including in judgments of Halakha, Responsa, and books of meditation. In most cases, certainly in the base of Hebrew's revival, 18th- and 19th-century Europe, the use of Hebrew was not at all natural, but heavy in flowery language and quotations, non-grammatical forms, and mixing-in of other languages, especially Aramaic.
Hebrew was used not only in written form but also as an articulated language, in synagogues and in batei midrash. Thus, Hebrew phonology and the pronunciation of vowels and consonants were preserved. Despite this, in the region the influence of foreign tongues caused many changes, leading to the development of different forms of pronunciation.
The linguistic situation against which the background the revival process occurred was one of diglossia, when two languages—one of prestige and class and another of the masses—exist within one culture. In Europe, this phenomenon has waned, starting with English in the 16th century, but there were still differences between spoken street language and written language... In Europe, the situation mirrored that of the general population, but with Yiddish as the spoken language, the language of the broader culture (depending on the country) used for secular speech and writing, and Hebrew for liturgical purposes. In the Arab Middle East, Ladino and Colloquial Arabic were the spoken languages most prevalent in Jewish communities (with Ladino more prevalent in the Mediterranean and Arabic, Aramaic, Kurdish, and Persian more widely spoken by Jews in the East), while Classical Arabic was used for secular writing, and Hebrew used for religious purposes (though some Jewish scholars from the Arab world, such as Maimonedes, wrote primarily in Arabic).
A preceding process to the revival of literary Hebrew took place during the Haskalah, the Jewish movement paralleling the secular Enlightenment. Members of this movement, called maskilim, who sought to distance themselves from Rabbinic Judaism, decided that Hebrew, specifically Biblical Hebrew, was deserving of fine literature.
The revival of spoken Hebrew can be separated into three stages, which are concurrent with (1) the First Aliyah, (2) the Second Aliyah, and (3) the British Mandate Period. In the first period, the activity centered on Hebrew schools in the Settlements and in Ben Yehuda's club; in the second period, Hebrew was used in assembly meetings and public activities; and in the third period, it became the language used by the Yishuv, the Jewish population during the Mandate Period, for general purposes. At this stage, Hebrew possessed both spoken and written forms, and its importance was reflected in the official status of Hebrew during the British Mandate. All of the stages were characterized by the establishment of many organizations that took an active and ideological part in Hebrew activities. This resulted in the establishment of Hebrew high schools (????????), the Hebrew University, the Jewish Legion, the Histadrut labor organization, and in Tel Aviv - the first Hebrew city.
Throughout all periods, Hebrew signified for both its proponents and detractors the antithesis of Yiddish. Against the exilic Yiddish language stood revived Hebrew, the language of Zionism, of grassroots pioneers, and above all, of the transformation of the Jews into a Hebrew nation with its own land. Yiddish was degradingly referred to as a jargon, and its speakers encountered harsh opposition.
Nonetheless, Ghil'ad Zuckermann believes that "Yiddish is a primary contributor to Israeli Hebrew because it was the mother tongue of the vast majority of language revivalists and first pioneers in Eretz Yisrael at the crucial period of the beginning of Israeli Hebrew". According to Zuckermann, although the revivalists wished to speak Hebrew with Semitic grammar and pronunciation, they could not avoid the Ashkenazi mindset arising from their European background.
Send comments to email@example.com, Colby Glass, MLIS, Professor Emeritus