JERUSALEM - It was a dead language, an 8,000-word relic. And as 19th-century Jewish pilgrims began settling the hills and valleys of what would become Israel, the status of Hebrew seemed like that of the crumbling Roman aqueducts strung across the landscape - interesting to study but unfit for restoration.
Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, felt that way, wanting no part of a language that you couldn't even use to buy a train ticket. Use German or English, he said, or both.
That left it up to lingual zealot Eliezer Perlmann, who arrived in Jerusalem from Lithuania in 1882, changed his name to Ben Yehuda and took up the cause of Hebrew. Infusing it with new words and the hot blood of nationalism, he spoke nothing but Hebrew at home while browbeating family and friends to do the same.
In doing so, he and a handful of others helped turn Hebrew into Israel's national language. It seems an inspired act of genius. Without the revival of Hebrew - 50,000 words and growing - many linguists believe Israel would be a society of competing tongues, yet another reason for discord among a people for whom Babel has long been a cautionary tale.
"It was very important because the different Jewish communities who were already in Palestine, especially the older ones, didn't have anything in common except religion," said Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, academic secretary of the Hebrew Language Academy, the official arbiter of the language. "They spoke Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino [a medieval mix of Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic] and didn't intermarry. And, of course, when the new immigrants came, they were all from different cultures and languages. Ben Yehuda understood that and said there would be no revival of the state or homeland without a common language."
Now, said writer Amos Elon in his book "The Israelis," Hebrew is "more than a language. The insistence on its usage reflected a program, an attitude to life, to history, and to society."
After 1,700 years of disuse, revival did not come quickly or without lingering resistance. In ancient times, Hebrew gradually lost out to Aramaic until it virtually disappeared from the region, along with most of the Jews, by around the year 200.
Today, pockets of German immigrants still speak mostly German, read their own newspapers and tune in to German imports on cable TV. Many of the 800,000 Russians who moved && to Israel in the past several years speak Russian first, Hebrew second, if at all. Signs in their communities are in Cyrillic.
Language is another way in which Israel's 1 million Arab citizens are set apart, by the very words from their mouths, although most can speak and read Hebrew.
Great waves of immigration have always challenged the unifying power of the language. The surge of newcomers in the years just before and after statehood meant that by 1954, only 61 percent of the population spoke Hebrew as their first language, down from 75 percent in 1948.
In those days, one occasionally saw signs ordering people not to speak Yiddish. All the while, Hebrew's guardians have kept pumping new words into dictionaries and conversations. The role first fell to the Hebrew Language Council, a creation of Ben Yehuda and friends in 1890.
"For 20 years or so, this experiment wasn't so successful," Birnbaum said. "Most scholars and authors didn't believe that such a thing could succeed, so they ridiculed him quite a bit."
But the skeptics didn't factor in Yehuda's energy and fanaticism.
"Ben Yehuda's wife knew no Hebrew; while still on shipboard he told her that in Palestine they would speak nothing but Hebrew," Elon wrote. "He ruthlessly kept his vow. When his first son, Itamar, was born, he became the first child in centuries to hear only Hebrew from both his parents and almost nothing from anyone else, for he was kept isolated from all human contact lest the purity of his Hebrew be spoiled by alien sounds. ... It was a risky undertaking. The language was still archaic. Many words ,, indispensable in modern intercourse were missing. The child had no playmates; until his third year he remained almost mute and often refused to utter a word."
Yehuda and his allies drew their initial vocabulary from the Talmud, the Old Testament and a few ancient scholarly writings, but even this meager base of 8,000 words didn't always come with clear meanings. So they improvised, working out their own interpretations then growing word roots into other uses. "Milla," for "word," became "millon," for "dictionary."
The Knesset, Hebrew for "parliament," created the Hebrew Language Institute in 1954 to take over the job. Still, there were false starts. "Khozi," meaning "envision," didn't work out as the word for a video because it sounded too much like "khoisik," which means "ridicule." And with everything from Israeli army slang to foreign words, especially English, creeping into everyday Hebrew, the academy's problem today is often the same as it was for Yehuda's associates, Birnbaum said:
"They saw that it was very easy to coin a word. The difficult thing was agreeing that it should be the word. There is an old saying, 'Where there are two Jews, there are three views.'"
One measure of reborn Hebrew's relative youth, as well as Israel's, is that no regional accents have developed in the dTC country, linguists say. Accents are instead based on nationalities - Russian, American, German, Ethiopian, South African.
In an age when Hebrew's almost runic characters skitter across virtually every Israeli billboard and computer screen, no one questions Hebrew's durability any longer. Look on a philological chart subdividing the world's languages and you will find modern Hebrew afloat on a linguistic Dead Sea in the category of Semitic languages, bobbing next to Arabic above sunken tongues such as Assyrian, Babylonian, Moabite, Phoenician, Punic, Ugaritic, Aramaic and Samaritan.
For some such as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, language offers a more powerful engine than religion in driving immigration. Establish a Hebrew school abroad, he said, and in a few years, newcomers begin arriving from there, which is why he advocates paying for an entire network of such institutions.
"I, personally, am a product of such a process," Shamir said. "Almost all of the people who learned with me in this school [in Poland] came here like me, without any special propaganda."
There are times, though, when linguists wonder what might have become of their country if Yehuda and a few like-minded souls had never come ashore.
"One can't rule out that several languages would have been spoken, maybe three or four main ones," Birnbaum said. Maybe German, for instance, as well as its close kin, Yiddish. English, too.
"And maybe Arabic could also have been one of them," Birnbaum said. "What that would have done to the relationship between Israelis and Arabs is also a very interesting question. Whether it would have made it better or worse, no one can say."
Pub Date: 4/26/98