Hebrew as a living language

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary, Edited by Nakdimon Shabbeitai Doniach and Ahuvia Kahane, Oxford University Press in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Pounds 40

Julia Neuberger on a treasury of ancient and modern words. This is a delicious dictionary for a variety of reasons. It is decidedly unpompous - the introduction makes it clear that the compilation has more to do with modern Hebrew as a living language, continuously evolving and introducing foreign loan words, than with the purist tradition of the Israeli Academy of the Hebrew Language.

The editors even make it clear, as if the reader would have thought otherwise, that "OEHD does not . . . have a policy of rejecting the official neologisms of the Israeli Academy of the Hebrew Language as such". Nevertheless, they frequently omit them. Instead, they include common usage in Israel and give guidance as to whether the older form, of Hebrew origins, or the newer "import", is more common.

The imports themselves are fun to scan - what should grammatically be "avsurdi" "absurd" in Hebrew remains "absurdi", as "tilpen le . . ." when often common usage has recognised the loan origins and uses "tilfen le . . .". There is still considerable variation in Israel, which makes it difficult to contain all usages and grammatical inexactitudes. But the dictionary makes clear the English usage from which it translates - American, English, colloquial, formal, legal, and so on, which is extremely helpful to the casual user.

The dictionary uses common Israeli construction even when it is grammatically incorrect, something few other lexicographers would have done in an earlier age. For instance, they cite in the introduction a construction in Hebrew which means "I have", "Yesh li . . .". In grammatically correct Hebrew, the construction would be "Yesh li . . ." plus the noun, "there is to me a cat", for example. But modern Israelis use a particle which indicates the accusative after "Yesh li . . .", quite incorrectly. The editors describe this as a "solecism", which indeed it is. Academic Hebraists wince every time they hear it. But it is the most common form in spoken Hebrew; the correct form is "often regarded by native Hebrew speakers as pompous and anachronistic". They continue: "This is the case even . . . among academic users."

Yet the academic tradition in Israel is very strong, as pressure from the Israeli Academy of the Hebrew Language makes clear. It is only gradually disappearing, but this scholarly and witty work will help it to go with an acknowledgement that modern Hebrew, though not in any sense a "pure" language, is vibrant and living and creating new words for itself.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger is the author of many books, including On Being Jewish (Heinemann)

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