Epic Quest to Document 'Miracle' of Hebrew Language

September 14, 2017

Source: Israel National News


Gabriel Birnbaum, 66, is a senior researcher helping document and define every Hebrew word ever -- from ancient texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls to the contemporary novels of Israeli literary figures like Amos Oz. It is a mammoth task under way since 1959, and even though a milestone has been reached on the digital project, there are still many years to go. Called the Historical Dictionary Project at Israel's Academy of the Hebrew Language, it will serve as an invaluable resource for scholars, writers and linguists. But it will also act as an anchor for Hebrew, the ancient language revived in spoken form in the 19th century after some 1,700 years. Work completed so far is already available to the public online.


While such historical dictionaries exist for other languages -- perhaps most notably the monumental Oxford English Dictionary -- Hebrew's status may give the project added importance. Earlier incarnations of the language were spoken by ancient Jewish communities where the modern state of Israel is located today. As Jews were forced into exile, Hebrew as a spoken language began to fade, though it remained in use in written form. After some 1,700 years, it was revived in the late 19th century as part of the push by Zionist Jews to resettle in the lands from where their ancestors fled. It is now an official language of Israel and is considered history's sole example of such a dramatic revival.

About 25 people currently work on the project. When it started in 1959, there were only five people, said Birnbaum, and they used an early form of computer for the work. Most of the ancient manuscripts and inscriptions are located outside Israel, requiring researchers early on to rely on photostats. More recently, images of many are online, including the Gezer calendar, considered by some to be the oldest known Hebrew writing, dating to the 10th century BC. All ancient literature will be included because examples are relatively few, but for later eras, representative samples are chosen.

Some 50,000 entries are already included along with linguistic analysis, and definitions began to be written in 2005 -- a milestone for the project.

Read more here.

Updated: Sep. 27, 2017