What’s Happening to the Holy Tongue?

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Day by day, modern Hebrew is enriched by the vocabulary of many languages, but particularly by English, the world’s “international language.” Hebrew picks up hundreds of English words each year. Such borrowings from English, written in Hebrew letters, feel Hebrew to most Israelis. Usually, Hebrew speakers are not aware that such loan words did not originate in Hebrew.

Day by day, modern Hebrew is enriched by the vocabulary of many languages, but particularly by English, the world’s “international language.” Hebrew picks up hundreds of English words each year. Such borrowings from English, written in Hebrew letters, feel Hebrew to most Israelis. Usually, Hebrew speakers are not aware that such loan words did not originate in Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew is being anglicized. A close friend and I, both native Americans and fluent in Hebrew, often bemoan the erosion of Hebrew by English. The ultimate insult came two weeks ago, a few days before Israel’s Independence Day, which fell this year on April 29th. On the side of an Egged (public) bus passing through Jerusalem, my friend saw an ad for packaged meat. (Israelis do a huge amount of barbecuing on Independence Day—in forests and national parks, in private courtyards and on patios.) The bus ad used the word לברבק (levarbek; to barbecue). Being somewhat Hebrew-language purists, and loathing to see the language of the prophets defiled in this way, we were aghast. Hebrew speakers had done it again! They had created a new verb from the English word “barbecue”!

English speakers who live in Israel are reminded regularly of the inroads English is making in Hebrew. Witnessing modern Hebrew’s rapid absorption of English words allows us to better understand the presence of large numbers of Greek words in first-century Hebrew. The lingua franca of Jesus’ day, Koine Greek, strongly impacted rabbinic Hebrew, also referred to as middle Hebrew. Of course, a linguist would not be surprised by this phenomenon, since it is the completely natural outcome of two languages rubbing shoulders. The language borrowing is especially great when one of the languages is the international language of the day.

Words Modern Hebrew Has Borrowed from English

Here are a few examples of modern Hebrew words that are derived from English (examples taken from Ruvik Rosenthal, Dictionary of Israeli Slang [Jerusalem: Keter Books; 2005], 394, 419]):

Leisure and Entertainment
הפנינג (hepeneeng) a happening
פארטי (partee) party
רייב (rayve) rave
מועדון נייט (mo’adon nait) nightclub
סולד אאוט (soled aout) sold out
פול האוס (ful haus) full house
פרפורמנס (performens) performance
פרפורמר (performer) performer
שואו ביזנס (sho biznes) show business
טייק (teyk) a take
טריילר (trayler) trailer

Communications, News and Advertising
אייטם (aitem) item
גימיק (geemeek) gimmick
טאלנט (tahlent) talent
טיזר (teezer) teaser
טראפיק (trahfeek) traffic
לופ (lup) loop
נון איוונט (non eevent) non-event
סיטקום (seetkom) sitcom
סלוגן (slowgahn) slogan
פיילוט (pailot) pilot (as in “pilot project”)
פילר (feeler) filler
פרומו (promo) promo
פריים טיים (praim taim) prime time
ריאליטי (reeahleetee) reality (as in “reality program”)
רייטינג (rayteeng) rating

English words are borrowed by Hebrew speakers for various reasons, such as the lack of a particular nuance of meaning in Hebrew, or the lack of a term needed in the world of the 21st century (cf. détente, which English speakers borrowed from French around 1908). The Hebrew of the third century B.C. to the third century A.D. absorbed thousands of Greek words. These words were, of course, written in Hebrew letters, and often pronounced slightly differently by Hebrew speakers—Hebrew did not have all the sounds found in the Greek language (and vice versa). “Even indispensable terms of daily life are loanwords, such as ‘air,’ ‘sandal,’ ‘tome,’ ‘collar,’ ‘sum,’ ‘salary,’ ‘mint,’ ‘nausea,’ ‘diarrhea,’ ‘character,’ ‘person,’ ‘type,’ et al.…alongside basic religious terms: Sanhedrin, bimahafikoman, ‘angel’ (Targum), kairos, ‘mystery,’ ‘blasphemy,’ et al.” (Encyclopaedia Judaica [Jerusalem: Keter, 1972], 7:886).

Words Middle Hebrew Borrowed from Greek

Here are a handful of examples from the thousands of rabbinic Hebrew words that were borrowed from Greek in the first centuries B.C.-A.D. when Greek influence was so pervasive among Hebrew speakers living in the land of Israel:

בלני (balane) — βαλανεῖον (valaneion; bathhouse)
טריקלין (t’reekleen) — τρίκλινος (triklinos; dinning room)
קברניט (kaverneet) — κυβερνήτης (kyvernetes; helmsman, pilot, captain)
פטרה (petra) — πέτρα (petra; bedrock; craig)
פטרוס (petros) — πέτρος (petros; stone, rock)
מורוס (moros) — μωρός (moros; fool)
אנגריה (angaryah) — ἀνάγκη (ananke; forced labor)
איפופודין (eepopodeen) — ὑποπόδιον (hypopodion; footstool)
פינקס (peenahks) — πίναξ (pinahks; tablet, especially the folded writing tablet)
אגרונימוס (agroneemos) — ἀγοράνομος (ahgorahnomos; market commissioner)
אפיטרופוס (apeetropos) — ἐπίτροπος (epitropos; court-appointed administrator or guardian)
פולמוס (pulmus) — πόλεμος (polemos; war)
פוליפוס (poleepos) — πολύπους (polypous; nasal tumor; polyp)
בולבטס (bulvetes) — βουλευτής (voulevtes; council member)
בולי (bule) — βουλή (voule; senate; city council)
קטיגור (kategor) — κατήγορος (kategoros; accuser; public prosecutor)
סניגור (sanegor) — συνήγορος (synegoros; advocate; defense attorney)
אפימליטיס (apeemeletes) — ἐπιμελητής (epimeletes; manager; commissioner)
אוקיינוס (ohkyanos) — ὠκεανός (okeanos; ocean)
אגורה (ahgorah) — ἀγορά (agora; marketplace)
אויר (ahveer) — ἀήρ (aer; air)
אתליטיס (atletes) — ἀθλητής (athletes; athlete)
אפותיקי (ahpoteke) — ἀποθήκη (apotheke; storehouse; barn)
תמליון or תמליוס (t’melyon or t’melyos) — θεμέλιος or θεμέλιον (themelion; foundation)
ערבון (eyrahvon) — ἀρραβών (arravon; pledge, ernest, security)
אסתר (ester) — ἀστήρ (aster; bright star)
אסטרולוגוס (astrologos) — ἀστρολόγος (astrologos; astronomer; astrologer)


What’s happening to the Holy Language today? The same thing that was happening to it in the time of Jesus—night and day it is absorbing words from the world’s dominant international language of communication.

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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