Early Days of the Language Committee

The first attempt at establishing a language committee took place in 1889 when Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, in conjunction with the organization Safa Brura (Clear Speech; its goal was the advancement of Hebrew speech in the Yishuv), established a Jerusalem-based Literature Committee for the collection and publication of Hebrew words. Unfortunately, the Committee was disbanded in 1891 and only 14 years later was the Language Committee established.

The main push for the foundation of the Language Committee in 1905 came from the Union of Teachers in the Land of Israel, which wanted to make Hebrew the language of instruction and common speech in schools. The teachers saw an immediate need for a body to guide language innovations and the creation of new terms for use by the teachers.

In 1905, the Language Committee was formed by Ben-Yehuda, David Yellin (1864-1941, teacher and researcher), Dr. Eliyahu Sapir (1869-1911, teacher), Dr. Aharon Meir Mazia (1858-1930, physician), Yehiel Michal Pines (1843-1913, rabbi and Zionist activist), and the secretary Haim Ariye Zuta (1868-1939, teacher).

The early days were fraught with uncertainty and, in the opinion of the teachers’ union, a too-careful work pace. By 1911, Ahad Ha’am (pen name of Asher Ginsberg, one of the leading Zionists) intervened and attempted to bestow authority over terminology to the Language Committee, but infighting continued.

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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda published several lists of the Language Committee’s terms in his newspapers. From 1912-1928 the public learned of its work through the publication of its minutes, lectures, discussions, and lists of words in the Zikhronot Va’ad HaLashon (the Minutes of the Language Committee). Among the issues discussed were the pronunciation of Modern Hebrew and the principles in establishing new Hebrew terms to replace foreign words. The first published words included lists of plant names, dress, food, furniture, and geography. 

The Language Committee’s activities came to a halt during World War I and began again after the British conquest of the Holy Land. Other members were eventually added to the Language Committee, including educators, authors, and linguists. During this period, the Language Committee discussed the future of the organization and envisioned a place of study, scientific research, and innovation. Soon its name was temporarily changed toMidrash HaLashon (The Language Institute).

The Language Committee began negotiations with the British over the acknowledgement of Hebrew as an official language, alongside the already officially recognized Arabic. During these years, the idea of Hebrew as a common tongue underwent a substantial change in the Yishuv and it was now considered the national language of the Jewish settlement and its institutions. Though the Committee did not receive financial support from the Yishuv leadership, which remained a problem until the formal establishment of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, its scholars aided in answering questions and forming terms for the various Yishuv bodies.

Upon Ben-Yehuda’s death in 1922, the Committee recessed until 1924, when poet Haim Nachman Bialik made aliya and joined the Committee as its new president (alongside Yellin and Mazia). By 1926, the Committee’s efforts bore more fruit and additional scholars were appointed, including editors and journalists, grammarians, researchers, and authors. Various sub-committees were formed in specific fields with grammarians working alongside professionals to create new viable Hebrew terms.

The quarterly publication, Leshonenu, was established in 1928, and many word lists and professional dictionaries were published: some 30,000 terms in 60 professions.

By the 1948 War of Independence, the Language Committee was active in several cities throughout the country and aided in the formation of governmental terms for the burgeoning state. During the war, however, when Jerusalem (the hub of activity) was isolated from the rest of the country, the work of the Language Committee slowed down significantly. The serious defense situation negatively influenced the funding of the Language Committee since it had never been recognized as an official national body and received no financial support apart from a few private donations.