The small, flat building in a remote corner of the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus is almost obscured by towering pine trees, which seem to accentuate the overwhelming quietness of the setting. Inside, it is even quieter. Scholars laden with books pad softly from one room to another, speaking almost in whispers. The whir of computers in soundproof rooms is scarecly audible, giving the place the atmosphere of some sort of ultrasecret nerve center for sophisticated war planning.
But secret it is not, and the only war being fought here is one of words -- about 100,000 of them in Hebrew.
It is the Academy of the Hebrew Language, where for three-quarters of a century scholars have been doing what mankind has never done before -- reviving an ancient written language in the vernacular. And they are doing it against the formidable resistance of pop culture, American slang, snobbism and the ingrained language habits of immigrants from more than 70 countries.
Here, an august body of 23 lexicologists pores over the Bible and the Aramaic treatises of the Talmud for countless hours, searching for words to add to the nationnal language of the 32-year-old Jewish state. Here, too, frustration is felt when a painstakingly chosen word is cavalierly rejected by a fickle public for unfathomable reasons.
Words seem to have luck, some good, some bad, said Shoshana Bahat, the academy's scientific secretary. It often depends on what kind of competition they run up against.
For example, Israelis almost invariably call a bank check by its anglicized name, "check," and ignore the Hebrew word, hamcha , from an ancient verb root meaning "to blot out" or "draw out." Taking it one step further, they pluralize their own choice with the Hebrew plural ending, making it "check-im." That is the stuff that ulcers are made of at the Habrew Academy, which finally adopted "check" as the acceptable word.
When supermarkets began flourishing in Israel, there was no Hebrew word to describe this phenomenon, so "supermarker" filled the void. When the academy came up with the word arkol, or olit for minimarket, the public greeted the innovation with a resounding yawn. "Supermarkets" won out handily.
The academy cleverly came up with the Hebrew word mishusha, as in the feelers of small bugs, for the television antenna. But the public, in effect, told the academy to buzz off. Similarly, "lipstick" has won out over faton, "pajama" over chalifat sheina, "diplomat" over midinai, and "jacket" over miktoren, which is derived from an obsolete verb root for smoking. The vision of a smoking jacket apparently was too much for the lexicographers to resist.
Despite its setbacks in the battle against the language of the street, the academy has had notable successes, creating about a hundred new Hebrew words a year and putting many of them into use through a vigorous public relations and education program. Some of its triumphs over foreign mainstays: delek for gasoline, michonat ktiva for typewriter, mechashev for computer.
Israel's language problem goes back thousands of years toOld Testament times. Hebrew was the spoken language of the Jewish kingdoms, but with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. and the dispersal of the Jews, the language practically became extinct, surviving only in prayers and religious writings.
By the Middle Ages, there were only about 20,000 Hebrew words, but the language was saved with the Haskala Movement 150 years ago, a renaissance in which Hebrew literature was revived but not the spoken language.
The language was so impoverished then that there were not even enough words to enable a writer to express himself. It lacked even the simplest of words such as newspaper, pencil, shirt, and sidewalk. Consequently, Hebrew writers were forced to draw from the Bible complex and awkward phrases. Telescope, for example, would come out "the instrument by which the hyssop that springeth from the wall shall glow like cedar in Labanon."
It was not until Eliezer Perlman, a tubercular Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in 1879 and changed his last name to Ben-Yehuda, tackled the problem that the language began to be reborn. Ben-Yehuda, now a national folk hero, was convinced he was going to die imminently, so he worked virtually around the clock devising new words for the mother tongue of the Jewish state for which he longed. "According to Israeli folklore, Ben-Yehuda once caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby to their baby son. As he raised his hand to strike his wife, Ben-Yehuda heard the frightened child cry out, "abba" (father), his first Hebrew word.
Despite his illness, Ben-Yeshuda lived unntil 1922, forming the Hebrew Language Council (which became the Hebrew Language Academy in 1953) and inventing thousands of words.
Today, Bahat said, new words often originate with professionals and technical specialists, who come to the academy with requests for new terms for the jargon of their trade. For example, Bahat had on her desk a long list of gynecological terms in English that had been given to her by a nurse-midwife. Alongside them, the midwife had written as many Hebrew translations as she knew, and Bahat added the ones she knew.
Such a list then goes to an academy committee members chosen from that specialized field. Papers are presented on each offering in Hebrew, with words originating in old Hebraic sources (often a Biblical word only vaguely associated with the same topic) or a root word. After a word is sent to professionals in the field for comment, it returns to the full academy for formal approval.
But often, word creation does not follow the pat system. Hebrew words sometimes get into the language before the academy has invented one -- simply by people making one up from another root, or by bastardizing it from another language, usually English.
Pop culture and snobbism often play a part, such as when a new commercial complex in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff is where Tel Aviv's women parade, girl-watching in Israel quickly became "dizengoffing."
The problem has become so acute that Knesset member Moshe Shamir, a renowned historian, has introduced a bill to protect the Habrew language from what he calls "jargonization." Shamir's bill would requre advertising, signs, product lables and official correspondence to be in Hebrew.
To promote its new words, the academy turns to television and newspapers, broadcasting and publishing illustrated announcements over and over again, hoping they will sink into the consciousness of the public. Sometimes they do, and sometimes the academy's scholars throw up their hands in despair and give in to popular choice.
The academy has learned, the hard way, that if the public decides the Hebrew word for sparkplugs will be plug-im and not matzatim, then plug-im it will be. Even if Ben-Yehuda turns slightly in his grave.