The two languages in widest use in Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. English is widely spoken and understood, and Arabic is the daily language and language of instruction for Israel's Arabic citizens. But for Jewish Israelis, who comprise 83% of the country's population, the day-to-day language is Hebrew -- the resurrected language of biblical times. Hebrew has only come to life again as a vehicle for everyday speech during the past 100 years. Although Hebrew ("the tongue of Canaan," according to the Prophet Isaiah) was the language of much of the time period of the Old Testament, it was gradually supplanted after the Babylonian Captivity (586 B.C.) by Aramaic, another Semitic language, which became the lingua franca of the region for the next 500 years. As Jewish history moved into the Diaspora, Jewish communities spoke Greek and Greek koine, Judeo-Persian, Latin and Arabic, Ladino -- the late medieval Spanish of the Jewish community expelled from Spain in 1492 (spoken by many of their descendants to this day) -- and expressive, irony-prone Yiddish, which the Jewish communities of northern Europe maintained and developed as they wandered deeper and deeper into eastern Europe over the centuries.
At the end of the 19th century, as Zionist leaders began to envision a return to Israel of Jews from all parts of the world, they wondered what language should be spoken in a Jewish homeland whose inhabitants' native tongues ranged from Yiddish, Russian, English, and Hungarian to Moroccan Arabic, Argentine Spanish, Urdu, and Uzbekistani. Many important leaders believed the official language of the Jewish homeland should be what at that time was considered the preeminent language of science, culture, music, medicine, and philosophy: in short, German. A handful of Zionists had other ideas.
When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), a Polish-born linguist, came to Jerusalem in 1881, he believed that ancient Hebrew, used mainly as a liturgical language since the 5th century B.C., should be the language of the reborn Zionist vision. He codified Hebrew grammar, wrote the first modern dictionary, and coined words necessary for a modern vocabulary. Ben-Yehuda and his wife, also a linguist, spoke only Hebrew to their son, Itamar, who became the first primarily Hebrew-speaking person in the modern world.
From the initial determination of the Ben-Yehuda family and their friends, the Hebrew language, with its uniqueness and vitality, was brought back to life, changing and growing each day -- the Israeli people's great communal work of art. Modern Hebrew is being stretched by the hour by its Israeli speakers as they take the language and vocabulary of a laconic, pastoral Iron Age civilization and reshape it to the needs of an enormously cosmopolitan, gregarious, heterogeneous society of the 21st century.
Written in its own alphabet, Hebrew must be transliterated into the Latin alphabet for non-Hebrew speakers. The varying ways in which Hebrew names are transliterated is sure to confuse you -- most places seem to have several different names and spellings. Is it Jaffa, Joppa, or Yafo? Safed, Safad, Zfat, or Zefat? Lake Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, or Kinneret Lake?
The confusion stems partly from Israel's long history, partly from myriad cultures and languages, and partly from Hebrew itself. Vowels are not normally written in Hebrew (this is also true of Arabic), and so in transliteration you get such unpronounceable words as Sde (for Sede) and Sderot (Sederot). Further confusions are added by sounds like the guttural "kh" sound, a rasping in the back of the throat usually rendered as "ch" but pronounced very differently from the "ch" in "church." You might come across "Hen" and "Chen," which are the same Hebrew word, pronounced more like "khen." How does one cope? The only way is to pronounce the word you want and compare it to the one you've found. If it sounds the same, it probably is: Mikveh Israel/Miqwe Yisra'el, Elat/Eilat, Tiberias/Teverya, and so on.
Arabic is the second language of Israel, and English is Israel's major international language, so you will find that street and road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. English will work in virtually every shop, restaurant, and hotel in the country's three major cities, as well as most other places. If, however, you chance to encounter a storekeeper who speaks only Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, or one of the 17 or so other relatively common languages, just look for his offspring, who likely studied English in school.
If you find yourself groping for another language, try French, German, or Yiddish. Many Israelis of Romanian origin know French, and Israelis from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia often speak fluent French.
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