As technology advances at a rapid pace, languages adapt to encompass new concepts and inventions. Hebrew, a language with deep historical roots, faces the challenge of incorporating modern technological terminology while maintaining its connection to ancient sources. It also has a unique set of problems, as Hebrew was essentially not in vernacular use for the better part of two millennia when of course lots of new inventions were created. As such, Hebrew users have developed new terms for technology, drawing inspiration from Torah sources, Semitic roots, and borrowed words.
Note that many of the words have a Hebrew root that might be thought of as old fashioned or formal, not used any more. For instance, the word for ‘sweater’ originally devised for Modern Hebrew was “tzimri” from the root meaning ‘wool’ but nowadays everyone in Israel says “sveter” obviously just borrowed from English.
- Electricity: “Chashmal” – When electricity emerged as a revolutionary force, Hebrew scholars sought a term that resonated with its power. Inspired by the biblical book of Ezekiel, where a divine phenomenon is described as “chashmal” (Ezekiel 1:4), Hebrew adopted this term for electricity, particularly because its Greek translation in the Septuagent is ‘electron’. While the exact meaning of “chashmal” remains uncertain, it evokes a sense of awe and mysterious, divine energy. Many religious Jews feel uncomfortable with this because it describes a powerful, angelic force that in its original Torah context one should not utter lightly.
- Computer: “Machshev” – To capture the essence of the complex device that enables computation and data processing, Hebrew adapted the word “machshev” from the root “choshev,” meaning “to calculate” or “to think.” This term aptly reflects the device’s ability to perform intricate calculations and its role as a thinking machine. “Machshevon” by comparison is a calculator.
- Internet: “Mirshetet” – The Hebrew term for the internet, in theory, draws inspiration from the root “reshet,” which means “net; network.” This choice aligns with the internet’s function as a vast network that allows the creation and exchange of information. Practically though, everyone says “internet”.
- Hybrid: “(h)ivridi ” – When it comes to describing hybrid technology in cars and so on, Hebrew borrows from the English word, but this one is changed to meet certain Hebrew norms. First of all, Modern Israeli Hebrew, like French, doesn’t pronounce an H-sound at the beginning of a syllable. Also, technically there should never be a B-sound at the end of a syllable as it becomes like a V-sound, though this is more often a feature of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, not Modern. Therefore, something resembling ‘ivridi’ is what you’ll hear on the streets to describe a ‘hybrid’.
- Smartphone: “Telefon Chacham” – While you’re liable to hear people just say ‘smartphone’, the Hebrew term for smartphone, “telefon chacham” uses a borrowed word but also the native Hebrew “chacham” meaning “wise”, which you might recognize from the Four Sons at the Passover Seder.
- Internet Browser: “Dafdafan” – Hebrew usually makes words from roots of no more than 3 letters, and you might notice this word looks like its made from 4: דפדפון. This is because it is somewhat invented, from the root ‘daf’ meaning ‘sheet of paper’, the word ‘dafdaf’ came to refer to flipping through pages. The suffix at the end ‘-an’ just makes it a noun, i.e. something you can use to flip through tabs.
Hebrew’s evolution to accommodate modern technological terms highlights the language’s adaptability and rich cultural heritage. By drawing from Torah sources, Semitic roots, and borrowing from other languages, Hebrew successfully integrates ancient verbiage with contemporary innovations. This fusion allows Hebrew speakers to discuss and engage with technology while preserving their connection to the past. As Hebrew continues to evolve, it remains a testament to the dynamic nature of language and its ability to embrace new concepts while honoring tradition.