Society

What Languages are Spoken in Israel?

Hebrew and Arabic are the two official languages in the linguistically diverse country of Israel.

According to the 19th edition of Ethnologue, an online language-based publication, there are 35 languages and dialects spoken in Israel. The most common of these languages is Hebrew with over 5 million speakers, and Arabic is a distant second. The increased globalization has also caused the rise of the use of foreign languages, especially English and Russian.

Official Languages of Israel

Modern Hebrew

Modern Hebrew, which is a dialect of ancient Hebrew, is one of the two official languages used in Israel. Also known as New Hebrew, Modern Hebrew is the most popular language used in Israel with over 5 million native speakers and more than 9 million overall speakers. Modern Hebrew is one of the best examples of the revival of an extinct language, as it vanished between 200 BCE and 400 BCE but was revived in the late 19th century. The earliest form of Hebrew is Biblical Hebrew, which morphed into Mishnaic Hebrew, and later into Medieval Hebrew. The wide-spread use of Hebrew in Israel is traced back to 1200 BCE, with several linguists believing that the language was used during the period of Babylonian captivity. After the decline of Hebrew in the 2nd century CE, the language only existed as a literary language as well as a sacred language in Judaism. The standardized version of Hebrew was a product of the language’s revival in the 19th century, which was championed by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Modern Hebrew borrows heavily from the Bible with over 8,000 words being derived from the Bible and has numerous loanwords from German, Russian, English, Aramaic, Polish, and Arabic. Modern Hebrew was officially adopted in Israel as one of the provisions of the Palestine Order in Council in 1922. The use of the language in Israel is regulated by the state-sponsored Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Literary Arabic

Literary Arabic is the second official language in Israel and has 20% of Israeli citizens as native speakers. Also known as modern standard Arabic, the language was established as an official language in 1922 among the provisions of the Palestine Order in Council. Most native Literary Arabic speakers are descendants of the 156,000 Palestinian Arabs who did not flee Israel during the 1949 war. Despite the official status allocated to Literary Arabic, Israeli authorities rarely use it except in cases strictly provided for by the law. However, a supreme court ruling enforced the use of Literary Arabic, particularly in public signage, food labels and in all government communication. The law also provides for the use of Arabic during parliamentary proceedings, but this is rarely practiced as few members of the Knesset are conversant in Literary Arabic. The use of Literary Arabic in Israel is regulated by the Arabic Language Academy, established by the Israeli government in 2008.

Foreign Language Spoken in Israel

The two most important foreign languages used in Israel are English and Russian. English was established as an official language in the 1922 Palestinian Order in Council but 1948 legislation stated, “Any provision in the law requiring the use of the English language is repealed." Therefore, while English is used as the primary language in international relations, the language is not used in domestic government communication, particularly in the Knesset. The education curriculum in Israel has adopted English, and it is used as a second language in learning institutions. Russian is the other major foreign language in Israel and is the most popular non-official language in the country, with over 20% of all Israeli citizens being fluent in Russian.

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