Connecticut

The Story of How Hebrew Almost Became the Official U.S. Language

Ezra Stiles
Ezra Stiles

Ezra Stiles

Just after the turn of the 19th century, an English essayist named William Gifford reported that Americans during the Revolution planned to substitute Hebrew as the official language of the United States.

H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken thought Gifford got the story from an aide to Comte de Rochambeau, Marquis de Chastellux, who was reporting on his travels in America in 1780. Chastellux wrote that some Bostonians wanted to replace English with Hebrew.

"In the rebellion of the Colonies, a member of that state seriously proposed to Congress the putting down of the English language by law, and decreeing the universal adoption of Hebrew in its stead," Gifford had written.

A century later, Yale professor Thomas Lounsbury debunked the story in Harper's Magazine:

William Gifford

William Gifford

This fact seems to have escaped the researches of historians on this side of the Atlantic. It is perhaps due to their failure to find 'the state of New England,' from which the author of the proposal is represented as having come.

The story persisted, though, and appeared in The Cambridge History of American Language.

There were good reasons to believe it. For one, at the end of the American Revolution people believed a linguistic separation would follow the political separation of the United States from Great Britain.

New World Israelites

William Bradford

William Bradford

For another, it’s true to the temper of the times, wrote Mencken. The New England Puritans brought with them a prejudice toward the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament. They identified with the Israelites who escaped Pharoah’s oppression by crossing the sea. They viewed the Scriptures as the ultimate authority, and they took their laws from the Old Testament.

William Bradford taught himself Hebrew so he could read the Scriptures in their original language. His gravestone says, in Hebrew, "The Lord is the help of my life." Three blocks from Plymouth Rock, the city’s Jewish community built a synagogue in 1913.

And, of course, the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas.

Newport, R.I., became a center of Jewish settlement in the late 17th century. George Washington in 1790 wrote a letter to the congregation of Newport’s Touro Synagogue pledging ‘no assistance to persecution.’ Clement C. Moore, a Hebrew scholar, spent summers at his home in Newport. He wasn’t happy that he was best known for his poem A Visit From St. Nicholas rather than the first American Hebrew dictionary, which he published in 1809.

Clement Moore

Clement Moore

Before he was named president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles was pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport.  He became a close friend of Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal, who helped him improve his Hebrew. Stiles is sometimes credited with proposing Hebrew replace English as the official language of the United States of America.

Hebrew Schools

As Yale president, Stiles made a course in Hebrew a freshman requirement. By then, the Hebrew words Urim and Thummim (the oracular will of God) were already on the Yale seal, along with the Latin “Lux et Veritas” (light and truth).

Yale wasn’t unique. Hebrew was taught at Harvard since the 1720s and at William and Mary in Willilamsburg, Va. Columbia College in New York required all teachers to know Hebrew.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster

During the American Revolution, feelings against the English ran high. As part of a new nation some/many Americans wanted to establish a separate identity from England.

In the end, Noah Webster was the one who created a uniquely American language. He set the standard for American English with his blue-backed speller and dictionary.

“The passion for complete political independence of England bred a general hostility to all English authority,” wrote Mencken. That hostility,

…culminated in the revolutionary attitude of Noah Webster's "Dissertations on the English Language," printed in 1789. Webster harbored no fantastic notion of abandoning English altogether, but he was eager to set up American as a distinct and independent dialect.

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