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

Just after the American Revolution, an English essayist named William Gifford reported that some Americans planned to substitute Hebrew as the official language of the United States.

Ezra Stiles

Ezra Stiles

Gifford got the story from an aide to Comte de Rochambeau, Marquis de Chastellux, who had traveled in America in 1780.

"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 wrote.

There were good reasons to believe his story. For one, some people believed a linguistic separation would follow the political separation of the United States from Great Britain.

For another, the  New England Puritans brought with them a prejudice toward the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament.

New World Israelites

William Bradford

William Bradford

The New England Puritans  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 because he wanted to read the Scriptures in their original language. His gravestone says, in Hebrew, "The Lord is the help of my life."

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

Appropriately, Plymouth’s Jewish community in 1913 built a synagogue three blocks from Plymouth Rock.

Newport

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. In it, he pledged ‘no assistance to persecution.’

Clement C. Moore, a Hebrew scholar, spent summers at his home in Newport. He wasn’t happy that his reputation rested on his poem A Visit From St. Nicholas.  Moore put more store in his first American Hebrew dictionary, which he published in 1809.

Clement Moore

Clement Moore

Ezra Stiles served as pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport before he became president of Yale College.  He befriended Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal, who helped him improve his Hebrew.

Stiles sometimes gets credit for proposing that 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).

Harvard also taught Hebrew since the 1720s, and so did William and Mary in Williamsburg, 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 Americans wanted to establish a separate identity from England.

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

Mencken believed that the Englishman William Gifford disliked the United States. He also thought Gifford wanted to mock the new country by claiming it supported Hebrew as its official language.

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

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

Wrote Mencken,

Webster harbored no fantastic notion of abandoning English altogether, but he was eager to set up American as a distinct and independent dialect.

This story about Hebrew replacing English as the official U.S. language was updated in 2017.