How Hebrew Almost Became the Official Language of America

July 27, 2016

3 min read

Had history turned out slightly different, Americans today might be speaking Hebrew rather than English. This is not as far fetched as it seems, as the original settlers to America (besides the Indians) were deeply connected to the Bible.

The earliest knowledge of Hebrew being proposed as America’s national language is from 1620. At that time, William Bradford was the leader of the pilgrims who set off to the New World. They set sail on the Mayflower seeking to find freedom from religious persecution. They saw their journey as a re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt.

Bradford sought to unify the group before they disembarked. He is recorded as being fanatical about the Hebrew language as he believed that after his death he would speak “the most ancient language”, Hebrew, with God and the angels.

It is noted that a vote was taken on the Mayflower as to which language the new settlers would speak in the New World. Hebrew apparently lost by only one vote.

In 1780, Hebrew was once again proposed as the official American language as the pioneers had an extreme dislike of anything British, including the English language. Marquis de Chastellux, a companion to George Washington, recorded that Americans “have seriously proposed to introduce a new language; and some, for the public convenience, would have the Hebrew substituted to the English, taught in the schools, and used in all public acts.”

Marquis de Chastellux writes that at the time of the American Revolution, “certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it.”

Roni Segal, the academic adviser for eTeacher, a online language academy, told Breaking Israel News that Hebrew was taught in many of the top American universities in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Columbia, Brown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, William and Mary, and Yale even gave students the option to deliver commencement speeches in Hebrew, Latin or Greek.

As many of the Founding Fathers attended these universities, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, it seems clear that they were well acquainted with both the Bible as well as the Hebrew language. Additionally, some Hebrew words or phrases were included in official university emblems or seals.

Yale University's seal dates from 1722 when Hebrew was part of a theological education. It appears on many buildings on Yale's campus, as seen in New Haven in June 2015. (Photo: Pete Spiro /
Yale University’s seal dates from 1722 when Hebrew was part of a theological education. It appears on many buildings on Yale’s campus, as seen in New Haven in June 2015. (Photo: Pete Spiro /

The seal of Yale shows an open book with the Hebrew words “Urim V’Timum,” (a part of the High Priest’s breastplate in the days of the holy Temple in Jerusalem). Columbia University and Dartmouth both have God’s name written in Hebrew on their seals.

So strong is America’s attachment to Hebrew, that it is common practice to give babies Biblical Hebrew names such as Sarah, Aaron, Miriam, David, Adam, and Eve. There are no less than fifteen places in the US called Zion, along with twenty-six Salems, which is a derivative of “Jerusalem”: Genesis 14 states that Jerusalem was called Salem and that this was the city of Melchizedek. Other American cities named from Hebrew include Eden, Rehoboth, Sharon, Bethel, Canaan, Hebron, Mamre and Mt. Moriah.

“Today, with Israel being recognized as ‘the startup nation’ along with the wonders of technology, there is a growing interest in traditional Bible study and learning Hebrew,” shared Segal to Breaking Israel News. “Hebrew has never been easier to learn with courses provided online or more relevant. It’s never too late to connect back to God’s language, even 300 years after America’s Founding Fathers’ first proposal.”

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