I have at times been critical of the usual story of the rebirth ofHebrew as a spoken language (last time here). Usually they focus on thefactthat the ancient Hebrew language lacked vocabulary for many aspects ofmodern life, and onthe heroic story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who discovered and inventedmany of the missing terms, and raised the firstHebrew-speaking child in 2000 years. My instinctive criticism has beenbased on asingle observation: it is extremely difficult for an adult to learn aforeign language, and it almost never happens that a person will feelcompletely comfortable speaking a language acquired in adulthood. Andyet, millions of Jews did exactly that. For no practical reason, theyabandoned their mother tongues for Hebrew – a language, at the time, spoken bynobody.
This is the real story of the rebirth of Hebrew: that millions ofpeople were persuaded to do this highly unnatural act. It is indeed amiracle (at least, if you will, in thesense of a seemingly highly unlikely event) that millions of Jewssuddenly began speaking a “dead” language. It is an event unique inhuman history, and it is very surprising to me that it has been solittle studied with any seriousness.
Before I get into what I contend is the real story, let me review the usual one (all ofwhich is true, by the way, just not as interesting). It goes likethis: Hebrew was kept alive for thousands of years after it ceased tobe spoken, as a language of scholarship and ritual, through the loveof the Jewish people. Toward the end of the 19th century, Jews began toleave their ghettos and participate in modern life. This wasaccompanied by a flourishing of the Hebrew language, such as hadn’tbeen seen since the Golden Era of Spain, in which Jews wrote in Hebrewabout all aspects of life. Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to the Land ofIsrael, then ruled by the Turks (the region was not yet calledPalestine – that name would be be applied by the British only afterWorld War I) and endeavored to bring about the rebirth of Hebrew as aspokenlanguage. To this end, he compiled a dictionary of 500,000 items,rediscovering Hebrew’s lost vocabulary, and inventing hundreds of newterms. He also raised the first Hebrew-speaking family. Othersfollowed his lead, and spoken Hebrew was reborn.
While very nice, no part of this story is unique, except the part thatis left unexplained. There are many, many unspoken languages that have been kept alive over long periods of timeas literary or ritual languages, among them: Latin, Ancient Greek, Coptic, Ge’ez, Sanskrit, Avestan,Classical Arabic (as different from modern dialects as Latin is toItalian), and Classical Chinese– none of them have been revived as a spoken language. On the otherhand, many unwritten dialects have been elevated to written languages:At the time of the rebirth ofHebrew, ethnic minorities around the world were rediscovering theiridentities, and many spoke languages that lacked vocabulary for modernlife. Ben Yehuda’s work was certainly important for the revival ofHebrew, and he is justifiably celebrated, but similar thingshappened in Czech, Modern Greek, Finnish, and many other languages.Unexplained: How were millionsof ordinary Jews convinced to abandon their mother tongues?
I have finally discovered the answer, the missing link to the story. On the recommendation of Amritas, I ordered a copy of Language In Time of Revolution by Benjamin Harshav.It is not an easy read. It’s written in a dry and academic style, so for lack of time and energy I readonly the second of its three parts, which deals directly with the rebirth of Hebrew. (The first part deals with thehistorical background, and thethird with Harshav’s translations of primary sources.)
In the last decades of Turkish rule of what would become Israel (atthe time there was no one name that referred to the whole area), thelanguage of government wasTurkish, the peasants spoke the local dialect of Arabic (which even tothis day is not written), the Jews spoke various languages, especiallyArabic and Yiddish, and education, such as it was, was mostly conductedin French and German. It was in this milieu that small groups of highlymotivated Jews founded new communitiesof like-minded peoplewith the specific purpose of creating a Jewish community that wouldembody their ideals, one of which was to speak Hebrew. The newcommunities included thecity of Tel Aviv, numerous small kibbutzim, and other agriculturalcommunities. It isimportant to understand that these were small self-selected groups: they did something that the vast majority are unwilling, or unable, to do.
It was within this small, self-selected population that Hebrew wasreborn as a spoken language.
But it is not the end of the story: So asmall group of isolated, highly motivated, energetic people managed torevitalize Hebrew. How, then, did their numbers grow to the millionsthat they are today?
After World War I, Turkey was defeated, and its empire divided between France and Britain. The League of Nations crafted the British Mandate to, among other things, “secure the establishment of the Jewish nationalhome” in Palestine, and Jews began to organize themselves into the politywhich was to become Israel. (Actually, even in Turkish times thevarious religious groups had a certain degree of autonomy, in what wascalled the millet system,which was preserved under the British Mandate, and persists in Israelto this day.) The Palestinian Jews were heterogeneous – religiously,politically, and linguistically. The dominant languages among themwere Arabic and Yiddish, neither of which were used for intellectualpurposes.Indeed, the intellectual languages had been French and German, but wereabout to be superseded by English. This state of diversity and flux wasprobably a contributing factor to the success of Hebrew, but was not,in my opinion, the main one, especially considering the fact thatalmost all Hebrew speakers at the time were native speakers of Yiddish,which could easily have followed the path of development of languagessuch as Czech. The reason Hebrew succeeded: The same,self-selected, group that pioneered the revitalization of Hebrew alsobecame the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine.
And from then on, we are backto ordinary sociolinguistic processes. It has happened many, many timesthat a language spoken by a small but important group of peoplehas supplanted a much more widely-spoken language. To name just a fewinstances from historical times (many more can be reconstructed fromlinguistic evidence): Latin in the western Mediterranean, Greek in theeastern Mediterranean, Arabic in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and NorthAfrica, Hungarian in Hungary, English in Ireland. In Palestine, at thebeginning of the 20th century, that language was Hebrew.
ADDENDUM: At the end of book 2, Harshav examines the question ofwhether modern He
brew is really a “European” language. While he doesn’tgo quite so far as to say that it is, he seems to think that it hasbeen heavily Europeanized. I take issue with this claim. First of all,a speaker of modern Hebrew can understand the language of the Bibleabout as easily as a speaker of modern English can understand its KingJames translation, and Mishnaic (Talmudic) Hebrew is about as close to modern Hebrew as 17th or 18th-century English is to the modernlanguage. That’s pretty close, I would say. Harshav quotes a typicalparagraph from a newspaper, and has this to say about it:
1. International words: kilometer, television, Antarctica, July, cabinet, Africa, NBC.
2. New Hebrew words for international terms: race, [television]networks, missile, launched, report, nuclear weapons, Minister of Tradeand Industry, area (in the sense of geographical area), the UnitedStates.
3. Phrases that represent Euro-American concepts: “hasbroadcast information stating that,” “a certain place,” “standardversion,” “denied reports,” “nuclear weapons,” “fifth of July,” “Israelwill not be the first,” “confined himself to stating the standardversion”
4. The microsyntax, concerning contiguous words, or immediateconstituents, is essentially Hebrew: the coordination of verb and noun;the use of the definite article, prepositions, and connectives; thegenitive phrases. Yet, the macrosyntax is European: the sentence in thefirst paragraph accumulates five stages of states of affairs, whichcould not be done in the syntax of traditional texts.
I find points 1-3 very odd. How can you talk about thingsthat go on in the modern world without having words for them? Are thosewords intrinsically Euro-American because the objects and concepts theyrefer to were mostly invented by Euro-Americans? He even admits inthe next paragraph that: “the roots of most of the words are Hebrew or quasi-Hebrew”!Point 4 is more interesting, it is the point I was addressing in the link above. Itseems to me that the major transformation in the (written) language wasnot from Semitic toEuropean, but from a language meant to be spoken to a language meant tobe read. The Mishnaictexts were transmitted orally before they were written down, and their”macrosyntax”reflects that. A similar observation can be made in English whencomparing the works of Chaucer (which were meant to be read aloud) tomodern texts. For that matter, even today a well-written speech willhavesimplified sentence structure. Would you say that the language ofChaucer and Reagan is really Semitic? It should be pointed out that allthis Europeanmacrosyntax is achieved in Hebrew with the ancient set of particles, inotherwords the difference is one of degree not kind: no new kind of sentencestructurehas been invented. Indeed, the Hebrew of Maimonides(1135-1204), who was a native Arabic (Semitic language)speaker,has a macrosyntax not far from the modern idiom. Is complex sentencestructure a European characteristic or simply a modern one? Put anotherway, does a reading (as opposed to listening) audience inevitably leadto more complex sentence structure? I would be interested in data fromother languages.
(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.)
Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:08 AM