Friday, May 6, 2011


The Undead Language

Scholars predicted it would be impossible, but the Hebrew language – long considered dead as a vernacular – is revived and thriving in Israel. How’d that happen?

THERE ARE approximately 50 native languages in Canada, and many linguists believe that only three – Inuktitut, Ojibwa and Cree – are likely to survive this century.

If that sounds like a dire outlook for language rejuvenators, they can at least take comfort in the fact that language prognosticators have enjoyed a spotty record. Referring to the improbability of reviving Hebrew as a vernacular in the 20th century, the scholar Simon Bernfeld wrote at the turn of the century, “To make the Hebrew language a spoken tongue in the usual sense of the word is … impossible. It has never occurred in any language. … A broken glass can no longer be put back together.” Well, May 9th will mark the 63rd anniversary of the state of Israel, and so far the Hebrew glass shows no signs of shattering.

Bernfield wasn’t the only skeptical scholar. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and Nathan Birnbaum (who coined the term) didn’t believe the vernacularization of Hebrew was really possible in the foreseeable future. Time has proven these men wrong. So how did it happen?

With the expulsion of Jews from Israel in the first century, the everyday usage of Hebrew faded and was replaced by Aramaic and Greek. Although Hebrew stopped being a vernacular, it retained its position in Jewish communities as a language of study and prayer. Jews in the Diaspora commonly used Ladino, the traditional language of Jews of Spanish descent, or Yiddish, for internal communication, and a non-Jewish vernacular for external communication. There were rare occasions when two Jews from different areas might meet who could communicate only in Hebrew. A Jew from Morocco (who didn’t speak Yiddish) might meet a Jew from Russia (who didn’t speak Ladino).

The revival of a language that has stopped being used in the vernacular is a rare event, but Hebrew was not so much revived as revitalized. Hebrew, after all, remained on the threshold of speech, having only lost its position as the language of the marketplace.

There were several factors that influenced the renaissance of Hebrew. The Jews of Palestine wanted to break ties to the Diaspora, and a distinct national language was necessary to effectuate this divorce. Also, although English, French and German were common languages, none of them was dominant enough to stymie Hebrew’s resurgence. Hebrew’s main rival, Yiddish, never seriously challenged the predominance of Hebrew because many of the secular Yiddishists were anti-Zionist and didn’t immigrate to Israel in large numbers.

Hebrew was thus able to fill a void by serving as a common vernacularto all the Jewish communities that lived in Palestine.

The Hebrew language was also blessed with many texts with varied Hebraic styles. The person most associated with the revitalization of Hebrew was Eliezer Ben Yehuda who left Europe in 1881 to live in the cramped quarters of Jerusalem. Both he and his wife shared a burning enthusiasm for the promotion of Hebrew. They established a policy in their home that Hebrew was the only language one was permitted to speak. Any visitor who could not speak Hebrew was forced to resort to gestures in order to communicate. Thanks in large part to Ben Yehuda, writer Robert St, John says it is now possible “for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love and curse out their neighbours.”

Ben Yehuda coined the word et-on for newspaper by an adaptation of the phrase  michtav-et, “a letter of the time.” A dictionary had previously been referred to as sefer millim, “book of words” and Ben Yehuda used the Hebrew word millah as a base and created the word millon to refer to a dictionary. The youth of ancient Judea had no balls to bounce and when Ben Yehuda saw his son playing with a ball. the lad apparently uttered a sound like cadurr, hence a ball in Hebrew became kadur. He also coined the word dagdegan, “clitoris” from the root dagdeg, “to tickle.” Not all his neologisms were as successful. His word for “tomato” badura was only used in the Ben Yehuda kitchen and the Greek based petrozilia prevailed over Ben Yehuda’s preferred Hebraized term for “parsley” netz halav.

Although other attempts at reviving a language, such as Maori and Irish, have been hampered by their lack of widespread knowledge of the written language, no case is hopeless. Linguist Kenneth Hale says even though there aren't any speakers of Mohican, "you could take books and deeds published back in the 1600s, and from what we know about comparative Algonquin, you could figure out pretty closely what it sounded like. People could learn it and begin to use it and revive it." Israeli scholar Naftali Tur-Sinai stated, "even an artificial language which has never been alive such as Esperanto, can be made to live, if only there is a recognized need for it and a stubborn will of people to make it come alive."

Happy 63rd birthday, Israel.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

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