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June 28, 2005

The Rebirth of Hebrew

I have at times been critical of the usual story of the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language (last time here). Usually they focus on the fact that the ancient Hebrew language lacked vocabulary for many aspects of modern life, and on the heroic story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who discovered and invented many of the missing terms, and raised the first Hebrew-speaking child in 2000 years. My instinctive criticism has been based on a single observation: it is extremely difficult for an adult to learn a foreign language, and it almost never happens that a person will feel completely comfortable speaking a language acquired in adulthood. And yet, millions of Jews did exactly that. For no practical reason, they abandoned their mother tongues for Hebrew - a language, at the time, spoken by nobody. 

This is the real story of the rebirth of Hebrew: that millions of people were persuaded to do this highly unnatural act. It is indeed a miracle (at least, if you will, in the sense of a seemingly highly unlikely event) that millions of Jews suddenly began speaking a "dead" language. It is an event unique in human history, and it is very surprising to me that it has been so little studied with any seriousness.

Before I get into what I contend is the real story, let me review the usual one (all of which is true, by the way, just not as interesting). It goes like this: Hebrew was kept alive for thousands of years after it ceased to be spoken, as a language of scholarship and ritual, through the love of the Jewish people. Toward the end of the 19th century, Jews began to leave their ghettos and participate in modern life. This was accompanied by a flourishing of the Hebrew language, such as hadn't been seen since the Golden Era of Spain, in which Jews wrote in Hebrew about all aspects of life. Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to the Land of Israel, then ruled by the Turks (the region was not yet called Palestine - that name would be be applied by the British only after World War I) and endeavored to bring about the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. To this end, he compiled a dictionary of 500,000 items, rediscovering Hebrew's lost vocabulary, and inventing hundreds of new terms. He also raised the first Hebrew-speaking family. Others followed his lead, and spoken Hebrew was reborn.

While very nice, no part of this story is unique, except the part that is left unexplained. There are many, many unspoken languages that have been kept alive over long periods of time as literary or ritual languages, among them: Latin, Ancient Greek, Coptic, Ge'ez, Sanskrit, Avestan, Classical Arabic (as different from modern dialects as Latin is to Italian), and Classical Chinese - none of them have been revived as a spoken language. On the other hand, many unwritten dialects have been elevated to written languages: At the time of the rebirth of Hebrew, ethnic minorities around the world were rediscovering their identities, and many spoke languages that lacked vocabulary for modern life. Ben Yehuda's work was certainly important for the revival of Hebrew, and he is justifiably celebrated, but similar things happened in Czech, Modern Greek, Finnish, and many other languages. Unexplained: How were millions of 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 read only the second of its three parts, which deals directly with the rebirth of Hebrew. (The first part deals with the historical background, and the third with Harshav's translations of primary sources.)

In the last decades of Turkish rule of what would become Israel (at the time there was no one name that referred to the whole area), the language of government was Turkish, the peasants spoke the local dialect of Arabic (which even to this day is not written), the Jews spoke various languages, especially Arabic and Yiddish, and education, such as it was, was mostly conducted in French and German. It was in this milieu that small groups of highly motivated Jews founded new communities of like-minded people with the specific purpose of creating a Jewish community that would embody their ideals, one of which was to speak Hebrew. The new communities included the city of Tel Aviv, numerous small kibbutzim, and other agricultural communities. It is important 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 was reborn as a spoken language. 

But it is not the end of the story: So a small group of isolated, highly motivated, energetic people managed to revitalize Hebrew. How, then, did their numbers grow to the millions that 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 national home" in Palestine, and Jews began to organize themselves into the polity which was to become Israel. (Actually, even in Turkish times the various religious groups had a certain degree of autonomy, in what was called the millet system, which was preserved under the British Mandate, and persists in Israel to this day.) The Palestinian Jews were heterogeneous - religiously, politically, and linguistically. The dominant languages among them were Arabic and Yiddish, neither of which were used for intellectual purposes. Indeed, the intellectual languages had been French and German, but were about to be superseded by English. This state of diversity and flux was probably a contributing factor to the success of Hebrew, but was not, in my opinion, the main one, especially considering the fact that almost all Hebrew speakers at the time were native speakers of Yiddish, which could easily have followed the path of development of languages such as Czech. The reason Hebrew succeeded: The same, self-selected, group that pioneered the revitalization of Hebrew also became the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine.

And from then on, we are back to ordinary sociolinguistic processes. It has happened many, many times that a language spoken by a small but important group of people has supplanted a much more widely-spoken language. To name just a few instances from historical times (many more can be reconstructed from linguistic evidence): Latin in the western Mediterranean, Greek in the eastern Mediterranean, Arabic in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa, Hungarian in Hungary, English in Ireland. In Palestine, at the beginning of the 20th century, that language was Hebrew.


ADDENDUM: At the end of book 2, Harshav examines the question of whether modern Hebrew is really a "European" language. While he doesn't go quite so far as to say that it is, he seems to think that it has been heavily Europeanized. I take issue with this claim. First of all, a speaker of modern Hebrew can understand the language of the Bible about as easily as a speaker of modern English can understand its King James translation, and Mishnaic (Talmudic) Hebrew is about as close to modern Hebrew as 17th or 18th-century English is to the modern language. That's pretty close, I would say. Harshav quotes a typical paragraph 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 Trade and Industry, area (in the sense of geographical area), the United States.

3. Phrases that represent Euro-American concepts: "has broadcast information stating that," "a certain place," "standard version," "denied reports," "nuclear weapons," "fifth of July," "Israel will not be the first," "confined himself to stating the standard version"

4. The microsyntax, concerning contiguous words, or immediate constituents, is essentially Hebrew: the coordination of verb and noun; the use of the definite article, prepositions, and connectives; the genitive phrases. Yet, the macrosyntax is European: the sentence in the first paragraph accumulates five stages of states of affairs, which could not be done in the syntax of traditional texts.

I find points 1-3 very odd. How can you talk about things that go on in the modern world without having words for them? Are those words intrinsically Euro-American because the objects and concepts they refer to were mostly invented by Euro-Americans? He even admits in the 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. It seems to me that the major transformation in the (written) language was not from Semitic to European, but from a language meant to be spoken to a language meant to be read. The Mishnaic texts were transmitted orally before they were written down, and their "macrosyntax" reflects that. A similar observation can be made in English when comparing the works of Chaucer (which were meant to be read aloud) to modern texts. For that matter, even today a well-written speech will have simplified sentence structure. Would you say that the language of Chaucer and Reagan is really Semitic? It should be pointed out that all this European macrosyntax is achieved in Hebrew with the ancient set of particles, in other words the difference is one of degree not kind: no new kind of sentence structure has 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 sentence structure a European characteristic or simply a modern one? Put another way, does a reading (as opposed to listening) audience inevitably lead to more complex sentence structure? I would be interested in data from other languages.

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:08 AM