What does it mean?

November 30, 2006

Do Israelis speak Hebrew?

You might think that a subject like linguistics would have little to do with politics. Unfortunately, you'd be mistaken. Ghil'ad Zuckermann claims that in Israel we don't really speak Hebrew:

Ghil'ad Zuckermann, a 35-year-old graduate of Tel Aviv University with doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, argues that modern Hebrew should be renamed "Israeli" and give up its claim of pure descent from holy writ.

"Israelis are brainwashed to believe they speak the same language as (the prophet) Isaiah, a purely Semitic language, but this is false," Zuckermann told Reuters during a lecture tour to promote his soon-to-be-published polemic "Hebrew as Myth".

"It's time we acknowledge that Israeli is very different from the Hebrew of the past," Said Zuckermann, who points to the abiding influence of modern European dialects - especially Yiddish, Russian and Polish - imported by Israel's founders.

It is very possible that Zuckermann is an excellent linguist. But declaring Israelis' native language to be something other than Hebrew can only be a political, rather than linguistic claim, and interferes with the quality of his scholarship. The only semi-objective basis for declaring two varieties of speech to be separate languages is the fuzzy idea of mutual-intelligiblilty, and even that is clearly violated at both ends of the spectrum: "dialects" of Chinese are not mutually intelligible, while the Norwegian and Danish "languages" are.

I think by any reasonable standard Biblical and Modern Hebrew are mutually intelligible, as the article says:

Those who disagree with Zuckermann note that an average Israeli can divine the meaning of much of the Bible's Hebrew unaided - not the case, for example, with English-speakers who try to crack open an Anglo-Saxon classic like "Beowulf".

The difference between Modern and Biblical Hebrew is more like Modern English and the English of the King James Bible. With just a little exposure, a modern speaker has no trouble understanding it. But the wrong-headedness of Zuckermann's claims is even more glaring when you look at the long history of post-Biblical Hebrew, beginning with the Mishna. For those of you who know Hebrew, go look at Maimonides' Mishna Torah, for example:

הקורא קרית שמע--כשהוא גומר פסוק ראשון, אומר בלחש ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד; וחוזר וקורא כדרכו "ואהבת, את ה' אלוהיך" (דברים ו,ה), עד סופה.  ולמה קורין כן--מסורת היא בידינו שבשעה שקיבץ יעקוב אבינו את בניו במצריים בשעת מיתתו, ציוום וזירזם על ייחוד השם, ועל דרך ה' שהלך בה אברהם ויצחק אביו.  ושאל אותם ואמר להם, בניי, שמא יש בכם פסולת, מי שאינו עומד עימי בייחוד אדון כל העולם, כעניין שאמר לנו משה רבנו "פן יש בכם איש או אישה . . ." (דברים כט,יז).  ענו כולם, ואמרו לו "שמע, ישראל:  ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד" (דברים ו,ד)--כלומר שמע ממנו, אבינו ישראל, ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד.  פתח הזקן ואמר, ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד; לפיכך נהגו כל ישראל לומר שבח זה ששיבח בו ישראל הזקן, אחר פסוק זה.

The notion that Modern Hebrew is so influenced by "modern European dialects" that it is no longer a Semitic language might seem to make sense, and there is a lot of evidence for it. But however much sense a claim might make theoretically and however much evidence you have, you only need one counter-example to disprove a claim. The above paragraph (as well as the rest of Maimonides writings, and, in fact, the entire body of medieval Hebrew) does just that. Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, and his native language was Arabic. The only thing in the paragraph that gives away its medieval origin is the use of qorin (קורין) instead of qor'im (קוראים), which is the Biblical, rather than Mishnaic form of the word. So should we stop calling this language Hebrew too? Would it be more accurate to say "Maimonides wrote in Israeli" than "Maimonides wrote in Hebrew"? In fact, while Maimonides consciously adopted the language of the Mishna, his analytic style is much closer to that of Modern Hebrew. That Maimonides is a thousand-year-old Arabic-speaker conclusively disproves the common claim that this style is a recent, European-based innovation. In fact, Modern Hebrew represents the culmination of rather smooth 3000-year transition from the language of the Bible.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:27 PM  Permalink | Comments (13)
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November 29, 2006

Is this what I sound like?

I did spend four years in Philadelphia, but I don't think anyone there would think that I sound like one of them... In any case, you can take the test here (via Razib). I took an test like this once before, here.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast

Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

The Inland North
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
Posted by David Boxenhorn at 03:55 PM  Permalink | Comments (5)
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November 22, 2006

Israeli/Lebanese peace/war songs

In September, my old friend, Richard Isaac, co-hosted a radio show on KBCS 91.3 FM Seattle/Bellevue devoted to Israeli and Lebanese songs about peace and war. It is being re-broadcast Sunday evening, 26 November 2006, at 7:00 p.m. PST. (10 p.m. on the
East Coast, 5 a.m. in Israel on 27 November), you can listen to it here. He has also posted it here. Enjoy!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:43 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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November 03, 2006

Iraq was building an atom bomb!

According to the New York Times, Iraq was a year away from building an atom bomb:

The Web site, “Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal,” was a constantly expanding portrait of prewar Iraq. Its many thousands of documents included everything from a collection of religious and nationalistic poetry to instructions for the repair of parachutes to handwritten notes from Mr. Hussein’s intelligence service. It became a popular quarry for a legion of bloggers, translators and amateur historians.

Among the dozens of documents in English were Iraqi reports written in the 1990s and in 2002 for United Nations inspectors in charge of making sure Iraq had abandoned its unconventional arms programs after the Persian Gulf war. Experts say that at the time, Mr. Hussein’s scientists were on the verge of building an atom bomb, as little as a year away.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:35 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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Live free or Die

Sean's comment on this post echos my sentiments:

For myself I do believe that I would prefer daily chaos and surviving by my wits to being tended to like a lamb by my government (lambs can be led to the slaughter).

I am constantly amazed when people seem to have not learned basic Star Trek, Saturday westerns, Kipling-esque lessons about human life and the state of captivity. Ours is a species that can will itself to die rather than live as a slave. So why does everyone give so much weight to issues of basic survival under a dictator? Even if one could live safely under Saddam (and that is far from certain, ask the Kurds or the Shia... two thirds of the country) is that enough? Even if life is riskier now (and I don't know that it is) isn't it still better to live in chaos as a free human?

When did Americans become the "live unfree or die" backers?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:28 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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