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 November 30, 2006 04:27 PM | TrackBacks
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In fact, Maimonides' Mishna Torah does not sound like Israeli at all. Israelis MIS-understand Hebrew all the time! Courageous and insightful Zuckermann is right to suggest that we must translate the Bible into Israeli.

Much more importantly, however, is that Zuckermann, my wonderful professor, suggests that mutual intelligibility has little to do with genetic affiliation. We can all understand a Japanese who talks "pidgin English" relexifying his Japanese, uttering, say, "you want water drink now". Does this mean that what he speaks is English? Give me a break! We should stop using mutual intelligibility as a linguistic tool.

If you have some time you can have a look

http://www2.trincoll.edu/~mendele/tmr/tmr08013.htm

There, Prof. Zuckermann says the following:

(1) "despite eleven years of studying the Old Testament at school, Israelis depend on the extensive use of glosses (e.g. of Hartom-Cassuto). Moreover, many Israelis believe that they understand the Old Testament as it is, whereas they actually "understand" it from
the point of view of Israeli, not of Hebrew!

(2) "speakers of Modern English cannot understand even Geoffrey Chaucer, who is much more recent (c. 1343-1400). However, no one would claim that their language is not genetically related to contemporary English!"

Posted by: Yona, Tel Aviv at December 2, 2006 06:23 AM Permalink

In fact, Maimonides' Mishna Torah does not sound like Israeli at all.

Example, please? I beg to differ. Note, I'm not saying that there is no difference at all!

Much more importantly, however, is that Zuckermann, my wonderful professor, suggests that mutual intelligibility has little to do with genetic affiliation. We can all understand a Japanese who talks "pidgin English" relexifying his Japanese, uttering, say, "you want water drink now". Does this mean that what he speaks is English? Give me a break! We should stop using mutual intelligibility as a linguistic tool.

I don't want to argue semantics with you, but if someone were to tell me that that Japanese guy were speaking English, I wouldn't complain. However, you raise an interesting point: I think that one of the primary drivers of linguistic change, historically, has been foreign acquisition of the language. I think we see that pretty clearly in Indo-European: Sanskrit is clearly a Dravidian-influenced version, while Germanic seems to be heavily influenced by a unknown European tongue. I bet that if we knew more about the pre-Indo-European languages of Europe, we'd find that the same is true for Latin, Greek, and Slavic.

"despite eleven years of studying the Old Testament at school, Israelis depend on the extensive use of glosses (e.g. of Hartom-Cassuto). Moreover, many Israelis believe that they understand the Old Testament as it is, whereas they actually "understand" it from the point of view of Israeli, not of Hebrew!

This is basically the same point as "Maimonides' Mishna Torah does not sound like Israeli at all". I get the impression that you are not a Hebrew speaker, so you are not talking about your own impressions. Listing words or linguistic features that might be misunderstood unless taught is not a good way of giving a holistic impression of "sameness" I could make an equally long list of such differences between American and British English, yet no one insists that they aren't both English. (Maybe Zuckermann does!)

"speakers of Modern English cannot understand even Geoffrey Chaucer, who is much more recent (c. 1343-1400). However, no one would claim that their language is not genetically related to contemporary English!"

And what is Chaucer's language called? Middle English! Kind of parallel to "Biblical Hebrew" no?

By the way, I don't doubt that Zuckermann is a "wonderful professor". He seems like a nice guy. But I don't know why he is so insistent about his version of proscriptive linguistics. It's not professional.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at December 2, 2006 07:13 PM Permalink

I brought in Maimonides' Hebrew for a reason: I want to know whether Zuckermann would call that "Hebrew". If not, well then how about Mishnaic Hebrew? I want to know where he thinks the break is, because it doesn't seem to me like it should be between Maimonides and Modern Hebrew. It's not fair comparing Modern Hebrew to Biblical Hebrew - there's 3000 years of history in between!

I might also point out that we're not debating anything substantial here - we all agree on the facts.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at December 2, 2006 07:20 PM Permalink

"Example, please?" what is (t)sivam? zerzam? qorin? mitato? ke'inyan she'amar lanu? 'akhar pasuk ze?

syntax: 'anu kulam? patakh hazaken we'amar?

Do you know of any Israeli who would speak like that? By the way, i am not even mentioning semantics (meanings) or phonetics and phonology (sounds), which are obviously very different.

Ask an average israeli student to tell you what the passage really means. I belive you are too optimistic.

Zuckermann would argue that your excerpt is from literary Hebrew, which was no one's mother tongue. The difference is that Chaucer's language reflected some type of a mother tongue whereas literay Hebrew reflected nothing native. In Zuckermann's words literay Hebrew is a "habitus" (he refers to Bordieux here) rather than a natural development of a mother tongue.

Historically, genealogically, Middle English-->Modern English has nothing to do with Biblical Hebrew-->Israeli since in the latter there was no genetic chain of native speakers. You can find similarities but they are nothing more than red herrings.

You can have a look at http://www.zuckermann.org/articles.html

Yona, Tel Aviv

Posted by: Yona, Tel Aviv at December 3, 2006 07:47 AM Permalink

'Israeli' is very different from the biblical Hebrew? May be??!! But sure less different than any now-days European and Arabic languages as they differ from their languages as were written and spoken 2000 years ago.

I don't think that "yona, Tel Aviv" who sure knows English, needs really an "Israeli" dictionary to read the bible. He quite read it most and understands the biblical story quite well. Although he might not say now days: " 'anu kulam? patakh hazaken we'amar" it still Hebrew. And some speak so now days if they are speaking "literature" Hebrew. Hebrew changes are quite small comparing the way European languages had been changed through their history. Hebrew had only small changes through the last 2000 years because Jews spoke daily local languages and only prayed and wrote songs in Hebrew, which sort of say, kept the "genetic chain of native speakers". As far as we see there is no really an (new) 'Israeli' language. It is still Hebrew by all means.

Posted by: John wise at December 4, 2006 03:29 PM Permalink

John,

How can you say that "Hebrew [...] sort of [...]kept the 'genetic chain of native speakers'"? Have you not heard of generative grammar and the idea that the _native_ linguistic faculty is innate (see Noam Chomsky etc.)?

It looks as if you axiomatically believe that Israeli is Hebrew and therefore you will never be convinced by Ghil'ad Zuckermann's arguments. I am afraid he will only be able to appeal to the future generations, not to those who have been indoctrinated to follow what he calls the "internal development myth", as well as in the "eternal language myth" (see William Chomsky, Noam's father, etc.).

You can have a look at http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/new-vision.pdf

Professor Zuckermann has made me _think_ and for that I am extremely grateful to him.

Yona

Posted by: Yona at December 14, 2006 07:59 AM Permalink

As a native speaker, not only can you surmise Biblical Hebrew- but, as my Sabra acquaintances surprised me time and again, you are able to read, w/o much issue, Samaritan and Eastern Aramaic, as well as transliterated Phoenician and Ugaritic. Any random sample population test [of native speakers] will show that. Semitic Languages, are historically extremely conservative, whether Arabic or Hebrew or Amharic: loanwords, and modern grammatical efficiencies, not withstanding.

Also, major aspects of TGG, or generative grammar (not to mention its still born: generative semantics), is well on its way to the debunking bin.

Zuckermann, and his fanboys, do illustrate a point: apart from being severely politically driven [= Leftwise], the Israeli linguistic academy is a bit behind the times these days. I do mean all, speaking as someone that has completed my post doc at one; save for computational linguistics in two universities, and Semitic linguistics in one.

Worse still, is the continued idol worship of Chomsky and his a-historical, a-Darwinian, polemic against the scientific method (not to mention his vociferously treacherous agenda against Israeli Jews).

Aside from being theoretically wrong, Zukermann like so many privileged, sheltered Jews, is only too happy to shit in his own well.

‘scuse the expletive.

Posted by: gil at January 12, 2007 09:08 AM Permalink

Thank you, Gil. That was very interesting!

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at January 12, 2007 09:20 AM Permalink

Yona, your examples can only convince people who either don't speak Hebrew, or don't really understand what you are saying. Of course, you are correct that no Israeli "would speak like that", but neither would most Israelis misunderstand it. How can you claim that Israelis and Maimonides speak/write different languages when there is 100% mutual comprehension? (If you were to say that there is a dialectical difference, I wouldn't argue with you.)

As to the unusual linguistic history of Hebrew, it is no secret. Why do you think that you are saying something significant?

- For non-Hebrew speakers out there: I would say that Maimonides' Hebrew sounds slightly archaic to modern ears. Something like Abraham Lincoln's English to modern Americans.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at January 12, 2007 11:56 AM Permalink

David,

I'll tell you a funny anecdote. I grew up in Brooklyn, and my mom worked at a doctors office at pretty much the center hub of all the various Jewish communities around Kings Highway and Ocean Parkway if you know the area (w/ Israelis of all kind living there as well as a number of different American/Polish/Hungarian Orthodox, various Soviet, Syrian, and Lebanese).

One day I was in the office helping out, and I noticed a very funny conversation taking place- one that I was able to grasp immediately knowing some Tanach Hebrew.

An elderly Moldavian man was asking this elderly Syrian fellow for something in Yiddish, and the Syrian replied in English and in Arabic (probably that he doesnt speak Yiddish). Then a few moments later they got into a 30 minute conversation (I believe it was about Israel, from a news paper article laying about) in either Biblical or Mishnaic Hebrew. It sounded very weird, very accented, and many times they would repeat themselves, but the conversation continued for a long while all w/o the benefit of "Israeli" (the so called language not the people).

I hope Ben Yahuda has a happy smile on his face somewhere.

Posted by: gil at January 12, 2007 10:01 PM Permalink

Gil,

My first conversation in Hebrew was with a French-speaker. Or were we speaking Israeli? Naw, we weren't native speakers, so it must have been Hebrew after all!

One of the things that bothers me most about Zuckermann's claim is that on the continuum of Biblical Hebrew->Mishnaic Hebrew->Medieval Hebrew->Modern Hebrew, if you had to break it into two parts, the obvious place would be between Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew. But Zuckermann has no problem calling those two languages by the same name. Then he misleadingly compares Modern Hebrew to Biblical Hebrew, when most of the differences he points to are already there between Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew!

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at January 13, 2007 08:46 PM Permalink

David,

It gets even more problematic than that I believe, since Biblical Hebrew itself can, and has, been segregated based on a number of traits, hence the modern literary traditions of isolating biblical writers in the whole text, rather than saying (in the traditional way) that Moses transcribed this and Solomon transcribed that. There are latter books that show distinct Aramaic inflow (shir hashirim, yehezqel, etc), is that a new hybrid language? Can the writers of the Second Temple period understand the writers of the First Temple Period? Could Samaritans understand Judeans? Could the writers of the Yarushalmi Talmud comprehend the writers of the Bavli?

I personally think this is minimally pointless reductionism, most seriously though, Linguistics has been so badly politicized (like many other Liberal Arts and soft sciences have) that the theoretical basis of many of these socio linguistic claims are prima facie self compromising.

Posted by: gil at January 17, 2007 09:48 PM Permalink

Gil,

Yes, of course I am simplifying things! Though, it may be that the speakers would have had trouble understanding each other, but they certainly could understand each other's writings - or at least, the later writers clearly understood the earlier ones.

In general, you can see within the Bible the evolution of the language towards Mishnaic Hebrew, with the later books like the Song of Songs and Esther quite Mishnaic-like.

This is really a ridiculous argument. Hebrew's history is what it is, and it's not like languages have real genetic relationships with each other. No language is a "pure" descendent of its "ancestor". Those terms are just metaphors.

BTW to prove that I am well aware of Hebrew's unique history, I wrote a long post on it here.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at January 17, 2007 11:01 PM Permalink

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