Hebrew vs. Israeli


By Philologos

Published December 24, 2004, issue of December 24, 2004.
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Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckerman, whose new Hebrew book, “Hebrew as Myth,” will appear this coming year, thinks I am wrong to call “denigrating” Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz’s use of the term “Israeli” rather than “Hebrew” for the contemporary language of Israel. Mr. Zuckerman writes:

“On the contrary! It is time to acknowledge that the language spoken by Israelis is very different from the Hebrew of the past…. Israeli speakers are still brainwashed to believe that they speak the language of Isaiah (with mistakes), i.e., that today’s revived Hebrew is purely Semitic… Israeli is a hybrid language, simultaneously Semitic and Indo-European. I would argue that both Yiddish (the revivalists’ mother tongue) and Hebrew (as a literary and liturgical language) acted equally as its primary contributors, accompanied by many secondary contributors: Russian, Polish, German, Ladino, Arabic, English, etc…. Thus, the term ‘Israeli’ is far more appropriate than the misleading ‘Israeli Hebrew,’ let alone ‘modern Hebrew’ or ‘Hebrew’ tout court.”

Mr. Zuckerman, it seems to me, has, like Mr. Katz, an ideological agenda that would best be put away. Of course, Israeli Hebrew is a very different language from the many varieties of Hebrew spoken and written in the past, and of course, too, many of its syntactical and grammatical features are no longer Semitic; yet why this makes it less “Hebrew” than, say, the heavily Yiddishized Hebrew of Hasidic literature in Eastern Europe, or the heavily Arabized Hebrew of the Jewish “Golden Age” in Muslim Spain, is beyond me. Or would Mr. Zuckerman suggest that we begin referring to the Hebrew of Nachman of Braslav as “Hasidic,” to the Hebrew of Shmuel Hanagid and Abraham Ibn Ezra as “Andalusic,” and so on, treating each as a different language?

The fact is, in stressing Israeli Hebrew’s newness, Mr. Zuckerman is greatly underestimating the continuity between it and the various kinds of Hebrew that have preceded it. Although no Israeli I know of thinks he is speaking the eighth-century BCE “language of Isaiah,” a large amount of this language is still easily understandable to every Israeli. Indeed, if we take the book of Isaiah’s opening verse, “The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Yotam, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah,” there is not one word here that even the most uneducated speaker of modern Hebrew would not comprehend immediately. This holds true for many passages in the Bible.

We might contrast this with a text like the circa eighth-century C.E. “Beowulf,” which, although it is written in what is known as Old English, does not have a single line of which the contemporary speaker of English can make sense. No less than modern Hebrew, modern English is also a “hybrid language,” the Germanic base of the original tongue of the Angles and Saxons having been lexically and grammatically transformed by the enormous influence of French in the centuries following the Norman Conquest of England, let alone by later developments. Even Shakespeare, writing a mere 400 years ago in what is already known as “modern English,” is more difficult for the average American than the Hebrew books of Genesis or Samuel are for the average Israeli. Therefore, would Mr. Zuckerman suggest that we stop referring to the language he has addressed me in as “English” and call it something else — “Neo-Anglo-French,” perhaps?

Of course he wouldn’t, which is why his attitude toward modern Hebrew is less that of a professional linguist than of someone driven by the agenda of post- (if not anti-) Zionism. Just as Zionism — so Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Katz are implying — has pulled the wool over our eyes by getting us to think that the language of contemporary Israel is a modern form of the same Hebrew that culturally and religiously united the Jewish people throughout history, so Israel itself is, far from being the state of this people and a culminating moment for it, just another enclave in the Middle East inhabited by a brand-new population. Between the Jewish past and the Israeli present, as this view would have it, is an unbridgeable gulf.

The fact is, precisely because it was not spoken for nearly 2,000 years until its late 19th-century revival and thus remained frozen in many ways, Hebrew has changed far less over time than any other language spoken on the face of the earth today. But in any case, Mr. Zuckerman is missing the linguistic point in more ways than one. The rule of thumb is that we call modern languages by names different from those of their ancestors when two or more of them have the same ancestor and need to be differentiated; this is why we don’t call both Italian and French “modern Latin,” or both Hindi and Bengali “modern Sanskrit.” When the ancestor has had only one offspring, on the other hand, as is the case with Greek or Japanese, we call the modern language by the same name as the ancient one, no matter how different it is. Hebrew falls into the latter category, and only someone with an ideological ax to make an exception of it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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