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How Hebrew Has Managed To Survive

The Story of Hebrew
by Lewis Glinert
Princeton, $27.95, 281 pages

Linguists tend to imagine language as a phenomenon outside human agency, its processes, like language change and acquisition, explained by deterministic rules. Dartmouth linguist Lewis Glinert, author of “The Story of Hebrew,” disputes the model that, stretching back to René Descartes, frames language and the human mind as a machine governed by rules: “The very word “rule” is a hostage to fortune, because ultimately humans don’t work by rules,” he said in a recent interview. Applied to Hebrew, the framework is especially problematic, because Hebrew as we know it wouldn’t exist were it not for human agency. It probably wouldn’t have survived past the Babylonian exile, 2,600 years ago. For most of its known history, Hebrew existed only in writing — preserved over centuries by rabbis, poets, scientists and ordinary Jews — but, Glinert’s book argues, it remained very much alive. During the Zionist movement, its written form would provide the basis for a self-determining Jewish society and a new, spoken language, one that no longer requires deliberate effort to keep it alive.

“The Story of Hebrew” recalls an earlier style of linguistics, the old-school philology that once dominated the field. Glinert’s analysis relies largely on centuries of Hebrew texts, and is masterful in its understanding of how the language has been used by different people for specific purposes — religious, ideological, scientific and literary. Glinert offers has no great thesis or overarching narrative. He is interested in the contingencies of Hebrew’s history; nothing is treated as inevitable. An entire body of medieval Hebrew medical literature rivaled European science and medicine, before the expulsions of Spanish Jewry and, later, the Renaissance. The medieval Sephardic paytanim, or poets, invented new Hebrew roots and words, producing some of today’s best-known Jewish texts (among them “Adon Olam,” the liturgical hymn). European Christians could never come to grips with what Hebrew meant for them. The language has inspired reverence, in the search for a lingua humana, or mother of all languages, during the Renaissance, and, often at the same time, paranoia and resentment. A renewed interest in Hebrew in the English-speaking world after the completion of the King James Bible in 1611 infused English rhetoric with a Hebraic quality.

“The Story of Hebrew” sometimes reads like a dry chronology of events, but that is practically a requirement of the language-history genre. Glinert wanted to survey the whole of Hebrew’s history (the last book to do so, he says, was “Hebrew, the Eternal Language” by William Chomsky, Noam Chomsky’s father, in 1957), which is impossible to do in the 250 pages that he was allotted. The real drama of the book begins in the final third, when Glinert reaches the 19th century: Jewish nationalism, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s experiment to raise his son speaking exclusively Hebrew, and the almost overnight spread of Hebrew across Israel. We all know how this story ends, but the success of Hebrew was never inevitable; at the time, it probably seemed destined to fail and to doom a generation of children to social dysfunction. Little is understood, Glinert laments, about how the rebirth of Hebrew actually took shape. It happened so quickly that no one managed to write it down. But whatever happened in the Hebrew classrooms where Zionist pioneers sent their children was less important than what the students created among themselves. The first generation of young sabras would determine which new words represented modern ideas and technologies, which grammatical forms would be preserved and which would become archaic. Still, the miracle of Modern Hebrew was not that it produced a language that wasn’t spoken before — children in volatile language environments already do that — but that it so faithfully resembles the Hebrew of the Bible. Moses, Glinert writes, “would find relatively clear sailing with an Israeli novel or a fine-print contract.”

By the early 1960s, Hebrew had so thoroughly supplanted European languages that only 5% of Israelis claimed Yiddish as their primary tongue. This could not have been accomplished without some force: Hebrew identity depended on the repudiation of Diaspora languages. Yiddish was painted as weak, feminized, a symbol of the humiliating Eastern European past. Midcentury political posters urged Israelis to use Hebrew in their private lives. State institutions — radio, newspapers, schools and institutes — conducted their business in Hebrew. Decades later, Glinert argues, the successful integration of 1 million new immigrants from the Soviet Union, who were not forced to abandon their native Russian, suggests that the suppression of Yiddish was not necessary for Hebrew’s success. That may or may not be true — Hebrew’s ascendancy was more secure by the 1980s and ’90s than it was decades prior — but the point displays Glinert’s own attitude toward language. He recognizes the death of Yiddish, the suppression of any human language, as its own tragedy.

Israeli Hebrew no longer has to fear for its viability. Its present-day challenges are more mundane, the same conflicts with which every society outside the Anglosphere now wrestles: the growing influence of English, the urge to replace foreign loanwords with top-down, native-sounding coinages. In Israel, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, or Akademya (itself a Greek borrowing), drives that project, though its authority, among many eye-rolling Israelis, is hardly absolute. Glinert treads very lightly here, careful to separate his analysis as an academic from his personal view, as an Orthodox Jew with a stake in the future of Hebrew. Linguists tend not to be prescriptive about language, viewing themselves as scientific observers of how language is used. They bristle at notions of how language ought to be spoken. Glinert largely conforms to that convention in his book, but in conversation he is more tendentious: “Every time I walk into a mall in Israel and see all the English shop fronts jumping at me… it offends me.”

Glinert likely understood that expressing prescriptive views on Hebrew could compromise his seriousness toward parts of the linguistic community. But his coyness about Israel’s language wars in “The Story of Hebrew” is not entirely convincing. One of the more brilliant insights in his analysis is to recognize that the fight over Hebrew’s future is not merely a matter of language, but also one of cultural philosophy. Some non-core school subjects in Israel are now taught in English, and humanistic education in general has been subordinated to subjects that promote Israel’s position in the global market. Israel’s global brand is the “start-up nation,” its society, at least among the secular segments, shaped by Western commerce. “On their present cultural and social path,” Glinert writes, “most Jews in Israel will effortlessly be speaking and reading a Hebrew ever more disconnected from its Jewish and early Zionist roots, and ever more crowded with English.”

Glinert had an opportunity to show that leaving Hebrew on the path it’s on now is not value-neutral, but is itself a choice to allow the market to decide what happens to Hebrew language and identity. That would have required him to write a different sort of book, one that articulates a moral role for linguists in society — certainly beyond the scope of this project. Still, Glinert’s sensitivity to the dynamics of Israeli society, his understanding of what is at stake in the future of Hebrew, calls for a fuller, less detached analysis — a subject, perhaps, for a more ambitious follow-up.

Marina N. Bolotnikova is an associate editor at Harvard Magazine.

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