Barely the Twain Shall Meet

In his new book, linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann seeks to lift the biblical veil and expose the Diasporic face of 'Israeli' - his term for contemporary Hebrew

When I received Ghil'ad Zuckermann's "Israelit safa yafa" ("Israeli, A Beautiful Language"; Am Oved) a few weeks ago, I knew it would spark disagreement and some outraged responses, but I did not anticipate just how strong the reaction would be. As a scholar of language, I have followed the work of Prof. Zuckermann, who teaches linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, for years, and have read most of the important publications he has written in English. What amazed me about the response was that knowing absolutely nothing about the book did not stop people from disagreeing with it - and vehemently, at that.

Zuckermann's main thesis is that ancient Hebrew is not similar to modern Hebrew (which he calls "Israeli"). The two, he argues, are in fact different languages: It was Hebrew, together with other languages - mainly Yiddish, but also Russian, German, Ladino, Polish, Arabic and more - that created "Israeli."

"I thought about it a bit, and what he says is rubbish," one physics professor said to me after reading two pages of the introduction. "Why rubbish?" I wondered. "Well," the physicist replied, "because the fact is that we can read the Bible."

I will return to this issue in a moment, but in the meantime it is interesting to observe that the scientist in question, although now a secular man, grew up in a religious home, imbibed the Bible from childhood and even attended a yeshiva high school. Another professor, a historian, told a group of foreign students who asked him for his opinion of Zuckermann's new book: "I haven't read it, and I don't know much about the field, but I think it's nonsense: The fact is that even Greeks today cannot read Homer."

Zuckermann touches on this issue, but, as I've said, it seems that in order to disagree with his book, you need neither to have read it nor to have any knowledge of linguistics. I also heard comments such as "wise guy," "arrogant," "looking to provoke." What I have yet to hear is a reasoned answer to the question: Is he right?

As a matter of principle, Hebrew apparently ceased to exist between the second and the 19th centuries: that is, although it was in use as a sacred language, although there were apparently some scattered collectives that spoke it, and although there is clear evidence that Hebrew was used as the common language of Jews with different mother tongues, there was no unbroken intergenerational continuum of native Hebrew speakers who used Hebrew in their daily lives (unlike Greek, for example). In this sense, Hebrew froze and did not develop or change the way other natural languages do. Such developments and changes are studied by historical linguists, and there are patterns of change common to many languages. The scholar of Hebrew, by contrast, has before him only "snapshots" from different eras during which the language was partially revived, usually only within a specific area of life, such as liturgical poetry.

The Zionist movement revived Hebrew as a secular national language, an everyday language, with the clear intention of making it the mother tongue of those born in Eretz Israel, who would then pass it on to their offspring. The revivers of the language, led by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, emphasized the reliance on ancient Hebrew, especially that of the Bible, as a source for their innovations. The use of biblical Hebrew was self-aware and conspicuous. Yiddish, as we know, was seen at the time as an obsolete language, a symbol of life in exile, and it was therefore pronounced dead. (It may be no coincidence that the only Yiddish word found in Bialik's writing is schnor - to beg for money.) However, the primary language of the revivers themselves was Yiddish, alongside other languages, and it seeped into and penetrated Hebrew in a hidden, unconscious way.

Following linguist Paul Wexler, Zuckermann wishes to lift up the biblical veil and expose the Diasporic face of "Israeli," the local language - a face that even now, nearly 90 years after Ben Yehuda's death, many still believe to be unattractive. Zuckermann's claim is more subtle than that of Wexler, who argued that modern Hebrew is a Slavic language that has undergone a process of relexification - that is, its vocabulary is Hebrew, but its other properties (such as sentence structure) are Slavic.

Zuckermann, by contrast, sees Israeli as the offspring of many parents, Yiddish being only one of them. He proposes a principle of overlap, arguing that when a certain element "sought" to enter Hebrew, its chances of gaining entry increased in proportion to the number of progenitors of Israeli who had that element in common.

Here, for instance, is an example of a translation that retains both meaning and sound: In the Mishna, the word tayar means "guide," whereas in contemporary usage it means "tourist." The word preserves the sound of the English analogue, and managed to enter Israeli with this new meaning not only because of its similarity to the English term, but because it is common to other contributing languages, such as Polish, German and Yiddish.

Most of the book's empirical part is devoted to these kinds of translations and to mirror-image translations (such as akhbar, mouse - whose use to denote the computer component has been replicated in modern Hebrew). Only a small portion of it is devoted to syntax, phonology and morphology (90 pages compared to 30). This may be the book's main weakness, because to show how Israeli is different from Hebrew, aspects of the language beyond vocabulary should have been addressed at more length. It is also unfortunate that the author does not refer to the interesting findings published in recent years by translator and publisher Yair Or.

Nevertheless, the evidence in the 30 pages devoted to morphology is very interesting. Thus, for example, certain consonant combinations were not possible in Hebrew, causing an aleph to be added to words which come from the Greek, such as aplaton for Plato, or itztadion for stadium; Israeli allows the emphasis on specific syllables within a word to be changed in order to indicate different meanings: For example, when tzfoni is pronounced with an emphasis on the last syllable, it means something from the north (tzafon), whereas when the emphasis is moved to the first syllable, it becomes a slang term used to denote a higher-class snob (as from North Tel Aviv); and the syntax of a sentence can be changed for emphasis, a literary device that has clearly been influenced by Yiddish (and is found in English, too).

This book calls for in-depth discussion. What was the condition of Hebrew in the early days of modern Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel? How did Yiddish penetrate Hebrew without the knowledge of the founders, and were they really oblivious to this process? How is it that authors such as Asher Barash and David Vogel, who wrote 80 and 90 years ago, are completely legible to us, whereas authors such as S.Y. Agnon and Yosef Chaim Brenner are so hard to understand? A random glance in Menachem Zvi Kaddari's "Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew" suggests that when the letter vav is used for conjunction purposes, it has 20 different meanings, and its definitions take up three pages.

So do we really understand the Bible, as we claim to? Zuckermann provides the foundation for this debate, while violating one of the foremost tenets of linguistics - that reflected in the claim of Greek scholar Gildersleeve: that a real linguist has no right to be understood.