Monkey to Monkey, Will the Message Be Lost?

One must distinguish between slang, vital to a language's vitality, and simple errors made since time immemorial.

Readers of this column are already familiar with its tendency to confront those who seek to take apart the Hebrew language. Call me a purist if you like.

Every generation seems to throw out its own learned scholar from Plato's cave who insists on freeing us from the bonds of proper language - this time around it is Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann, who teaches linguistics at Queensland University in Australia.

The Hebrew version of Zuckermann's book "Israeli Is a Beautiful Language" was published this month, accompanied by a comprehensive interview in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. Zuckermann informs us that the language to which we have grown accustomed is hardly that of the prophet Isaiah, and that it is impossible to refer to the "revived Hebrew" of the late 19th century and early 20th as if it were a direct continuation of biblical Hebrew.

"Israeli" is therefore a hybrid language, in his view, a sort of cross-breed between Hebrew and Yiddish - which is the main contributor to Israeli, as it was the mother tongue of its reviver.

This claim is not new, but it lacks both hands and feet. After all, a speaker whose mother tongue is Yiddish who finds himself in conversation in today's Hebrew will not understand a word (maybe half a word). But whoever has a basic grasp of the language of the Bible and the sages will understand, and can even participate in the discussion, even if he does come off as a bit antiquated and flowery, and even if the meaning of some words has changed over the past 1,750 years. Still, it would be a conversation of the hearing and not of the deaf.

I would not bother with this worthless and worn-out linguistic theory if not for Zuckermann's central, defiant message, which has recently won him high praise from the ranks of the ignorant. The errors of today, he maintains, will become the grammar of tomorrow. There is nothing wrong with "eser shekel" (instead of "asara shkalim" to say "ten shekels") or "arba banim" (instead of "arba'a," for "four boys") - everything is permitted. The Hebrew Language Academy shouldn't drive us crazy with its annoying corrections and pretentious neologisms. "We don't need language police," Zuckermann says.

He fails to distinguish between slang, vital to a language's vitality, and simple errors made since time immemorial: Eser shekel is not slang, it's utter nonsense. Zuckermann himself, by his own admission, will not say the phrase, but will allow the vulgar throngs to do so because he is an enlightened and unpretentious person.

And if Israelis tend to err, it is not the mistakes that must be corrected, but Hebrew itself, and the language can be fixed by purifying every verbal tic. This is condescension epitomized in its academic form: While I, the professor, speak loftily, you primitive boors have permission to do as you wish. Rejoice, young man in your inferiority, and we in their prattle in our ears.

It is important for people to understand each other, Zuckermann says, and everything else less so. Will a monkey not understand a monkey? Monkey to monkey, will the message be lost? Despite the increasing apishness of our cultural jungle, we would not want man's end to be like his beginnings, for our present to be like our origins.

Let's seal this with a Hanukkah song: A miracle has not happened here, a cruse of oil has not been not found. Or is it cruise, who really cares? At least we have beat the Hellenists.