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Hebrew or Israeli? Linguistics and Zionism

30th November 2006

Reuters has an article by Dan Williams (no relation) on maverick scholar Ghil’ad Zuckermann, entitled, “Hebrew or Israeli? Linguist stirs Zionist debate.” Zuckermann argues that modern Hebrew should be renamed “Israeli” and give up any claim to pure descent from the Hebrew of the Bible.

Here are some excerpts:

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.

Some critics throw Zuckermann in with revisionist academics who made their names questioning the justice of the 1948 war of Israel’s founding in what had been British Mandate Palestine.

Early Zionists were quick to assume Hebrew as part of an ancient birthright to land also claimed by Palestinian Arabs.

“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,” wrote an Israeli contributor to the American newspaper Jewish Daily Forward.

Professor Moshe Bar-Asher, president of Israel’s Hebrew Language Academy, likened Zuckermann to Noam Chomsky, a renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist who in recent decades became a freewheeling critic of U.S. foreign policy.

“I think Zuckermann is a very good scholar, but he risks wasting his efforts by mixing up linguistics with politics,” Bar-Asher said. “He stirs up a lot of antagonism.”

There is continuity and discontinuity between Modern and Classical/Biblical Hebrew, so while I think differentiating between the two as scholars do is necessary, I’m not sure that calling “Modern Hebrew” “Israeli” is the best solution. Perhaps, akin to “Canadian English” or “American English”, “Israeli Hebrew” is a potential option.

Do my Jewish/Israeli readers have any opinions?


5 Responses to “Hebrew or Israeli? Linguistics and Zionism”

  1. Simon Holloway Says:

    Zuckermann’s thesis has a lot to recommend it, but it is important to note that he has only unsatisfactorily dealt with issues of syntax. Focusing predominantly on lexical items, Zuckermann has indicated beyond question the enormous debt that Israeli Hebrew has to various Indo-European languages – but that doesn’t reflect upon the fabric of Israeli Hebrew itself. From a syntactic perspective, Israeli Hebrew is exceptionally different to the language of Isaiah (not least because Israeli Hebrew is a tense-based language, while Biblical Hebrew communicates tense via context and not via verbal forms), but there is little to indicate that Israeli Hebrew is fundamentally different from Rabbinic Hebrew – and even Zuckermann would call Rabbinic Hebrew Semitic. At the end of the day, Zuckermann is a good scholar and he makes valid points, but until he actually treats the syntactic evidence his theory will never be anything else.

  2. Christopher Heard Says:

    I am neither Jewish nor Israeli, but I often use the term “Modern Israeli Hebrew” in contexts where it is necessary to explicitly to distinguish the modern language from ancient versions.

  3. Kevin P. Edgecomb Says:

    I had two years of Modern Hebrew, so here are my two cents. Yes, they are different, particularly in the vast number of lexical imports as Simon noted, but the syntax is closely akin to post-exilic/late Biblical Hebrew. Although perfect=past, imperfect=future, participle=present is the tense system in Modern. Big deal. And no Israeli thinks the language is exactly the same as it was anciently, if they were properly educated (all receive some Biblical Hebrew, obviously). Relatedly, Modern Hebrew poetry is written with Biblical Hebrew syntax, another distancing from the vernacular. Much ado about nothing.

  4. Jim Aitken Says:

    It is unfair to call Ghila’d a maverick, although the article is not right that he has PhD’s from both Oxford and Cambridge (Cambridge ‘incorporates’ the Oxford degree to give you rights at Cambridge)!

    Ghila’d has a point as a serious linguist, but perhaps caution should be exercised, as noted by the other commentators. He is not the first to suggest that Hebrew is not entirely Semitic, or to note the differences between biblical and modern Hebrew (although E. Ullendorff claimed they were mutually intelligible – ‘Could Isaiah understand the ha’arets newspaper?’). One can also note the influence of Arabic and not just Indo-European on modern Hebrew, or the fact that Greek and Latin had already influenced mishnaic Hebrew.

    He is arguing against those who place too much emphasis on Hebrew, and ultimately it is a socio-political argument. He is perhaps stating it too strongly, but that is a common error when one is arguing against something you strongly disagree with. He is also indirectly promoting his work on the influence of Yiddish on modern Hebrew.

  5. Michael Cohen Says:

    To Simon Holloway (1) and Kevin P. Edgecomb (3):

    Professor Zuckermann does not at all focus on lexical items. On the contrary.

    You might be thinking of his 2003 book, Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew, but he has published many academic articles since then. I have found the following most telling and convincing article on his website:

    http://www.zuckermann.org/pdf/multiple-causation.pdf

    I once attended a most entertaining and scholarly public lecture he gave in Tel Aviv, probably the wittiest talk I have ever heard in my life. I admire his courage and intellectual integrity. The point is that he discussed there mostly *grammar*: morphology, phonology, syntax, phonetics and semantics. I still have the handouts.

    I have no idea, Kevin, how you have decided that the syntax of Israeli is based on Mishnaic Hebrew only. Have you checked Yiddish, Standard Average European etc.? I remember Zuckermann giving the Hebrew example of avanim shaHaku mayim, literally “stones eroded water”, which is obviously ungrammatical in Israeli with the meaning of water eroded stones”. The Subject-Verb-Object constituent order is the same as in Standrd Avergae European – see Zuckermann’s articles.

    You can also have a look at

    http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/tmr/tmr09/tmr09013.htm

    The bottom line: Zuckermann’s model is most comprehensive, much more complex than a lexicological analysis.

    Michael, Israel