Sunday, January 07, 2007

Ancient Hebrew; Rabbinic Hebrew; Israeli Hebrew

I'm enjoying the current Biblical Blog Carnival (# 13), which I mentioned a few posts ago. I wanted to make note here of the link there to the Simon Holloway post / discussion about getting clear on the different Hebrew languages (click here). In my experience, the general public and even many university students are not aware that firm lines must be drawn between, say, Biblical Hebrew and Rabbinic Hebrew.

Beginning by 200 c.e., the Rabbinic Hebrew of such early Jewish literature as the Midrashim and the Mishnah emerged as a distinct new language over against earlier Hebrew. One of the key marks of this, according to Simon H., is Rabbinic Hebrew's consistent and clear use of verbs to convey tense. This differs from the meaning given to verbs by prefix forms and affix forms in classical Hebrew, where "aspect," not "tense," is often the meaning being conveyed.

Now, what about the status of modern Israeli Hebrew? Simon H. notes that it was Tyler Williams in a post on his blog (click here) who recently posted on Ghil’ad Zuckermann's arguments that modern Israeli Hebrew is not the language of the prophet Isaiah (or of other biblical figures). Modern Hebrew is a whole new animal.

Simon is suspicious of Zuckermann's arguments in his main post, but in the comments section the discussion gets interesting. One reader, David Cohen, points out that Zuckermann has indeed presented real evidence that "Israeli" is marked as new language by more than just a new vocabulary / lexicon. I note that one of the articles where Z. presents this work has a provocative title: "Israel’s Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerning the provocative title, I believe that Zuckermann's thrust is that Israeli Hebrew constitutes neither a Semitic nor an Indo-European language. Not having read his syntactic work it's hard for me to comment, but this does strike me as a prime example of how linguistic terminology can become so pervasive that it actually obscures our appreciation of the language itself. After all, isn't the precise delineation of a language family rather arbitrary? How do we separate Indo from Iranian? Or Canaanite from Aramaic? Or even Semitic from European? I can't help but feel sometimes that the technical distinction between languages is informing our understanding of those languages to a greater degree than our understanding should be informing the nature of the technical distinction.

(And thanks for the mention, by the way!)

Mon Jan 08, 06:29:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks for commenting Simon; I'm honored. Yes, I agree. It is often a rather arbitrary thing to insist that this here is a separate and language and this here is a mere dialect, and so forth. I read recently that "a language is simply a dialect with its own army." Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are essentially all dialects of one language; and speakers within some of the seven dialect-groups of Chinese cannot really communicate with each other! ---S.

Mon Jan 08, 08:49:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course "a language is a dialect with a navy" etc. But that has little to do with the case of what Professor G. Zuckermann calls "Israeli". German has many dialects, Latin is the "mother" of Italian. From his publications I understand that the point he is trying to make is that "Israeli" is different from all these cases from the point of view of linguistic genetics. The parents of the "first Italian speakers" spoke a Romance language. The parents of the first "Israeli" speakers did not speak a Semitic language.

Anyhow, I totally agree with Professor Zuckermann that the Hebrew Bible should be translated into what he calls "Israeli". From my own teaching experience, I can tell that Israelis misunderstand Hebrew all the time!

Sun Jan 14, 10:50:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

This is simply fascinating! Is it true, then, that there is no modern Israeli translation of the Hebrew Bible?? Anonymous, we would love an example or two of the kind of misunderstandings that can occur. The one that I often use is the old story of Frank Cross and his coversation with the Israeli police officer who pulled him over, in which the officer ended up doubled over in laughter... --SLC

Sun Jan 14, 12:07:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

S and C,

Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann provides hundreds of examples of such misunderstandings. Some of them are mentioned in the section below, which I found in a published article which appears in his website. You can have a look at

I am not sure why Zuckermann, whose intellectual courage I admire, uses here the term "Israeli Hebrew" rather than his usual "Israeli". I suspect that he does so so the non-linguist readers unfamiliar with the ongoing Hebrew-Israeli debate will still understand what he is talking about. The article was published in 2006 in Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5.1: 57-71. You can have a look at the list at

The Mutual Intelligibility Assumption vs my ‘Translate the Bible to Israeli Hebrew’ Approach

Frequently, new research emerges allegedly demonstrating how ‘bad’ Israelis are at reading comprehension vis-à-vis pupils in other countries. I would like to explore whether these exams test reading-comprehension in (Old) Hebrew rather than in Israeli Hebrew. The Mutual Intelligibility Assumption posits that Israel’s main language is Hebrew because Israelis can understand Hebrew.

Edward Ullendorff (pc) has claimed that the biblical Isaiah could have understood Israeli Hebrew. I am not convinced that this would have been the case. The reason Israelis can be expected to understand the book of Isaiah – albeit still with difficulties – is surely because they study the Old Testament at school for eleven years, rather than because it is familiar to them from their daily conversation.

Furthermore, Israelis read the Bible as if it were Israeli Hebrew and often therefore misunderstand it. When an Israeli reads yéled sha‘ashu‘ím in Jeremiah 31:19 (King James 20), s/he does not understand it as ‘pleasant child’ but rather as ‘playboy’. Ba’u banim ‘ad mashber in Isaiah 37:3 is interpreted by Israelis as ‘children arrived at a crisis’ rather than as ‘children arrived at the mouth of the womb, to be born’. Kol ha’anashim hayyod‘im ki meqattrot neshehem le’elohim ’aHerim in Jeremiah 44: 15 is understood by many Israelis as ‘all the men who know that their wives are complaining to other gods’ rather than ‘all the men who knew that their wives had burned incense unto other gods’.

Most importantly, the available examples are far from being only lexical (as in the above faux amis): Israelis are often incapable of recognizing moods, aspects and tenses in the Bible.

Ask an Israeli what ’abanim shaHaqu mayim (Job 14:19) means and s/he will most likely tell you that the stones eroded the water. Of course, on second thought, s/he would guess that semantically this is impossible and that it must be the water which eroded the stones.
But such an OVA constituent order is impossible in Israeli Hebrew.

Nappila goralot wened‘a (Jonah 1:7) is thought to be rhetorical future rather than cohortative.

By and large, Israelis are the worst students in advanced studies of the Bible, although almost all Israelis would disagree with this statement of mine. Try to tell Israel’s Ministry of Education that the Old Testament should be translated into Israeli Hebrew…

Yet, Israeli children are told that the Old Testament was written in their mother tongue. In other words, in Israeli primary schools, Hebrew and the mother tongue are, axiomatically, the very same. One cannot therefore expect Israelis easily to accept the idea that the two languages might be genetically different. In English terms, it is as if someone were to try to tell a native English-speaker that his/her mother tongue is not the same as Shakespeare’s.

The difference is that between Shakespeare and the current native speaker of English there has been a continuous chain of native speakers. Between the biblical Isaiah and contemporary Israelis there has been no such chain, while the Jews have had many mother tongues other than Hebrew.

On the other hand, even if Israelis understand some Hebrew, that does not mean that Israeli is a direct continuation of Hebrew only. Mutual intelligibility is not crucial in determining the genetic affiliation of a language. After all, few speakers of Modern English understand Chaucer, but no one would claim that his language is genetically unrelated to contemporary English. By contrast, a Spanish-speaker might understand some Media Lengua (a mixed language spoken in Ecuador), which consists of Quechua grammar but whose vocabulary is 93% Spanish. Who would argue that Media Lengua is genetically (only) Spanish? In Thailand I could understand a Thai person speaking 12 to me in a sort of ‘pidgin English’. Does this make his speech genetically English?

It looks as if Ben-Yehuda would have liked to have cancelled the heritage of the Diaspora and would have been most content had Israelis spoken Biblical Hebrew. Had the Hebrew revival been successful, they would indeed have spoken a language closer to ancient Hebrew than Modern English is to Chaucer, because they would have bypassed more than 2000 years of natural development. On the other hand, let us assume for a moment that Hebrew never died as a spoken language by the second century AD. It continued to be the mother tongue of generations of Jews. They eventually returned to the Land of Israel, continuing to speak Hebrew. It might well be the case that that Hebrew would have differed more from Biblical Hebrew than does Israeli Hebrew. But this
fact says nothing about the genetics of actual Israeli Hebrew.

Simply brilliant!

Thu Jan 18, 03:26:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks for these notes! I'm going to elevate some of this to a regular post above. --SLC

Thu Jan 18, 08:29:00 AM GMT-5  

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