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The Miracle Of Hebrew

John Podhoretz is in Israel, and reflects on the miracle of Hebrew’s resurrection [1] as a living language. Excerpt:

Hebrew had not been a spoken language for nearly 2,000 years until European Jews moved to Palestine in the 1870s. The main pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, where one of the two concert stages was set up, is on Ben-Yehuda Street. The street is named for Eliezer Ben Yehuda (born Perlman), who moved to Palestine in 1881 from what is now Belarus. He believed that  Jews gathering in the historical Israel needed a common tongue and that they should use the language of the Bible, which had been spoken conversationally only by Biblical and Talmudic scholars in the nearly two millennia since the fall of Masada—and only to discuss religious texts.

A zealot, Ben Yehuda decided to turn his own son Ben-Zion (son of Zion) into the modern world’s first native Hebrew speaker. He spoke to Ben-Zion solely in Hebrew, would not expose him to other languages—which meant, among other things, that the boy could not converse with his older half-siblings or other children—and through his tutelage, began to build the structures of a modern vocabulary for a language to which useful words had not been added since the first century AD. Ben-Zion was born in 1882. Now there are eight million people in Israel for   whom Hebrew is their native language or the language they have adopted as immigrants—speaking a tongue all but unheard on the face of the earth two millennia.

Think about that. It’s breathtaking. A fuller account of Ben Yehuda’s zealotry, and his family’s sacrifice, and the astonishing result, can be read here [2]. One man did that. One man! A visionary and a lunatic and a kind of saint. I had no idea.

Who’s the Eliezer Ben Yehuda of Akkadian [3]? Show yourself!

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29 Comments To "The Miracle Of Hebrew"

#1 Comment By Noah172 On August 7, 2013 @ 1:30 am

Jews have high verbal ability. They not only preserved Hebrew such that it could be revived as a native tongue — not a unique feat; Latin has been preserved and could hypothetically be revived given a nationalist movement similar to Zionism — but they have been prolific inventors of new languages: Ladino, Yiddish, Esperanto*, etc. It traces back to Jews’ tribal imperative to separate themselves from their goyisch (there’s a Yiddish word with a Hebraic root and a Germanic suffix) neighbors — in dress, in customs, in food, in sabbath-keeping, and in language. Jews became adept at constructing variations of gentile languages blended with Hebrew, such as the aforementioned Ladino and Yiddish, so that the men could do business when necessary with the goyim, but the community as a whole would be isolated from contaminating (in their view) contact with God’s unchosen; or, in the case of Esperanto, they attempted an ambitious blending of most European languages as part of a utopian vision, common among diaspora Jews after emancipation, and remaining to this day, of suppressing national distinctions in the pursuit of interethnic harmony and world peace.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the Jewish creator of Esperanto, was in some sense a competitor to Ben Yehuda: the former at first attempted to modernize Yiddish to serve as the national language of the Zionist enterprise before taking on his utopian one-world linguistic project. Zamenhof might also qualify for Rod’s description of “[a] visionary and a lunatic and a kind of saint.”

* One of the world’s few living native Esperantophones is billionaire George Soros.

#2 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 7, 2013 @ 2:01 am

Anyone up for a revival of Latin?

It’s interesting to compare the two. Latin remains the primary spoken-at-home language for almost nobody, despite extensive religious, scholarly, and scientific use. It has declined somewhat in recent centuries, replaced by French, German, and English as the lingua franca of much academic discourse. Many fields of study (biology, medicine, law) use Latin terms for technical discourse, but most biologists, doctors, and lawyers aren’t conversant in the language–a primary advantage of using Latin terminology is it avoids the inevitable collision between professional and common meanings that occurs when words in the vernacular are redefined for professional discourse. And it remains the official language of the Vatican, of course.

Latin also has a lot of prep-school and geek cred, even though it’s use as a signifier of cultural status has greatly diminished. The first Harry Potter book has been published in Latin.

Not bad for a dead language…

#3 Comment By Rombald On August 7, 2013 @ 4:11 am

If a language is well-documented, it’s debatable whether it can be considered to be extinct.

A friend of a friend, an Englishman, married a Polish woman, with their only common language at first being Latin, and they are bringing their children up at least partly as mother-tongue Latin-speakers.

There is also a sizable Sanskrit-use movement in modern India.

#4 Comment By JonF On August 7, 2013 @ 7:05 am

The only other language this could have happened with (in the West) is Latin. After all it was kept alive as the language of the Church and scholarship. If a small group of dedicated Latinists had wanted to, they could have brought up their children to speak it any time during the Middle Ages or the early modern centuries.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On August 7, 2013 @ 7:43 am

I feel bad for his son not being able to play with other kids.

#6 Comment By Alex On August 7, 2013 @ 8:15 am

On the other hand, the establishment of Hebrew along with the assimilation of Diasporic Jews has resulted in the virtual death of another language – Yiddish. There were about 11 million Yiddish speakers worldwide before WWII. Now it’s down around 100,000, most of whom do not use it as their primary language.

#7 Comment By Daivd T On August 7, 2013 @ 8:52 am

Alex: First of all, a lot of the Yiddish-speakers were killed by Hitler. True, even if there had been no Holocaust, assimilation would still have greatly reduced the number of Yiddish-speakers, but not nearly so drastically. Second, your 100,000 number is too small, even for the US alone–“In the 2000 census, 178,945 people in the United States reported speaking Yiddish at home. ” [4] Third, the number of Yiddish speakers, however small by pre-Holocaust standards, may be increasing because of the high birth rate among Yiddish-speaking Orthodox (especially Hasidic) Ashkenazi Jews.

#8 Comment By David J. White On August 7, 2013 @ 10:01 am

The first Harry Potter book has been published in Latin.

The second book as well. And the first was also published in classical Greek.

First of all, a lot of the Yiddish-speakers were killed by Hitler.

The Holocaust also decimated the Esperanto movement, because many of its early and most fervent supporters were Eastern European Jews.

If a small group of dedicated Latinists had wanted to, they could have brought up their children to speak it any time during the Middle Ages or the early modern centuries.

Wasn’t the French writer Montaigne raised with Latin as his first language?

I think part of the problem with comparing the revival of Hebrew and of Latin as spoken languages is that Hebrew has always had a specific constituency, for whom the language was a sign of religious, cultural, and later political identidy. Latin during the Middle Ages and early modern period was the common language of all educated people in the West, and thus wasn’t the cultural or political badge for any particular group — just the opposite, in fact: it provided a common linguistic medium for people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. So, really, until Latin lost its position at the center of education, there really was no such thing as a “Latinist”, since that would have been synonymous with “educated person”.

There is actually a fairly flourishing (in relative terms) living-language Latin movement nowadays. The internet has actually contributed a great deal to this, since it is easier for spoken-Latin aficionados to find one another and communicate. Several former students of Fr. Reggie Foster have decided to pick up the torch and carry on, and they run spoken-Latin workshops in Rome and elsewhere. I occasionally Skype with a friend with whom I generally converse in Latin, and he has been teaching some Latin to his now three-year-old son.

There are probably more people trying to communicate in Latin on a daily basis, at least to an extent, now than there have been in at least a couple of centuries.

#9 Comment By Turmarion On August 7, 2013 @ 10:54 am

Caledoni,

Restorationem sermonis Latini pro usu cotidiano bonam ideam esse puto. [5] nuntii Latine Radiophoniae Finnicae Generalis adsunt.

(Scotty,

I think restoring Latin for daily use is a good idea. Here is news in Latin from Radio Finland).

#10 Comment By Dan Davis On August 7, 2013 @ 11:26 am

What pronunciation are modern Latin speakers using? In high school we were taught the presumptive pronunciation of Cicero and Vergil, with hard c’s and g’s, consonant I instead of j, the letter v pronounced as w, and Italian vowels. Church Latin is pronounced as if it were Italian. I believe other countries use indigenous pronunciations. This matters in trying to use Latin in trans-national communication.

#11 Comment By Steph On August 7, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

[6] is a documentary about the author I saw a year or so ago that also provides information about the decline of various Yiddish-speaking communities/literary traditions. Worth seeing for those interested in the topic.

#12 Comment By Irenist On August 7, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

In my immigrant dad’s neck of the woods, there has been solid, slow progress on reviving two Insular Celtic languages: Manx (a close relative of Irish and Scots Gaelic) and Cornish (a close relative of Welsh and Breton).

In my own New England home, there has been a movement to revive the Massachusett language (a.k.a. Natic, Wômpanâak (Wampanoag), or Pokanoket), the language of the Native participants at the first Thanksgiving.

There are lots of other worthy projects, too:
[7]

#13 Comment By oc On August 7, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

“I feel bad for his son not being able to play with other kids.”

On the other hand, being at the head of a great revival of your cultural heritage is something too, isn’t it?

#14 Comment By Andrya On August 7, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

I can understand why the founders of Israel chose to revive Hebrew- if they had used Yiddish it would have put Sephardic Israelis at a significant disadvantage (which is a problem anyway but would be worse if the language was Yiddish). And I do appreciate the miracle of reviving a dead language.

But there was also a loss- there was a huge and rich literature in Yiddish that can now be read only in tranlation.

#15 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On August 7, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

oc asked:

On the other hand, being at the head of a great revival of your cultural heritage is something too, isn’t it?

For me the benefit wouldn’t outweigh the social isolation of the child. But I’m not Jewish and maybe the kid thanked him later.

#16 Comment By J On August 7, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

As a person who has partly learned the language (it’s complicated), the key was not so much what Ben Yehuda did to his kid and family (pretty nuts, some of it) but the work to create Modern Hebrew.

As the second article points out, a great portion of Jews of the day were semifluent in Biblical Hebrew. The difficulty was going from a language full of religious cultural coding, Ancient World vocabulary, and a lot of vestigial morphology and syntax matters long simplified away in other Semitic languages (e.g. modern Arabic) to a usable language in profane and everyday affairs by all members of the community. In Eastern Europe Biblical Hebrew was historically regarded as a language for sacred occasions and rituals and theology among Jews, Yiddish the language of social and financial and other everyday affairs. There was a lengthy phenomenon- still present in ultra-O communities afaik- of resisting the use of Modern Hebrew on those grounds and retaining Yiddish in its place. They perceived a degradation of the language in its revival. Linguistically there’s something to that. We- well, most of us- don’t go to the KJV and try to assemble a superior form of everyday English from that, either.

The big problem with the “miracle” notion is that it’s hard to imagine that the State of Israel could ever have become the representative of Jews in the world with Yiddish as its official language. Just imagine a group of Arabic and Sephardic Hebrew speaking Yemenite Jews arriving in Tel Aviv in 1950 and being told that a German/Slavic dialect group language was going to be the center of their new old language-centric culture and society! The historical and cultural absurdity and sheer ridiculousness of that would be extraordinary. The “miracle” entails the rejection of culture and tradition that assumed Exile and assimilations. The “miracle” is Jews rejecting a pseudo-European identity as transient and accepting the Middle East as their home and central to their identity.

I have an acquaintance who speaks Yiddish, Modern Hebrew, Romanian, English, and Spanish fluently, and some German and some Ladino. She can also read Biblical Hebrew, of course. (No, it’s not Daniela Ruah, though I wish it were. Her grandparents were Romanian Jews who emigrated to Mexico prior to WW2.) I asked her once which of all these she languages preferred to speak with other Jews. She laughed and said, ” You know, no matter which language we use we’re speaking Jewish with each other.” I had to laugh at that, because that was such a true description of my Modern Hebrew class at Harvard- even the Muslim Arab class member did the code switching adeptly (he was in training to be a diplomat in the service of his Middle Eastern country adjacent to Israel and in that profession it’s a requisite skill) and could be/speak as a convincing attitudinally and psychologically Jewish person within the confines of that classroom. The central Jewish quality of passionateness has survived the limitations of all languages it has encountered so far. But Hebrew probably remains the one most molded and malleable to that passion’s forms and spirit and inspirations and manifestations among its people.

Technically much more difficult is what is going on in Mashpee, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The small Indian reservation there is trying to revive Wampanoag as their language after losing it close to 200 years ago. There are small children being raised with Wampana’ak as their first language now and a large scale effort to educate the working class adults into some fluency in the language. It’s a lot harder than revival of Hebrew in the late 19th century because almost all cultural and language fluency was lost, so much of its hunter/gatherer/early agrarian cultural reference frame is lost, and the population is so much smaller and poorly educated and lacking in wealthy activist sponsors. On the other hand, so much more linguistic knowledge exists today than in the 1880s about language revival and survival and language evolution/modernization and continuity. This greater understanding is being applied to the Wampanoag situation, apparently with decent success so far- the revival effort has only been running for 5-10 years.

#17 Comment By cecelia On August 7, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

there was once in the US – and I would imagine other countries too – non Jewish Yiddish speakers. Both of my grandparents spoke Yiddish and they were Irish-Scots Catholics. They absorbed the language because they lived as children in a polyglot NYC neighborhood. My grandfather spoke it because one needed to be able to communicate with ones customers in the local stores.

#18 Comment By David J. White On August 7, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

What pronunciation are modern Latin speakers using? In high school we were taught the presumptive pronunciation of Cicero and Vergil, with hard c’s and g’s, consonant I instead of j, the letter v pronounced as w, and Italian vowels. Church Latin is pronounced as if it were Italian. I believe other countries use indigenous pronunciations. This matters in trying to use Latin in trans-national communication.

Catholic traditionalists and homeschoolers are using the Italianate pronunciation; most others — at least, Anglophones — are using the so-called revived classical pronunciation (the one you used in high school, and the one generally taught in schools in English-speaking countries). In Father Reggie’s class many of us started out using the classical pronunciation, but after a few weeks of listening to Reggie many of us had slipped into the Italianate pronunciation. Being in Italy and surrounded by Italian tended to influence us in that direction as well.

I generally code-switch myself; I use the “classical” pronunciation in class and in professional contexts, but the ecclesiastical one in church and when singing. I’ve even had to use the German pronunciation when singing a few times. As you say, other countries use an indigenous pronunciation tradition. The pronunciation of “legal Latin” in Anglophone countries is a relic of the traditional English pronunciation, which, I believe, was generally taught in English schools until the late 19th century. (There is a scene in the book and movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips about this.)

This actually matters less in transnational communication than you might think. For one thing, during the Middle Ages and early modern period most people probably followed their national traditions in pronouncing Latin, and they seem to have been able to communicate across national borders. For another, it’s a bit like meeting someone from, say, Newcastle or Glasgow, who has a distinctive and unfamiliar accent. After a short while, your ears adapt and you understand what the other person is saying without having to think about it too much. In particular, as I can attest from experience, switching between classical and ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation really isn’t too difficult. Aside from a few specific differences in the pronunciation of certain consonants and diphthongs, they really aren’t all that different.

#19 Comment By Andrya On August 7, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

Secular Misanthropist
It would be horrible if the child(ren) is/are isolated but I very much doubt that will happen. I went to elementary school in San Francisco in the 1950s, where children from Chinese immigrant families arrived in kindergarten speaking only Cantonese- within a few months they had learned enough English from other children for basic communication. Children are sponges for language.

#20 Comment By JonF On August 7, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

Re: Church Latin is pronounced as if it were Italian. I believe other countries use indigenous pronunciations.

Church Latin is pronounced as Latin was in the late Empire. Italian kept a lot of that, more so than Spanish or (certainly) French, although I’ve read that Sardinian comes closest to late Latin phonology.

Any language with a long history will include serious phonetic changes. English went through a whole bunch of those in the late Middle Ages: that weird “gh” spelling we have? In Chaucer’s time it was pronounced like German “ch”.
Ancient Greek had some pronunciation changes too: We mostly pronounce Ф and Θ as transliterated ph (f) and th, but in fact they were true aspirates p+h and t+h until late antiquity when also β became “v”, δ became dh and γ became either y or gh.

#21 Comment By RB On August 7, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

My dad’s boss is Jewish with a Persian last name. He’s descended from Sephardic Jews that fled Spain en masse in 1492 and settled in Istanbul, where there is still a Sephardic 15th-century-Spanish-speakinh community.

At some point in the last turn of the century someone told them there was a port city in America that was a lot like Istanbul and a large group of this community splintered and emigrated to Seattle, where I imagine the weather was a bit of a shock.

Spanish Fork, Utah, was settled entirely by Icelandic immigrants, and still spoke Icelandic as late as the 1930’s or so. I wonder if they’ll revive Icelandic there.

#22 Comment By Turmarion On August 7, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

cecelia, the late, great Irish Catholic James Cagney was fluent in Yiddish. He grew up adjacent to a Jewish neighborhood in New York, and often was a shabbes goy (gentile who does forbidden work on the Sabbath for Orthodox Jews). It’s said that this stood him in good stead when the (mainly Jewish) studio bosses switched to Yiddish (thinking they could discuss his contracts without him understanding what they were saying), only to be stunned when he griped about the terms in their own language!

#23 Comment By David J. White On August 7, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

Church Latin is pronounced as Latin was in the late Empire.

That rather raises the question of where in the late Empire, and during what period. The “late Empire” covers a lot of time and space.

I don’t think Church Latin necessarily reflects any “late imperial” pronunciation any more than the modern Romance languages do. As standardized Latin became more and more an acquired language of the educated, people tended to pronounce it according to the pronunciation customs of their own language. The way Church Latin is pronounced today is not some fossilized survival preserved since the fifth century. Church Latin is pronounced like Italian because the RCC is centered in Italy, so Church officials naturally pronounce Latin in an Italianate way. And that particular pronunciation didn’t become the official standard for the RCC until the early 20th century, under the pontificate of Pius X.

The book to read about the history of the pronunciation of Latin is Vox Latina by W. Sidney Allen.

#24 Comment By Carl On August 7, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

I vaguely hope for the revival of Hawaiian and Hawaiian sovereignty on a long enough time scale, but at the moment I find it unlikely to happen any time soon. Maybe in one hundred years it will have happened. America no longer needs a mid-Pacific coaling station, and it’s pretty clear that the next century belongs to Asia, not the U.S. anyway.

#25 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 8, 2013 @ 12:26 am

I vaguely hope for the revival of Hawaiian and Hawaiian sovereignty on a long enough time scale, but at the moment I find it unlikely to happen any time soon.

I don’t expect Hawaiian sovereignty for a myriad number of reasons, least of all is that it doesn’t have tremendous popular support among the Hawaiian electorate (those advocating for Hawaiian independence often also advocating disenfranchising haoles as part of the process), but the Hawaiian language is still around, and is an official language of the state of Hawaii. It’s only natively spoken by a small fraction of the population, but it is frequently taught as a second language, and has been the subject of intense study.

#26 Comment By JonF On August 8, 2013 @ 6:18 am

Some words of Hawaiian are in common use in Hawaii I found when I visited last year: aloha obviously, mahalo for thank-you, and a few like that. It’s a pretty simply language, the only challenging phoneme (for English speakers) being the glottal stop (Hawai’i is pronounced with a sharp pause between the two i’s at the end) and maybe the “w” which is somewhere between our “w” and “v”.

#27 Comment By JonF On August 8, 2013 @ 6:21 am

Re: That rather raises the question of where in the late Empire, and during what period.

Italy, and very specifically Rome.
In other areas Late Latin was well on its way to starting to sound like the Romance languages descended from it (though less so in France where most of the sound changes that make modern French sound as it does came much later, some as late as the 1700s.)

#28 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 8, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

O my friends, you are making my day all over again. Language per se is by far my favorite intellectual pursuit. That is founded on many influences — my immigrant parents being multi-lingual but raising us exclusively in English, my father being a natural polyglot of incredible talent; my discovery shortly after reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time of an early “fan” magazine devoted to Tolkien’s invented languages — and from that I offer a good word on some things not yet mentioned above.

The nascent Yugoslavia adopted an invented language to help bring the diverse and mutally-hostile cultures therein into some semblance of harmony. My mother’s generation (nee 1924) was the first such to be taught it in school (as we had English classes). Serbo-Croatian became an early casualty of the later phase of their civil war as the republic disintegrated.

Speaking of Tolkien: His philological genius is too often overshadowed by his fiction. The Elven languages (yes, more than one) are a model of consistency and linguistic integration, with keen attention paid to such details as cognates and lexiconical shifts over time.

I had a friend working hard to learn several languages in preparation for diplomatic service. Her heritage language was Polish, its use of the Latin alphabet a perennial source of complaints from non-Polish speakers, and during the weeks that she struggled to learn Hungarian she came to the sarcastic conclusion that Polish and Hungarian were actually the same language, but with consonant and vowel pronunciations reversed. 😉 An example that might be familiar to some, the dance/musical form csardas (Hungarian) and czardasz (Polish) have identical pronunciations.

[8] was an invention from the 9th century. Old Church Slavonic survives to this day (to my knowledge) in the rich, beautiful vocal traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church.

#29 Comment By M_Young On August 12, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

“They not only preserved Hebrew such that it could be revived as a native tongue — not a unique feat;”

Exactly. The creation of modern Magyar — Hungarian — is probably more improbable.

“Old Church Slavonic survives to this day (to my knowledge) in the rich,”

It survives in the Roman Catholic literature of Croatians of Northern Dalmatia. As does the original glagolytic alphabet. For that matter, OCS survives in the speak over every south slav, from Varna to Ljubljiana, just as Latin survives from Bucharest to Mexico City.