Sababa shel hummus – The National Language Fallacy

arab men smoking pipe and drinking turkish cof...

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Noam Sheizaf at +972 Magazine brought to my attention a Jerusalem Post editoral which made a few red lights in my head go off (bolding mine):

ISRAEL IS the only country in the world where Jews are the majority. Only here can they enjoy the advantages of living in a state whose language, holidays and national symbols are their own.

Let’s leave aside the truly objectionable stuff in this editorial and focus on the linguistic part. I love Hebrew, in fact, it’s my favorite of Israel’s national symbols. I would like to point out how ludicrous it is for the Post to claim Jewish “ownership” over this, or any, language.

I

Before anything else, reflect for a moment on the fact that the majority of Jews worldwide do not speak Modern Israeli Hebrew and would probably call another language (usually American English) their own.

II

The nation is a relatively new construct, dating back just to the end of the 18th century. Naming official national languages was part of the rise of nationalism in Europe. It was part of the creation of a national identity — not artificial, but put together of existing pieces.

To the linguistically uninitiated, it might seem natural that every nation-state has a language “of their own”. German for the Germans, Swedish for the Swedes, Chinese for the Chinese. But languages are actually really bad at sticking to international borders. The Swiss speak Swiss German, which is no more similar to Germany’s Standard German than is Dutch. Standard Swedish is so similar to Norwegian and Danish that the three might be considered dialects of one language, and can be understood mutually with a bit of effort. “Chinese” is not even one language; usually “Chinese” means Standard Mandarin, the official language used by the People’s Republic, but the term includes the many many languages spoken in mainland China, even though many of them only have a writing system in common, remaining unintelligible to one another.

In the case of Modern Israeli Hebrew it should be especially clear that there is not a 1:1 relationship between (Jewish) nation and (Hebrew) language. Modern Hebrew has taken on European structure in almost all areas of grammar (with some very notable exceptions), since those who revitalized it were speakers of European languages. The bulk of Israeli slang is comprised of Arabic loanwords such as ahla and sababa. And the language is spoken by non-Jews as well; the Arabic of Israeli Arabs is so full of Hebrew that efforts are underway to refresh the community’s Arabic vocabulary.

III

Nonetheless, Modern Hebrew is the result of a conscious effort of will, and one might insist that it is an exceptionally national language. After all, the Zionist made a real, and apparently successful, effort to revive the language of Jewish scripture.

But in fact, even those parts of Modern Hebrew considered “pure Hebrew” — the parts attested in the Bible and other ancient texts — are unlikely to be in any way pure or belong entirely to any ethnic group. Quite simply, no language ever does. The ancient Israelites did not live in isolation, and were surrounded by different peoples with different cultures and different languages. Inevitably, the language they spoke was affected by it, and likely eagerly assimilated elements of the gentiles’ languages, just as all languages have always done everywhere. (but see NOTE below)

IV

The suggestion that the Arabs have no place within our state, that they are a foreign entity that does not belong, is ludicrous and incredibly offensive. It is even ludicrous if you think there’s a god-given right for Jews to be in what was once Cana’an. Modern Israel (and its language) have always had non-Jewish residents (and speakers), most of them Arabs. At no point was the pre-state Yishuv isolated from Arabic culture. Israel has co-existed with Arabs, sometimes more peacefully than at other times, from the very start. Perhaps oddly, I find myself startled to see Israelis railing against Arabic culture as though it were a scary foreign influence. To me, hummus is the national dish, and even those who mistakenly think it’s falafel can’t deny there’s a bit of Arab in us.

Incidentally, sababa shel hummus, roughly “nice hummus”, is a phrase with an [arguably] European structure (cf. English “quite a day” and “hell of a guy” ), made up of two Arabic-loaned content words connected by one Hebrew function word [shel, "of"]. And what phrase could possibly be more Israeli?

I feel there is a general point here about Jewish culture – before, during, and after Diaspora. Before Diaspora, the Israelites were a part of the fabric of the Ancient Near East, going about the typical Ancient Near East national pass-times of worshiping, building, farming and conquering, maintaining a distinct culture and very distinct religion but not without influence from the languages, cultures and religions of their neighbors (who were all influenced in return, and by one another as well). In Diaspora, the Jews of every area developed their own cultural and linguistic remix. The most well-known resulting languages are Yiddish and Ladino, but they are not nearly the only ones. I recently learned that a small Jewish community in northwestern India developed a dialect of Marathi: Judæo-Marathi, still spoken in India and Israel.

And indeed, after Diaspora, the state of Israel has been a cultural patchwork quilt, taking patterns and colors from the many places its residents came from, while remaining firmly grounded in the political and cultural reality of the Middle East, which we are now undoubtedly part of.

V

One could argue, and perhaps one should, that in all of these cases the borrowing group made the borrowings its own, both by choosing them and by integrating them in a unique way (i.e. fitting loanwords to native phonology and morphology, which Modern Hebrew excels at). But there is nothing particularly Jewish about living in cultural isolation, nor is it a particularly sensible proposition that Modern Hebrew belongs exclusively to Israeli Jews. The Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have been there since before Hebrew was revitalized, Hebrew has been in contact with them ever since, and whether the Jerusalem Post likes it or not, the Arabic language and Palestinian culture are part of the fabric of the Israeli quilt.

Note

Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with Ancient Hebrew and neighboring languages of the same period, such as Philistine, Phoenician, Moabite, Hittite, and Ancient Egyptian, and can’t give examples for loanwords off the top of my head like I can with English and Modern Hebrew. I also don’t know any good source to check (though I’d be eager to get one). But I’ve certainly seen mention on Wikipedia and on Israeli linguistics blogs of loanwords from neighboring languages into Ancient Hebrew, and this is not surprising in the slightest. It would be surprising if it were the other way around.

Related reading tip

Jerry Haber of the Magnes Zionist is writing a fascinating series of articles about “Israel’s ‘Arab Problem’”. Part one, part two. I read them cross-posted on +972 Magazine, which is becoming a more and more central source for my reading…


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