Three hundred translators watched transfixed as an assortment of colleagues, speaking from their isolated studies across the globe in their respective languages, faced the camera and opened a narrative vein: out poured their stories of how they got interested in the Hebrew language, the years they spent cultivating their peculiar passion, the emotional relationships they maintained with the dead and living authors with whom they spent their waking hours, the daily warfare they waged against the Hebrew language’s obstinate refusal to fit its rhythms and archeological layers to the structural and cultural molds of their far-flung nations.
The film was “Translating,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurith Aviv, a series of in-depth monologues by translators from Hebrew into other languages, and the occasion the annual conference of the Israel Translators Association in Jerusalem. The audience, whose linguistic gaps were filled by Hebrew subtitles, could identify with the speakers’ singular strain of obsession, their solitude, and their implicit surprise at being for once in the spotlight instead of the shadows wherein they normally lurk. The symphony of the dozen or so languages in which these unsung laborers told their stories, all referring to the one language they shared and revered, was mesmerizing. Continue reading Word Thieves→
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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…
A few years ago my husband and I attended a lecture by linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann, presenting a provocative theory: the Hebrew we speak today is closer to the European languages of the early Zionists than it is to classical Hebrew, even though most of its vocabulary is Hebrew; therefore, Zuckermann proposed, it would be more accurate to call it “Israeli” than “Hebrew,” letting go of the romantic notion that Israelis today speak the language of the Bible. Our conversation about this idea went on for days after we came home, sweeping up the whole family; later, Michael even wrote a term paper about it.
So it was only natural that when I saw the translators’ association to which I belong had scheduled another lecture about the genealogy of Modern Hebrew, I asked if anybody would like to go with me. Perry said he would and we both looked forward to a pleasant evening in Tel Aviv. I dutifully registered in advance. Next to Perry’s name I added: “14 years old.”
On the hour-plus drive we discussed the upcoming lecture. The speaker was a researcher who was studying the structures of spoken Hebrew and was going to present us with her findings as to whether they had more in common with European languages or with Hebrew, and whether, indeed, this language was Hebrew. Perry was already inclined to believe it was not, because he cannot understand the Bible without an intense explanation or translation: he welcomed the new translation of the Bible into Modern Hebrew and has begun reading it.
At the registration desk a colleague of mine searched for my name on the list, crossed it out and started writing me an invoice. I noticed the total she had entered, and started to protest, “what about him?” – but thought the better of it mid-sentence and shut my mouth; if minors got free admission, who was I to argue?
During the lecture we tried not to disturb anyone with our excited whispering and exchanges of meaningful looks of agreement, surprise or exasperation over certain points in the presentation or behaviors by members of the audience: one woman stormed out not ten minutes into the lecture, shouting at the speaker: “Shame on you!” for doubting the unbroken chain between ancient and modern Hebrew. Another translator prefaced a question about the effectiveness of correcting linguistic “mistakes,” by saying: “If my 15-year-old son had his way, he would spend his whole life lazing in front of the computer and television,” which elicited a room full of nods and sighs of agreement. Perry and I rolled our eyes at each other and clenched our teeth, as if to say: “Just look how people talk about children.”
On our way out of the room for the break, one of my friends turned to Perry, and asked in a kind but patronizing tone: “So, did you fall asleep?” More awake than ever, Perry replied with a startled: “Huh?”
Suddenly I started seeing a pattern: my friend was assuming Perry wasn’t there of his own will but was forced to suffer in boredom while he waited for his mother. As if a child couldn’t possibly come to a lecture out of interest, just like we did. Could that be why they hadn’t charged him admission? Just by looking at him and noting he is of school age, did everyone take it for granted I made him come because I didn’t have a babysitter? Did the organizers let him in for free as a favor to me, allowing me to use an extra seat because they thought I had nowhere else to park him?
It reminded me of the story about the guy who comes to a movie theater box office carrying a crocodile under his arm, and says: “Two, please.” The teller says: “Sir, don’t you think you should take that crocodile to the zoo?” “Thanks,” he answers, “but we already went this morning.”
Sitting down in the lounge with our refreshments, we analyzed the evening. We agreed that people were so upset by their preconceptions’ being challenged that they hardly let the lecturer speak, interrupting her with questions and comments from the beginning.
The next day I sent an e-mail to a colleague whom I had seen at the lecture, with some information she had asked for. On a personal note, I added: “My son really enjoyed the lecture and would like to come to future events.” To which she replied: “That is SO funny! What an adorable geek!” I answered: “What is funny is that everybody thinks he came with me because I didn’t have a babysitter. He really came because he was interested.” She replied, by way of apology: “My son’s a geek too.”
But Perry does not consider himself a “geek,” nor is he considered one by others. The idea, I gathered, is that it is unusual, and what’s more, uncool, for a teenager to pursue intellectual interests, especially at an “adult level.” The geek label implies that such a child is probably uninterested in sports, music and girls, socially awkward and unpopular, living the lonely life of the misunderstood, his best friend being his computer.
Perry knows what a geek is; he just played one in a teen musical about geeks and jocks, the American high school stereotypes. But such categories have never meant much to him. From the first grade Perry has been attending Sudbury Jerusalem, where students are not divided by age and mix freely with each other and with the staff. They are free to pursue whatever interests they have at a given time with whatever means available: play, books, the Internet, but primarily conversation with other children or adults.
Maybe it is because of this upbringing that Perry has never internalized a hierarchy of subjects of interest and activities, rating them as childish/adult, work/play, serious/frivolous, cool/geeky. He has always flowed with his interests, at times devoting intense attention to one thing and then moving on to another. In the early years of school he was very interested in climbing on door frames and walls and leaping from high perches; we nicknamed him Spiderman. He went through an Ancient Egypt period and still likes to go to the museum and decipher hieroglyphics. He spends a lot of time playing the piano. He has a rock band with some school friends. In the last couple of years he has become politically aware and sometimes comes to demonstrations with me.
Perry is still a child and we treat him like one: we support and protect him, attempt to know where he is at all times and keep him safe. But the status of child should not be a barrier that keeps him out of the adult world insofar as the environment in question poses no danger to him. He is just as mentally capable as any adult of hearing a lecture about the Hebrew language, and a lot more open-minded than some language professionals.
Sometimes we are startled to be reminded we live in a world where adults have such a skewed view of children: if they spend a lot of time on their computers, like us, they are presumably brain-dead. If they show signs of interest in their culture, they are freaks. I suppose the ideal, non-threatening child, in this view, would be penned up in his classroom with other members of his ilk, dutifully performing age-approved tasks dictated by adults – but not too enthusiastically.
This is the first time I write here about linguistics. So far I have not considered myself qualified to say much about the topic, but finishing my third semester of undergraduate studies now, I feel I can start writing about it a little bit.
Language is all around us. It is everywhere, everyone uses it, and people are interested in languages wherever you go — people like languages. I get into spontaneous conversations about language with non-linguists several times a week. But when I tell people that I study linguistics, and moreover, that I’m into grammar theory, many are nearly shocked. “Grammar theory?! Why? Grammar is so boring!”. This post is an attempt to explain why, of all things, I love grammar. Continue reading Why Grammar?→
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