Tyler Williams has opened a can of worms, and opinions are beginning to wriggle in various places throughout the blogosphere. Ghil’ad Zuckermann (the spirantized spelling of whose first-name remains a mystery to me) has become rather renowned for his assertions that the language spoken in Israel today – despite what everyone else in the country might think – is not actually Hebrew. On the face of it, this is a strange suggestion. English has changed more in the last eight hundred years than Biblical Hebrew changed in over a thousand, yet nobody considers for an instant that the language spoken today by Americans, English and Australians might not consitute real “English”. So why is there this baffling phenomenon in regards to Israeli Hebrew?
Unlike English, Hebrew was not always a spoken language. This is not to say that the use of Hebrew declined to the point of obscurity or death: for nigh on two thousand years, Jews have employed this language in their liturgy, their commercial transactions, and in their published literature. Rather than die, Hebrew appeared to have thrived. Beautiful poems were composed in Hebrew, complicated legalistic commentaries were composed in Hebrew, and matter-of-fact letters between businessmen in Morocco and Italy were composed in Hebrew. But we must remember: like all languages, “Hebrew” is not a singular entity.
Chiefly, when somebody refers to “Hebrew” they refer to the language of the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament). According to the Judaic order of books, this would cover everything from the first word in Genesis to the final phrase in Chronicles. Anybody with even the most basic knowledge of Hebrew will recognise that even within this one corpus there is tremendous diversity. From Genesis through to the second book of Kings, scholars argue that the language employed is Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH). Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles and all believed to have been written in Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) – by virtue of their post-exilic composition. Ezekiel, like many other texts within the Bible, is more of a borderline book and features syntax that may be EBH and syntax that may be LBH. The lexical evidence is harder to work with than the syntactic (for there is no guarantee that words employed were unknown earlier), but from a purely grammatical approach (and despite any opinions concerning flaws within the conclusions to these approaches) Biblical Hebrew is more than one language.
Scholars also differentiate these days on the basis of geography: Israelian Hebrew in the North (the adjective in question being an invention of Dr Gary Rendsburg), Judean Hebrew in the South. For all we know, these two broad demoninations may obscure a whole plethora of sub-categories. Indeed, further sub-categories come into existence beyond the range of the Bible itself, and there is no reason not to assume their coexistence within the Bible too. One such example is Inscriptional Hebrew, which is oftened referred to as Ancient Biblical Hebrew (ABH). Many have argued for its presence within poetry and have pointed to the existence of residual case-endings as a means of supporting this hypothesis. Others are more sceptical, but nonetheless concede that the pre-Biblical epigraphic evidence reveals a language more similar to the Moabite Mesha Stone than it does to Genesis. And what of those languages that post-date the Bible?
The most famous example of this (in our lifetime, anyway) is the collection of documents referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is here that, as with books like Chronicles, scholars know that they are dealing with something late. For that reason, every alteration in orthography is taken to have a meaningful phonological basis, and every alteration in style is presumed to be of syntactic development. I, for one, am sceptical of just how different the language in the scrolls is from Biblical Hebrew, but there are scholars who would swear by such assertions. For those scholars, what is the language called? Why, it’s Qumranic Hebrew, of course! And Qumranic Hebrew, despite the specificity of its name, is also found in either contemporaneous sites along the Dead Sea: Wadi Muraba’at, Nahal Hever, Wadi Daliyeh, Masada.
So far, however, these are all examples of one broad language. Linguists like to categorise things, and well they may, but all agree that they are categorising something in particular. If I speak of Australian Aboriginal English, I know in my heart that this is still a type of English, just as I, myself, speak a particular type of English. But what happens when the syntax expresses a fundamental change? I’m not talking about the way in which Lebanese Australians might employ a second person plural pronoun (“you+s”) but the way in which the very nature of the grammar itself changes completely. Is Ebonics, for example, a type of English? It sure was once; ask me again in ten years.
So when was the first major change within Hebrew to occur? This is almost a facetious question, for one might stress Hebrew as a major change that occurred with Canaanite – just as Syriac was a major change that occurred within Aramaic. Perhaps Israelian was a major change in Hebrew? Or LBH a major change in Israelian? We cannot really know, but for our purposes it is the Rabbinic literature that first exhibits a change striking enough to constitute a new language altogether. By “Rabbinic Literature” I speak of the Midrashim (the homiletic expositions upon the Bible) and of the Mishna. Composed, according to tradition, around 200 CE, the Mishna is a detailed and categorised code of law, later serving as the base text for both the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmuds. It is written in Rabbinic Hebrew.
There is much debate as to what Rabbinic Hebrew is, and I am inclined for my own part to side with the school of thought that suggests that, even during the days of the Bible’s composition, Rabbinic Hebrew constituted the vernacular. Like Arabic, texts would be written in one form of the language (today, Arabic is actually “diglossic” in that the written and spoken forms are completely separate), and the marketplace would be conducted in another. Fearful lest their lawcode be held in as high regard as their holy Torah, the Rabbis consciously composed this (and their other expositions) in a form of language that should be recognised immediately as secular. The later sages went one step further and conducted their discussions of the Mishna in Aramaic (either Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic or Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, depending on where they lived).
So now we come to the crux. Why is it that Rabbinic Hebrew is considered to be so removed from Biblical Hebrew? A quick look through, say, Judges doesn’t seem to yield anything remarkably different to a quick look through, for example, Pirqe Avot. Sure, the vocabulary is different but, as noted, lexicon is a poor means of ascertaining the nature of a language. Words come and go, and different words are favoured in different genres. On a fundamental syntactic basis, however, we can confidentally refer to Rabbinic Hebrew as a separate language altogether. And this basis is that of tense.
Every language has tense, it is crucial. The narratee (ie: reader/listener) must understand when the events occurred relative to the narrator (ie: writer/reader). Tense, being the ‘time of the verb’, is the means by which this is conveyed – but different languages have different means of conveying this information. In English, we modify the verb. This can be an internal modification: “I run” => “I ran”; this can also be an external modification: “I read that” => “I had read that”. Hebrew, for many long years, was believed to have featured the former: verbs change their forms and those forms appear to be consonant with tense. Like many deeply-entrenched ideas, this one came crashing down and is now beyond any hope of revitalisation.
In truth, Hebrew verb forms indicate aspect and not tense. To make this clear, English also utilises aspect. The “perfective” (which denotes completed action) can find itself in the past tense (“I had read that book”), the present tense (“I have read that book”) and the future tense (“I will have read that book”). The “imperfective” (denoting incomplete action) exists likewise in the past (“I was reading”), the present (“I am reading”) and the future (“I will be reading”). It is difficult for us to separate tense from aspect because they are both entwined within our language, but they are not entwined in Biblical Hebrew – neither Epigraphic, ABH, EBH, LBH, Israelian Hebrew (IH), Judean Hebrew (JH) nor Qumranic Hebrew (QH). Biblical Hebrew verbs communicate aspect alone, and the tense is conveyed by context instead. Not so with Rabbinic Hebrew!
Rabbinic Hebrew communicates tense with every verb. The perfective is always past tense, the imperfective is always future tense, and the present tense is always conveyed through the usage of a participle. This is, whichever way you slice it, a different language altogether. Enter Zuckermann.
Zuckermann has argued that Israeli Hebrew (not to be confused with Rendsburg’s Israelian Hebrew) is a different language again. Generations of European immigrants have ensured that the influx of foreign words into the Israeli lexicon has been high. As we noted, lexicon is irrelevant in the establishment of language type, and Zuckermann needs to look at syntax as well. So far, unfortunately, he has not done so and I see little evidence to suppose that Israeli Hebrew is any different, fundamentally, to the Rabbinic Hebrew that produced the Midrashim, the Mishna, the reams of commentaries, piles of legal texts, scores of letters and beautiful collections of poetry. The words employed have changed much over the years, but the language itself has not. Whatever one’s political opinions are of the modern Zionist state, language has nothing to do with. Sorry, Ghil’ad, but I think you’re flogging a סוס מת.