Israeli vs. Hebrew: a Contemporary Linguistic Debate

2 12 2006

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.




10 responses

2 12 2006
Conrad H. Roth

I don’t know what the current state of scholarship on the issue is, but 100 years ago Michel Breal argued quite convincingly that the Indo-European tense-system was originally an aspect-system, and that in fact the forms of the Latin and Greek verb correspond better to aspect-distinctions than tense-distinctions.

2 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Not having ever studied Indo-European, I wasn’t aware of that. That’s quite interesting: I always took it on faith that Latin utilised a combination of both aspect and tense. Still, even if what you say is true, Zuckermann focuses only on modern spoken Indo-European languages, primarily Yiddish.

2 12 2006

Hey, I wasn’t disagreeing with anything you wrote…

4 12 2006
Joe in Australia

So why is there this baffling phenomenon in regards to Israeli Hebrew?

It’s because Jews are not real. Let me explain.

Christian theology is ultimately replacement theology. Jesus, they assert, is the figure foretold by the Jewish scriptures. Those scriptures focus very heavily on the Jews and so they are necessarily reinterpreted: prophecies of salvation and so forth are understood to refer to the Church, the new Israel. This understanding is fundamental to Christianity, which is in turn fundamental to the Western intellectual tradition. There is therefore a pervasive meme that Jews are imposters, that their identity is no more than an assertion of a status to which they are not entitled. In other words, Jews are intrinsically unreal.

In the hands of Arthur Koestler and many modern antisemites the myth of the Jewish Khazar empire becomes an assertion that Jews are “really” Khazars. I can’t recall what the British Israelites assert, although I know that some have accepted the Khazar conspiracy theory. The point is that they too assert that Jews are not the “real” Jews.

In the hands of nationalists Jews are the rootless cosmopolitans: they are not “really” English or German, they are Jews. Worse, they are not Israeli either – the territory of Israel is “really” Arab, and the Jewish presence there is an historical mistake. You can quite readily find Arab nationalist tracts that deny there was ever a Jewish presence in Israel.

Why should it be surprising that linguistics is subject to the same meme? Hebrew alone, of all the world’s languages, has a “real” form which is to be contrasted with the unreal jargon spoken by Israelis. I speak English, as did Chaucer, although he wouldn’t understand me nor I understand him. Hebrew is different, because Jews assert an association with it. Since Jews are unreal, their language must also be unreal. Hebrew is a real language, therefore Israeli Hebrew must be an unreal language. QED.

4 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Curious logic! But, while I think that there may be something in that (for some), I do not think that Dr Zuckermann subscribes to the same bizarre Judeophobia. In addition to being Jewish himself (does that make a difference? Perhaps not) he has also lectured in Israel and – to the best of my knowledge – accepts the existence of the Zionist State. Besides, you don’t need to be either a Zionist or a Judeophile to appreciate Israeli Hebrew as Semitic; nor do you need to be an anti-Zionist or a Judeophobe to acknowledge that it’s a fabricated language. Perhaps it’s both?

Incidentally, some scholars of old (see Ernst Renan, the ‘father of Semitics’) thought of Biblical Hebrew as a hodge-podge language as well. As far as they were concerned, the true geniuses were the Sumerians (not Semitic!) and the Semites were an ignorant Arabian people who stole all that was good about their Northern neighbours. And Jesus? Why, Jesus was Galilean! That makes him one of the people (descended from Sumer, of course) who ended up in Palestine after the Assyrian population shift. It all makes so much sense…

12 12 2006

>I do not think that Dr Zuckermann subscribes to the same bizarre Judeophobia.

I agree, although I admit that I actually know nothing of his politics.

> In addition to being Jewish himself (does that make a difference?

Surely not!

In general, the reason why many Jews might seem a bit paranoid about this theory is for the reason outlined by Joe in Australia. From a purely scholarly perspective it might be an exciting question, but the question is more than just academic.

13 12 2006
David Cohen

Two brief comments:

Firstly, I do not think the GH in the first name “Ghil’ad” has anything to do with spirantization. I guess it has more to do with Prof. Zuckermann’s Italian descent (see Ghirardelli vs Jirardelli?)

Secondly, as opposed to what you say, Professor Zuckermann has published a lot on non-lexical components of what he calls “Israeli”. For example, I have found the following articles in his website

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006. ‘Complement Clause Types in Israeli’, pp. 72-92 of Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and A. Y. Aikhenvald, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006. ‘Direct and Indirect Speech in Straight-Talking
Israeli’. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 53.4: 1-15.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006. ‘A New Vision for “Israeli Hebrew”: Theoretical and Practical Implications of Analysing Israel’s Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language’. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5.1: 57-71.

Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad 2005. ‘“Abba, Why Was Professor Higgins Trying to Teach Eliza to Speak Like Our Cleaning Lady?”: Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, Prescriptivism and the Real Sounds of the Israeli Language’. Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 19.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad. 2005. ‘The Israeli Language’. The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language 09.013.

Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad 2004. ‘The Genesis of the Israeli Language: A Response to “Philologos”’s “Hebrew vs. Israeli”’. The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language 08.013.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006 [submitted]. ‘Israeli as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Language: Multiple causation, Forms and Patterns’

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006 [submitted]. ‘hasafá haisraelít kemusá mekhkár
atsmaí: khashivút gisható shel rozén ladèmistifikátsya shel “tkhiát
haivrít”‘ (The Israeli Language as an Object of Independent Study: The
Importance of Rosén’s Approach to the Demystification of the ‘Hebrew

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2007 [forthcoming]. ‘The Semantics of Clause Linking in Israeli’.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006 [submitted]. ‘Comparative Constructions in Israeli’.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad 2006. ‘Direct and Indirect Speech in Straight-Talking
Israeli’. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 53.4: 1-15.


15 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Thanks, David – I have recently had this pointed out to me on another blog as well. My experience with Zuckermann was limited to a particular book of his (Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew) and a lecture that he gave at Sydney University some years back.

4 01 2007
Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival XIII

[…] Finally, prompted by a post by Tyler Williams, Simon Holloway has an interesting post on the differences between Biblical, Rabbinic, and Modern Israeli Hebrew: “Israeli vs. Hebrew: a Contemporary Linguistic Debate.” […]

6 07 2008
Knut Holt

The term “aspect” do not have any clear definition. You can define awspect as compleated verus incompleted or completed versus ongoing versus not yet begun within the time frame of a story.

This kind of aspect actually is a kind of realtive tense – relative to the time frame the story. If the time frame is present, that often is the default tme frame, such an aspect system actually works as a tense system.

But you can also define aspect as a whole action versus a partial action versus a beginning action versus a finishing action versus repeated action. This type of aspect have no tense implications.

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