Monday, June 25, 2007

The Jurassic Park of languages

In a sociolinguistics course, I almost used that title for my final paper about the revival of Hebrew. Common sense made me reconsider. Although my teacher wasn't Jewish, I knew that some Jews take offense at the idea that Hebrew was ever an extinct language. Their attitude, ironically, leads them to overlook a remarkable Jewish achievement.

Hebrew is, put simply, the only language in history that has ever been successfully revived. This becomes clear once we understand what "revival" means. People tend to use the term somewhat loosely, applying it to movements aimed at preserving languages such as Irish, where there always have been at least a few native speakers left. And when the term is used correctly, as in the revival of Sanskrit, the movement is invariably nowhere near as successful as Modern Hebrew.

By the nineteenth century, Hebrew was not endangered but extinct, and it had been so for almost two millenia. By calling it "extinct," in no way am I trying to denigrate its central role in Judaism. On the contrary, it is a language that I myself use every day in formal prayer, as Jews have been doing throughout their entire history. But that's just the point: a purely religious language is not a living language, not in the sense that English or Spanish is.

Many people would disagree with me. William Chomsky writes, in Hebrew: The Eternal Language, "it may be safely assumed that there were always somewhere in the world, especially in Eretz Yisrael, individuals or even groups, who could and did employ the Hebrew language effectively in oral usage" (p. 218). There are various anecdotes of Jews conversing in Hebrew before the nineteenth century, such as when two Jews from faraway lands wanted to communicate and had no common vernacular. But the extent of these stories is disputed, and in any case it doesn't prove that Hebrew was a living language. Even today, there are people who can converse in Latin.

While Jews in the Middle Ages were trained from a young age to use Hebrew to a degree, it was nobody's native language. There's something special about native languages. Think about your native language. You probably can't remember ever not having spoken the language. It is so ingrained in your consciousness that it's a part of your very being. And all other languages seem like artificial systems of arbitrary sounds until you habituate yourself to them--and even then, they never feel quite as natural to you as your native tongue.

The simple fact is that Hebrew lacked that natural quality for almost the entire Diaspora. Jews studied Hebrew, prayed in Hebrew, and wrote books in Hebrew, but they did not truly speak the language except in very artificial, strained situations that rarely occurred. The revival turned it into a language that millions spoke in, thought in, and breathed in--to this day an unparalleled feat in the history of languages.

In my paper, I pondered what made this feat possible. I concluded that it depended on a whole range of factors happening simultaneously. It depended on the uncommon occurrence of a people who maintained a sense of unity for thousands of years while being scattered across the globe. It depended on their desire for a homeland, and their finding a place fertile for the creation of a new national tongue. It depended on Hebrew being their only common language. It depended on the dedication of a particular man who called himself Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and who was probably a little nuts.

What he did to bring Modern Hebrew to fruition has entered the lore of Jewish culture. He and his wife raised their son in total isolation, so that the child would be exposed to no language except Hebrew. If a non-Hebrew-speaking visitor arrived, Ben Yehuda would send the child to bed. When he came home one day to find his wife singing in Russian, he lost his temper. He even avoided having the child hear bird chirps and other animal sounds! Out of all this lunacy, the child became the world's first native speaker of Modern Hebrew.

One of the main sources I used for this information was Jack Fellman's 1973 book The Revival of a Classical Tongue. Fellman argued that Ben Yehuda's role in the revival has been overstated in popular treatments. Personally, I think Fellman's account proved just the opposite. It's true that Ben Yehuda couldn't have done it all on his own. Even after the experiment with his child, much work remained to turn Hebrew into a full modern language. But just the example he set had a huge impact on the movement. Of course, it raises significant ethical questions about language revival.

One of the problems facing the new language was that it lacked words for modern concepts. According to Fellman, Ben Yehuda sometimes had to rely on gestures and vague statements like "Take such and such...and bring me this and this, and I will drink" (p. 38). When Modern Hebrew took off in the populace, it borrowed wholesale from Arabic, English, and several other sources to enrich its vocabulary.

Nowadays, around five million people use Hebrew as their main language. As an American Jew who was taught Hebrew as a formal, religious language, I always get a weird feeling listening to Israelis use it so casually. To me, the word bitachon (ביטחון) refers to a spiritual concept meaning "trust"; it was odd to visit Israel and see that word printed on the backs of security personnel. I still can't wrap my mind around the idea that even criminals and street kids speak this language that a small group of scholars reconstructed from a holy tongue less than two centuries ago. As Robert St. John put it in Tongue of the Prophets, Ben Yehuda "made it possible for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love, and curse out their neighbors in a language which until his day had been fit only for Talmudic argument and prayer" (pp. 11-12). Whether you consider the feat good or bad, it certainly is incredible.

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