Monday, August 08, 2005

Could the biblical Isaiah have understood Ivrit?

Objections to the Lashon ha-kodesh-ness of Ivrit are well known, usually lodged by ideological opponents of Zionism motivated by religious ideology that denies a priori any Jewish creativity to non-traditional Jews. They rarely explain why, if so, essentially non-Zionist posekim like R. Moshe Feinstein would use words like chashmal (electricity) in his responsum. That is as far as the religious objection to Ivrit as the modern Hebrew language.

A non-ideological objection comes from Israeli linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, whose thesis is that modern Ivrit is more accurately a hybrid, both Semitic and Indo-European, thus, the term Israeli is far more appropriate [a name] than "Israeli Hebrew".

In his controversial paper, he writes that
The Mutual Intelligibility Assumption posits that Israeli is Hebrew because an Israeli speaker can understand Hebrew. Edward Ullendorff has claimed that the biblical Isaiah could have understood Israeli. I am not convinced that this would have been the case. The reason Israelis can be expected to understand the book of Isaiah – albeit still with difficulties – is surely because they study the Old Testament at school for eleven years, rather than because it is familiar to them from their daily conversation. Furthermore, Israelis read the bible as if it were Israeli and often therefore misunderstand it. When an Israeli reads y?led sha‘ashu‘?m in Jeremiah 31:19 (King James 20), s/he does not understand it as ‘pleasant child’ but rather as ‘playboy’. Ba’u banim ‘ad mashber in Isaiah 37:3 is interpreted by Israelis as ‘children arrived at a crisis’ rather than as ‘children arrived at the mouth of the womb, to be born’. The available examples are not only lexical: much more importantly, Israelis are often incapable of recognizing moods, aspects and tenses in the Bible.
Languagehat quotes more from the paper. Very interesting topic. Especially (to me) the intriguing part I italicized. What about the reverse? And what, if anything, does that say about the nature of Ivrit?

One more excerpt
Yet, Israeli children are told that the Old Testament was written in their mother tongue. In other words, in Israeli primary schools, Hebrew and Israeli are, axiomatically, the very same. One cannot therefore expect Israelis easily to accept the idea that the two languages might be genetically different. In English terms, it is as if someone were to try to tell a native English-speaker that his/her mother tongue is not the same as Shakespeare’s. The difference is that between Shakespeare and the current native speaker of English there has been a continuous chain of native speakers. Between the biblical Isaiah and contemporary Israelis there has been no such chain, while the Jews have had many mother tongues other than Hebrew...
I think the difference that Zuckermann posits is a chiluk that stands on a very thin wire. Hebrew did develop over the centuries organically, albeit in a more limited way than if it had remained a spoken, native language.

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