Friday, January 02, 2009

Are we teaching "Hebrew" or "Israeli?"

Haim Watzman, on the excellent lefty blog "South Jerusalem" writes about two book reviews in Ha'aretz:,

"According to Ordan, Zuckerman is correct to claim that the language we speak today in Israel is a language distinct from than that of the Hebrew-speakers of the biblical and classical periods. The Zionist revivers of the language, beginning at the end of the 19th century, sought to reinstate a pure Hebrew based on the language of the Bible (not the rabbis!). But, since they were native speakers of Yiddish and Slavic languages, what they actually ended up doing was grafting a Hebrew vocabulary onto the grammar and syntax of their mother tongues. Therefore, Ordan views with favor Zuckerman’s claim that the language spoken in Israel today should not be called 'Hebrew' but rather 'Israeli.'

"Of course the Hebrew we speak today is not the Hebrew of the prophets. Even the Bible’s Hebrew, written over many centuries, differs from one book, even one chapter, to another. The language of the rabbis of the Second Temple and Talmudic period was quite different in its vocabulary and structure, and had absorbed much vocabulary from Aramaic, Persian and Greek. And that should be no surprise: a living language constantly metamorphoses. It accepts vocabulary, syntax, structures, and connotations from other languages while it coins new words and usages of its own. Linguistic policing that denies or seeks to prevent such change robs the language of its flexibility and relevance.

"But that does not mean that there are and should not be any rules at all. I correct my children when they say hamesh shekel (feminine plural number with singular noun) instead of hamisha shkalim (masculine number, plural noun) because they should know the rules so that they can speak standard Hebrew when that is called for. But I don’t expect them to speak that way to their friends—they’d sound like nerds if they did."


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