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So, in one of the streets of Paris, in one of the cafés on the Boulevard Montmartre, I conversed in Hebrew for the first time with one of my acquaintances while we sat at a round table upon which stood two glasses of black coffee. The astonishing sounds of this dead ancient Eastern language, mingled with the din of the gay sounds of the vibrant, lovely and rich French language...

- Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1948), Prolegomena to the Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis, translated in Saulson (1979).

1.1. A Jewish language in Israel
1.2. Modern Hebrew and Israeli Hebrew
1.3. The Revival of Hebrew
1.4. Issues and objectives


If a group of Yiddish speakers replaced all their Yiddish lexical morphemes with Hebrew ones, but continued to use Yiddish phonology and morphosyntax, then surely they no longer speak Yiddish; and the language they speak, though identical to Yiddish grammatically, is not related to Yiddish in the usual sense of being a changed (later) form of Yiddish. And it isn't Hebrew, either, in spite of its 100 percent Hebrew vocabulary (Thomason & Kaufman 1988: 7). This paper is concerned with the origins and development of this language. It has grown out of a mixture of sources, characteristic of the ethno-linguistic family to which it belongs. Emerging from the languages in contact at the turn of the century in Palestine, it retained a fairly heterogeneous character in its early years. However, it has since crystallized, developed standard forms of expression, and evolved into a fully natural human language. Its native speaker population numbers approximately one million, most of whom are quite unconscious of the rich linguistic and literary history of the language's antecedents. It is now the first official language of the State of Israel, the mother tongue of an increasing numbers of native Israeli children, and the most recent addition to the group of Jewish languages. Its speakers follow a long tradition of Jewish language naming by calling their Judeo-Hebrew language tydvhy [jehud"@t] -- 'Jewish.'

Lacking a unified national homeland since before the Christian era, and consequently a unified national language, Jewish communities have been characterized by forms of speech which represent a deeply rooted and highly systematic integration of their cultural legacy into their own vernacular. Fishman (1981: 5) defined a Jewish language as one which is phonologically, morpho-syntactically, lexico-semantically, or orthographically different from that of non-Jewish socio-cultural networks, and that has some demonstrable function in the role and repertoire of a Jewish socio-cultural network. Some of the more widely-spoken and widely-studied Jewish languages include Yiddish, Judezmo, and Yahudic, each one representing a language related genealogically to an (originally) co-territorial non-Jewish language (German, Spanish, and Arabic respectively), infused with the community's particular mixture of forms and structures derived from speakers' knowledge of the Semitic languages of ancient Israel. Each one, in varying degrees, bears a resemblance to the so-called 'standard' forms of the parent language, with variation manifesting itself at all levels of linguistic structure, from straightforward lexical borrowing to more deeply-embedded structural interference.

Bunis (1981: 53) explains that Jewish language glottonyms 'derive from the name speakers use to refer to themselves, either "Jewish" or "Hebrew",' thus indicating ethnic as opposed to geographic affiliation. For example, 'Yiddish' is the Yiddish-language adjective meaning 'Jewish,' and 'Judezmo' is an equivalent substantive in Judeo-Spanish. American speakers of Yiddish may in fact refer to their Jewish language in English by the glottonym 'Jewish,' bearing further evidence to the tendency of Jewish language speakers to believe that theirs is the only Jewish language (Rabin 1981: 19). According to a theory by Wexler (1990b) which regards the Jewish language of Israel as 'schizoid,' because it is the only language whose origins are consistently misidentified by its speakers, the term 'Hebrew' is misleading. It unites two bodies of genetically unrelated linguistic material under a single glottonym. Therefore, by analogy with other Jewish languages, Wexler suggests 'Yehudit' as the native Hebrew word which could serve as the glottonym for this 'schizoid' language (1990b: 40).


Nevertheless, use of the terms 'Judeo-Hebrew' and 'Yehudit' in the preceding paragraphs is, to say the least, curious. Furthermore, the process of linguistic change outlined above does not accurately describe the language spoken by Jews in Israel today. This language is Hebrew, and the native glottonym is tyrbi [ivr"@t], a name that functions quite differently from other Jewish glottonyms. And so it should, as the modern Hebrew language 'functions' quite differently from other Jewish languages. In fact, unlike the case of other Jewish languages, nowhere in linguistic literature is Hebrew prefixed in this way, nor is the ancient Semitic language referred to as 'Judeo-Canaanite' or its equivalent. And although the prophet Nehemiah (13:24) is among those who make reference to speakers of tydvhy, no language, Jewish or not, has been referred to in post-Biblical Hebrew in a technical sense by this glottonym (Bunis 1981). Clearly, there is a difference in nomenclature with regard to the modern Hebrew language of Israel, which sets the language apart from the group of Jewish languages in a number of significant ways. Unlike any other attested 'Judeo-' language, no matter how divergent from its non-Jewish form, Hebrew is not the vernacular of any known non-Jewish population. The qualification 'Judeo-Hebrew,' as with the name 'Yehudit,' is not only redundant, but misleading. Both fail to recognize a uniqueness about Hebrew both in Jewish linguistic history and with respect to more general processes of language shift and change. The term tyrbi, like the term 'Hebrew,' is meant to encapsulate at least 3,000 years of linguistic history. It refers simultaneously to the full range of registers and styles currently found in Israeli speech and writing, to the recited language of Jewish prayer, to the written language of 2,000 years of Jewish scholarship, and to the language of the earliest version of the Bible -- a rather heavy duty to bear, as Shavit (1993) puts it.

According to Gold (1983: 77), 'since Jews have traditionally seen themselves as constituting a nation, it is no wonder that the native names for several Jewish languages all literally mean "Jewish" or "Judaism" or "Hebrew".' This statement is all the more appropriate to the Hebrew language, whose existence as the vernacular of Israeli Jews is a direct result of the Zionist movement, the reassertion of Jewish nationhood at the end of the nineteenth century. Therefore, missing from the 'Judeo-Hebrew' scenario described earlier is the fact that there exists a Hebrew vernacular in Israel today only as a result of the conscious decision and deliberate action by a number of individuals and groups to pursue the goal of re-vernacularizing the language spoken by Jews when they last had political autonomy, over 2,000 years ago. This effort culminated in 1948, when Hebrew was declared the first official language of the newly-founded Jewish State in Israel, already the principal language of a half-million speakers and more than 60% of the Jewish population of Palestine (Hofman & Fisherman 1972: 345).

However, as Haim Rosén states, 'en effet, l'hébreu utilisé actuellement en Isra'l n'a pas trop de rapports avec la Langue Sainte, beaucoup moins que ne le désirent ceux qui veulent encore y voir la réalisation du rêve de rattacher le peuple d'Isra'l à son histoire culturelle' (1958: 89). 'Hebrew' alone does not suffice to specify the linguistic result of the national revival, which for the purpose of linguistic study requires a name that distinguishes the unique features of the most recent stage in its 3,000-year history. Weinberg (1981: 62) is strangely correct in suggesting that the naming of Israeli Hebrew merely 'coincided' with the birth of the State of Israel:

A fresh name was due because the precipitous development since 1880 had created new linguistic facts, and a strain of Hebrew quite apart from other strains. The political event of 1948 offered an opportunity to take stock, to analyze, to appraise -- and since Israel was the center of this new phase of Hebrew, the term Israeli Hebrew was quite fitting.

In a sense, even if the national revival had not officially succeeded in renewing the Jewish homeland in Israel, the linguistic revival had already achieved the renewal of a native Hebrew homeland. Rosén was among the first linguists to propagate the term 'Israeli Hebrew' as a name and a language of its own in linguistic scholarship, 'as a result of the recognition, by virtue of that same scholarly study, of its historical autonomy' (1977: 15). The term is now used almost universally, even by those who use it to point to the deviance in native modern Hebrew speech in from prescribed norms. I use it in this paper in the same sense as 'Canadian English,' or 'Mexican Spanish,' i.e. to specify for analysis the language spoken by an identifiable population. However, there is a certain difficulty with the term's reference. It derives from the subtle but important distinction between Israeli Hebrew and Modern Hebrew in general, terms which refer to different periods, forms, and domains of the language. The revival of the Hebrew language was indeed a unique linguistic event in human history, but by no means was it a monolithic process. The history of Israeli Hebrew is only one component of the revival, for which the emergence of a Modern Hebrew language was a necessary precursor.


For many historians, the Jewish 'Middle Ages' did not end until the second half of the eighteenth century, when a literary movement known as the hlkwh [haskala@], 'Enlightenment,' developed among Jews in Germany, and the age of Modern Hebrew began (Sáenz-Badillos 1993). This movement was an overt attempt to integrate Jews and Judaism into modern European civilization. It strove to reassert the link between the rationalistic modern Jew and the classical civilization of his past, as reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures, and thus with modern European culture, through the use of a classical language as a vehicle of secular culture (Shavit 1993). The Enlightenment thus marked the beginning of the 'revival' of Hebrew as a linguistic movement, wherein Hebrew was accorded a role and status associated with an ideological mission. To be sure, Hebrew had been more than just an 'ancient' language, its service in the day-to-day life of various Jewish communities reflected in the large body of secular poetry, legal documents, and personal communication throughout the centuries. Yet the Mylykwm [maskil"@m], 'Enlightened Jews,' sought specifically to create this classical language by purging Hebrew of the linguistic development it had undergone since its disappearance as a vernacular. They insisted on a 'pure' Biblical language, fostering a 'rather fanatical reduction of Hebrew exclusively to its Biblical variety' (Even-Zohar 1990b: 184).

Analogous to the Renaissance and Reformation in the Christian world, the Jewish Enlightenment signified a return to the ancient sources and a dissociation of Hebrew from the canonical authority embodied by the Rabbinic language. This Hebrew was to become both a 'language of reason' and a 'language of passions,' a vehicle for the modernization of Jews and Judaism (Shavit 1993). It was simultaneously a classical tongue, reflecting the golden age of national culture, and a modern language, creating a scientific literature in Hebrew. Harshav (1993: 124) stresses how the first 'revived' Hebrew influenced yet differed from the later speech revival:

The quasi-Biblical style of the Hebrew Enlightenment, which aspired to a 'pure' Hebrew language, suited the idealist taste of the German Romantic tradition and reflected the hatred of Gentiles and Maskilim for the Talmud and for the 'ungrammatical' distortions of Rabbinic Hebrew...The admiration for the 'pure' Biblical style was the legacy of the Enlightenment, which was certainly not a Zionist movement.

The following two centuries witnessed enormous developments in the Hebrew language, in which the grammatical and discursive scope of Hebrew writing expanded into every realm of modern linguistic function. Throughout this development, the revival has consistently been characterized by the intellectual struggle between adherence to the Biblical language and all other linguistic innovation in the Hebrew language. However, a description of the general expansion of Modern Hebrew is neither within the scope of the present paper, nor its primary concern. My interest lies in that aspect of the expansion of Modern Hebrew which involved the revival of a specific feature of Hebrew, absent since well before the Enlightenment. I am referring, of course, to the use of Hebrew as native language, which is the essential and distinguishing feature of Israeli Hebrew.

Its vast body of liturgical, legal, literary, philosophical, and personal writing creates the genuine impression that Hebrew is characterized by a continuous history of usage, evolution, and influence. So do the frequent assertions of Hebrew's inter-communal use as a lingua franca, or its other spoken uses by Jews throughout the world. Furthermore, as Kutscher (1982: 298) points out, 'the very fact that an Israeli can go back to the Bible without having recourse to a translation creates a feeling of immediacy,' so that there is nothing intuitively against referring to both by the same name. Since Israeli Hebrew speakers may feel that their language bears the same relationship to the sacred texts that Modern English does to Anglo-Saxon chronicles, or Modern Greek to the language of Plato, they often attribute an evolution to their language as a similar process of linguistically documentable changes in structure and use. The Hebrew language is considered the chronicle of the Jewish people, a language which has recorded their exile from the Holy Land almost 2,000 years ago, their struggles and successes in disparate communities throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, and their return to the Land of Israel and to their national language once again. Naphtali Tur-Sinai, a former president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Israel, reiterates the legacy of the Maskilim and encapsulates its integration into the philosophy of Zionism: 'It is the Hebrew Bible that represents our title deed to the soil of Israel -- and only by faithfully preserving the language of the Bible in which the land had been promised to our fathers, could we secure recognition as the legal claimants to the Holy Land' (1960: 8).

Hence the roots of Hebrew linguistic nationalism, and of Israeli Hebrew. A decisive moment in the development of both occurred when the Russian formerly known as Eliezer Perelman followed the advice of an essay he had written for a Hebrew-language newspaper while studying medicine in Paris. Changing his surname to Ben-Yehuda, he and his wife emigrated to Palestine in 1881, and attempted to instigate the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel by living as the first Hebrew-speaking household in more than a millennium. In the semi-mythology of Ben-Yehuda's revival of Hebrew speech, the intervention of his first child in an argument between Eliezer and his wife marked the first native utterance of Modern Hebrew, proof that the regeneration of a Hebrew-speaking people was possible.

Until that moment, the Hebrew language knew no native speakers. Nowhere was there a group of people using Hebrew as their daily medium of communication. Perhaps for affective value more than anything else, Hebrew was frequently labeled a dead language, 'entombed as it were between the covers of the ancient sacred books' (Tur-Sinai 1960: 4). As president of the government agency sanctioned to continue the revival effort symbolized and embodied by Ben-Yehuda, Tur-Sinai's comments were by necessity designed to provoke emotion on the subject of Hebrew. With an overarching goal of recreating the Hebrew speech of the last autonomous Jewish community, the appointed and self-appointed guardians of the language have taken a decidedly normative and prescriptive approach to Modern Hebrew, based on the structure of Semitic Biblical Hebrew. The Academy justifies its efforts by appealing to the emotionally-charged principle of ensuring that revived Hebrew remains as close as possible to the language of the aforementioned title deed.

Reacting to the morbid terminology assigned to pre-revival Hebrew, many other commentators have stressed the inappropriateness of referring to a 'dead' language and its 'revival.' As Even-Zohar (1990a: 115) states, 'this label has been taken so literally that many normally well-informed (to say nothing of the un-informed) linguists have been led to believe that Hebrew had indeed become a "dead" language, or that it had been confined to "liturgical use only," which as we know is utter nonsense.' Thus do some linguists correctly point out that creativity in the Hebrew language and production at some level has never ceased in writing (e.g. Gold 1989: 363-364), nor even in speech (e.g. Parfitt 1984: 256). Throughout the literature, then, there appears to be a fundamental discord in the linguistic thought on the nature of the Hebrew language before and after its revival. Furthermore, it seems that the variety of contentions regarding Modern Hebrew are a function not so much of variation in the language, but of the differential interpretation of its form in the linguistic study of Modern Hebrew.


This conflict in views is the main issue of this paper. It involves an enduring tension between synchrony and diachrony which has characterized almost all analysis of the modern Hebrew revival. This tension has made Modern Hebrew, especially the spoken variety of native Israeli Jews, one of the most fascinating objects of study for both linguists and non-linguists, who have explored Modern Hebrew to express both highly conventional and highly unorthodox opinions regarding its character. Some consider it the direct descendent of an ongoing linguistic legacy, transcending certain principles of linguistic behavior (e.g. Tur-Sinai 1960). Others vehemently assert its autonomy from Hebrews past, stressing its uniqueness exclusively in structural linguistic terms (e.g. Rosén 1956). And most intriguingly, some refine the finer points of both views to posit rather unorthodox facts regarding the nature of Modern Hebrew (e.g. Wexler 1990b). How is it that a single language, covering so small a geographical area and used only so recently by native speakers, whose internal past and external history are so well-documented, has been so divergently analyzed?

With respect to change in linguistic systems, Weinreich, Labov & Herzog (1968: 101) explain that 'a native-like command of heterogeneous structures is not a matter of multidialectalism or "mere" performance, but is part of a unilingual linguistic competence.' In other words, the competence of a native speaker must include the command of diverse ways of speaking, dependent on a wide variety of internal and external variables. A language has an inherent synchronic variability depending on the age, gender, and class of a speaker, the circumstances of the speech situation, et cetera (Labov 1972). Diachronically, a language must also be systemically variable, because even as structures change, people continue to talk effectively with one another. Weinreich, Labov & Herzog (1968) claim that this concept, which they refer to as the 'structured heterogeneity' of dynamic living language, has traditionally been ignored in historical linguistics. Instead, assumptions of regularity and homogeneity have been made in the belief that only a homogeneous system, with variation confined to the speaker's idiolect, could be learned and propagated successfully by each generation.

The revival of Hebrew was nothing if not a historical endeavor, seeking to return a speech community to a historical language. And indeed, Hebrew linguistics has often suffered from the same shortcomings as has the historical study of other languages. For example, referring to the nature of the language in the Middle Ages, Sáenz-Badillos (1993: 204) states that 'Medieval Hebrew is not, properly speaking, a 'language' comparable to Biblical Hebrew or Rabbinic Hebrew. It did not possess sufficient vitality in daily life or even in literature to develop into a reasonably complete and homogeneous system.' Though such comments may ignore the inherent heterogeneity of a language in use, they do point to the essential characteristic of pre-revival Hebrew as a language reduced in function and, consequently, in form. The revival reversed the effects of this contraction through a shift to the Hebrew language. Yet until linguists looked to Israeli Hebrew speech as an autonomous source of linguistic data, the historicity of Hebrew prevented the notion of 'structured heterogeneity' from adequately informing the analysis both of the Hebrew revival and of Modern Israeli Hebrew. Its dynamism has remained in the shadow of the homogeneous emphases of historical linguistics, not to mention the presumed homogeneity of the classical language, such that variation and divergence became synonymous with degeneration. On the other hand, some study of Israeli Hebrew has sought to dissociate it entirely from its antecedents, thereby severing a genuine linguistic bond. Here lies the 'schizoid nature' of Modern Hebrew Linguistics.

This paper will elucidate various aspects of the incongruent approaches to the revival of Hebrew and to the modern Hebrew language of Israel. Most importantly, I will argue that the processes in the revival of abnormally-transmitted Hebrew display the characteristics of contact-induced change and the rise of a non-genetic language, as described by Thomason & Kaufman (1988). However, the study of change in the Hebrew language before and after its revival has on the one hand neglected and on the other selectively championed certain implications of the distinction between structural change in Hebrew, and the language shift that was the revival of Hebrew speech. Thus I will explore the nature of previous work in this area, in regard both to the general linguistic thought on Modern Hebrew, and to the more specific study of sound change in the language. I will look at the ways in which much of this work has or has not succeeded in accurately describing the phonological facts and processes it attempts to explicate. Finally, by examining views on the genealogy of Israeli Hebrew, I will show how a recent theory by Wexler (1990b) does in some ways reconcile the inconsistencies of previous analyses, yet still neglects certain facts predicted by the properties of non-genetic languages described by Thomason & Kaufman (1988). I begin with a discussion of the nature of Hebrew in Jewish languages and Jewish linguistics, which will introduce several key concepts in the subsequent analysis.

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1997 Devon L. Strolovitch