[previous section] [next section] [table of contents] [back home]


Our language today is really not a language at all, but a Biblical patch on top of a Mishnaic patch with a Tibbonite patch on top of it. And he who can master all those 'languages' and can juggle them and combine them in various strange blends is a 'language virtuoso'... But for the needs of the living language and the living literature, for the needs of vital usage, we need a short and new grammar and a short and new dictionary that will give us only what is alive and breathing today...

- Joseph Klausner (1929), 'Ancient Hebrew and Modern Hebrew,' trans. in Harshav (1993).

3.1. Diachrony vs. synchrony
3.2. The description of Israeli Hebrew
3.3. Generativism and native Hebrew competence


If the Jewish people were delayed in declaring their autonomy through linguistic emancipation, so too were linguists in assessing the revived language. It is here that the tension between the diachronic emphasis of a cultural tradition and the synchronic emphasis of a scientific method manifests itself most strongly. For example, in his posthumously published History of the Hebrew Language, E.Y. Kutscher wrote that 'the day the Bible will have to be translated into Israeli Hebrew will mark the end of the special attitude of the Israeli toward the Bible' (1982: 298). This was a slightly tempered version of an attitude he expressed several decades earlier, wherein he stated that 'I think it will certainly be a disastrous event if the Bible will have to be translated into a new language, into Israeli Hebrew [his italics]' (1956: 44). Strangely enough, just fifteen years earlier, a semblance of such an event had already happened. In 1943, Joseph Klausner published a 'translation' of the book of Amos as an illustration of his idea of what he felt Modern Hebrew should be. Klausner, an early revivalist and a member of the pre-Academy Nvwlh div [va@/ad halaSo@n], the Hebrew Language Committee, was an ardent advocate of Mishnaic norms as the basis for a living Hebrew. This attitude was based partly on the arguments of scholars such as M.H. Segal, who had argued for Mishnaic Hebrew as the direct lineal descendent of the spoken Hebrew of the Biblical period, distinct from both the literary Hebrew preserved in the Scriptures as well as from the contemporary Aramaic vernacular (Weinberg 1981: 38). Mishnaic Hebrew represented the last stage at which the language had led a 'natural' life, having evolved with restricted syntactic yet increasing lexical influence from Aramaic, thereby 'bearing the stamp of colloquial usage' (Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 163). Along with many articles concerning the development of the language, Klausner, as many other prescriptively-oriented writers did at the time, presented his linguistic vision in his 1938 Short Grammar of Modern Hebrew. The language offered therein, and subsequently employed in his Biblical translation, did not reflect then-current written or spoken usage, but adhered strongly to Mishnaic rules, and represented a 'Mishnaized' version of Klausner's own observations of contemporary usage (Rabin 1970: 331).

Just as spoken Modern Hebrew was the next step in the evolution of modern Jewish nationalism for Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, so modern Hebrew linguistics was a consequent development of the evolution of the revived language, especially to those who insisted upon a systematic study of Israeli Hebrew as an illustration of linguistic principles. However, the initial stages of the Hebrew revival occurred at a time when linguistics was very much a historical pursuit, unconcerned with synchrony and the autonomous description of linguistic phenomena in terms of rules and representations. Sound changes were imperceptible and gradual, and conformed to the 'exceptionless hypothesis' of phonetic conditioning only. Apparent exceptions to these rule-governed processes were always due either to analogy, borrowing, or to other interacting sound changes (Kiparsky 1988: 365). This was the neogrammarian theory of historical linguistics: a language was the sum of its diachronic parts, and only historical linguistics could be a truly scientific method for describing language. Such was the dilemma not only of Modern Hebrew, but of Modern Hebrew linguistics. The language had almost no chance of self-determination and autonomy from its users' linguistic legacy without the application of an objective scientific method to counter the concentration of quasi-linguists on orthoepy and classical normativism, which continue to characterize much linguistic comment on Modern Hebrew. Strangely enough, Israeli Hebrew has been taken both as proof of the success of the language revival, as well as evidence that it is either immature or a failed prospect. Normativism and prescriptivism may compensate whenever a Hebrew speaker is lacking an 'appropriate' means of expression, appropriateness being a function of attestation in the classical language. Yet this same 'lack of expression' is evidence to others that Israeli Hebrew is as autonomous a linguistic entity as its speakers are a people.

Any thorough history of the Hebrew language includes not only a description of the language, but discussion of the contemporary 'grammatical thought' on Hebrew as well. As Rabin (1986: 548) states, 'linguistics and grammatical/lexical description are themselves part of the revival, being intellectual occupations borrowed from the culture that serves as the model for the revival.' This is to be expected when the history of a language is so intricately bound to the history of a people, in the eyes both of its users and its investigators. As a result, equally relevant to the study of Modern Hebrew as to the history of the revival itself, though hopefully somewhat less 'miraculous,' is the history of linguistic inquiry into the processes and products of the revival. Berman (1978: 429) observed that 'Modern Hebrew has developed and grown and evolved into a living, vital tongue like all other natural languages currently in use; but Modern Hebrew studies have not kept apace with this development.' Given the time discrepancy between the emergence of a native Hebrew speech community in the decades before 1948 and the first studies to treat native speech as grammatical according to its generative potential only, the linguistic thought on Modern Hebrew has taken more time to evolve a set of objective tools for description than the evolution of the language itself.

Hence the study of Modern Hebrew has had more ground to cover in catching up to the realities of the language than did Israeli Hebrew in establishing itself as a functional language. The evolution of Kutscher's judgments on the relation of Israeli Hebrew to the Biblical language is just one example of how a move from subjective assessment to objective description has shaped the commentary on Modern Hebrew. That there has been a cross-influence between Israeli Hebrew and its linguistic study is evidenced by the fact that Ze'ev Ben-Hayyim, a former president of the Hebrew Language Academy, opposed the first structural analyses of Israeli Hebrew specifically on the grounds that the struggle between Biblical and Mishnaic forms in the modern language meant that one could not yet examine it as a 'system' in the Saussurian sense (Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 274). Less indulgent prescriptivists saw the application of linguistic method to the 'unsettled' modern language as an endorsement of non-normative usage, and an undermining of their authority in directing the language's development. Nonetheless, linguistic and not-so-linguistic inquiries into revived Hebrew provided a glimpse at the processes of change simply by virtue of the nature of the writer's commentary, whether positive, negative, or entirely neutral. Furthermore, since Modern Hebrew has become the object of 'genuine' linguistic study, developments in theory and methodology have been able to shed new light on the origins and development of the contemporary language. The following presents several key moments in the tandem development of Modern Hebrew and modern Hebrew linguistics, illustrating the changes in the necessary relationship between the classical language, the modern language, and the framework of the present study.


What in retrospect appears as the earliest modern Hebrew linguistics was very much in the neogrammarian spirit, especially in the ubiquitous writing on the development of the different Whole Hebrew pronunciations. The study of the most substantial controversy about the nature of Israeli Hebrew began in earnest in the 1930's, when the issue of the co-existence of Biblical and Mishnaic elements began to receive attention outside revivalist circles (Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 273). Still, apart from 'pronunciation,' most early revivalist-linguists focused almost exclusively on the development of the Hebrew lexicon, which had been receiving attention even before the revernacularization. The cultivation of a modern vocabulary for Hebrew was the avowed goal of the Hebrew Language Committee, founded by Ben-Yehuda in 1890 (Fellman 1973: 82), and continues to be the main pursuit of the Academy of the Hebrew Language (Saulson 1979: 82). The problem was exemplified by the creative but wordy circumlocutions used by writers throughout the nineteenth century to express what were often basic concepts lacking singular terms in non-vernacular Hebrew. Patterson (1962) describes quite vividly the 'violent stresses and strains' which confronted Hebrew novelists in expressing the phenomena of contemporary society while adhering almost exclusively to biblical vocabulary and idiom, and the consequently 'ferocious problems' of creating any sort of convincing dialogue. He cites, among many examples of literary paraphrasing, the compounding of two biblical phrases in rendering the word 'file,' eight distinct multi-word constructions denoting 'newspapers,' and the mention of a sled as a 'winter carriage which has no wheels.'

Although nineteenth-century writers were equally wont to transliterate foreign words or to append bracketed explanations of their terminology in Yiddish, German, or Russian, it was their compulsion to use 'clumsy and unwieldy phrases...in order to express their ideas via an inadequate linguistic medium' (Patterson 1962: 318) which propelled the realization by revivalists that the Hebrew embraced by the Maskilim would not suffice as a natural modern language. Nevertheless, the deliberate expansion of the Hebrew lexicon almost always involved combing the Biblical and Mishnaic sources of the language for obscure words and underused roots that could be reapplied to a yet unencoded concept. The consequences for the linguistic study of Modern Hebrew were that contemporary usage was seen as an exclusive feature of colloquial spoken Hebrew, since the written language was considered to be a quasi-pure Classical Hebrew, affected more directly by the source-based efforts of enrichment (Rosén 1977: 20).

Even early attempts to identify non-native borrowings (which, of course, meant anything unattested in classical layers) in spoken Hebrew were almost always in terms of vocabulary. Such was the nature of an investigation by Weiman (1950) into 'foreign elements' in Modern Hebrew. However, concentrating mainly on morphophonemics, Weiman sought to establish a systematic method for determining what constituted a native pattern in 'informal spoken Hebrew,' and the degree to which foreign elements either did or did not conform to these patterns. Specifically avoiding reference to etymology and historical development, Weiman declared that

a 'foreign' word in Hebrew cannot be defined in terms of its origin...but only in terms of the criteria listed above, i.e. phonemic constitution, phonemic distribution, accentual pattern, failure to pattern fully in the morphological system, failure to have the morphophonemic alternants which native words have, and failure to enter into certain syntactical constructions. (1950: 65)

In other words, structural considerations alone could determine nativeness. Etymology had no value from the synchronic point of view, because the spoken language had its own sufficiently structured set of native patterns.

Hebrew linguistics was finally catching up to Modern Hebrew. The call to arms made by Haim Rosén (1952) was inspired in part by these findings, but also by an a priori belief that such results were the only results one could expect, given certain principles of linguistic evolution and the circumstances of Israeli Hebrew's unique origins and development. Rosén proclaimed the existence of 'une nouvelle langue vivante en Isra'l qui doit faire l'objet d'une description linguistique synchronique' (1952: 4). His statement marked the first time the term 'Israeli Hebrew' was used in print in a technical sense, to differentiate modern spoken Hebrew from any past layer of the language. As such, it marked a significant turning point in the development of Modern Hebrew and modern Hebrew linguistics. For the first time, the positive facts of the language itself, and not their dissimilarity to the facts of 'another' language, would determine their viability in the language system. Rosén offered brief descriptions of accent, vowel quantity, diphthongs, and morphophonemic alternations, with reference only to their structural functions. He did, however, describe the consonantal phonemes of Israeli Hebrew in relation to their 'état phonétique' in Biblical Hebrew. Although he stated that 'au point de vue historique l'hébreu israélien (HI) se présente d'abord comme une continuation de l'hébreu biblique michnaïque selon les procédés linguistiques généraux' (1952: 4), later in the article Rosén explained his rejection of the term 'Modern Hebrew' in favor of 'Israeli Hebrew' specifically because the former would incorrectly indicate 'seulement une évolution linguistique normale à partir de l'hébreu classique' (1952: 5). Hence the dual claim that the unique nature of Israeli Hebrew had developed as a result of both 'normal' linguistic change, as well as processes which must lay outside this form of evolution.

In his review of Weiman's book, Haim Blanc praised the work for 'fulfilling a need which has gradually been making itself felt since it became apparent that thousands of individuals used a new form of Hebrew as their native tongue, and that as such it deserved to be studied on its own merits' (1953: 87). Although Weiman undertook his study on the speech of a sample of the 'younger generation of native Palestinians' in New York, which Blanc cited as the cause of some inaccurate data, the work represented 'a welcome relief from the hitherto unchallenged traditionalist and normativist approach' (1953: 90). It inspired a series of descriptive studies of Israeli Hebrew, such as Rosén's, whose aims were significantly more emancipatory. Inquiries by linguists with strong structuralist inclinations, such as Haim Blanc's series of articles entitled Mda ynb Nvwl [laSo@n bnej ada@m], 'The People's Language,' published in the literary weekly Massa from 1952 to 1954, began to stand in conscious opposition to the prescriptivism and normativism of the exclusively diachronic perspective (Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 276). They called for the application of modern linguistic methods and attitudes to describe the language and its synchronic relations, to explain how the forms used by Israeli Hebrews functioned in their language system. Thus did Modern Hebrew begin to receive attention not merely as a novel combination of past Hebrews, but as a 'new' stage in the history of the language, with the full communicative and innovative capacity of a language with synchronicity.

The publication of Rosén's (1956) vnlw tyrbih [haivr"@t Sela@nu], 'Our Hebrew,' marked the first comprehensive attempt to show systematically that the colloquial Hebrew spoken in Israel was not an intermediate phase of a language in the process of regenerating its past form. Rosén maintained that the struggle between Biblical and Mishnaic forms was no more than a normativist illusion, and certainly no impediment to systematic study. In fact, structural description was desirable, because the restructuring of past systems, having already taken place, had created a new 'état de langue' (Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 274). The book's subtitle, 'As seen by the methods of linguistics,' declared its intent to detach the analysis of Modern Hebrew from the quasi-linguistic study of normativists and to apply accepted linguistic methodology to the analysis of Israeli Hebrew. It did so by treating the forms and structures used in Israeli Hebrew, whether or not approved by prescriptivists and the Academy, whether or not attested in any layer of Classical Hebrew, as synchronically grammatical forms in the language.

Interestingly, Rosén (1958: 91) expressed the feeling that Our Hebrew was perhaps 'unjustly' considered as having called into question the normative efforts the 'ma"tres de la grammaire traditionnelle.' Nevertheless, it was Rosén's intention to redefine 'correct' usage by eliminating attestation in the Sources and traditional norms as criteria for acceptability, and insisting on synchronic usage as attestation itself. Blanc (1956) was critical of the book for the methodological inconsistency between Rosén's claimed inspiration from major twentieth century linguists, while (in Rosén's own words) 'following his own credo' by jettisoning widely accepted principles, as well as his tendency to 'go off the deep end and fight myth with counter-myth.' Nevertheless, he praised the work for having 'enriched the Hebrew language with much linguistic terminology hitherto lacking' and for trying 'to put the past and present of Hebrew in their proper perspective, to counteract normative fiction by an objective description of accepted usage' (1956: 795).


Israeli Hebrew represented a stabilized and nativized language system to the structuralists, a form of Hebrew that was not characterized by an admixture of classical elements. It incorporated structures reflective and reflexive of those in previous classical layers of the language, as well as historically-blind developments unknown in any prior stage. That these innovations existed and constituted native Israeli usage sufficed to dissociate Israeli Hebrew from any 'unresolved' struggle between classical forms. In the opinion of the descriptivists, the revival had succeeded not by returning an ancient language to the mouths of the Jewish people, but by allowing the existing Hebrew language to continue a natural linguistic development, one which by definition could only have resulted in a redefined set of linguistic structures. Blanc (1968) characterized Israeli Hebrew as having resulted from the familiar process of 'national language formation,' and as such displaying the properties typical of 'koine-ization,' whereby idiosyncratic elements were leveled and current usage guided the language's evolution. This position certainly represented a significant departure from the views held not two generations earlier that Modern Hebrew was a deliberate reconstitution of selected elements from earlier stages of a classical non-vernacular language.

Rosén (1958) believed that Israeli Hebrew represented something unknown and novel in the history of the language. He claimed that the classical language knew neither the forms nor the nuances of connotation in current usage, hence it was 'absurde de raisonner sur la structure grammaticale d'une language à laquelle ces formes n'appartiennent point...Chaque innovation linguistique, dès qu'elle devient telle, doit cesser d'être considérée comme une faute' (1958: 99-100). With the structural approach, the facts of the language used by Israeli speakers were legitimized by removing prescription from the description of Israeli Hebrew. Subsequent treatment in the generative framework gave the notion of novelty in Hebrew further scientific legitimacy by approaching the grammar of a language as a system of rules which represented the native speaker's knowledge of his/her language. Arbitrary utterances by native speakers, i.e. performance in their native language, reflected these rules, i.e. their linguistic competence (Chomsky 1964). Novelty and creativity, and thus systemic change, were now a function of a vastly different sort of Hebrew knowledge, one which could be expressed not in terms of the discrete categorical rules of an invariant structure, but in terms of the variable rules that created an inherently ordered differentiation of linguistic expression (Labov 1972).

According to Bar-Adon (1977), the regeneration of a native competence in Hebrew, its re-nativization, was the most critical process in the revival of Hebrew. Nativization refers to the emergence of a system of form-meaning relations partially independent from the target language norm in the speech of second language learners. Creole languages, for example, are traditionally defined as nativized pidgins, i.e. simplified contact languages that have acquired native speakers. Such a language can rightly be considered independent of its source languages by virtue of the nativization process. Bar-Adon describes the process of the renativization with specific reference to the first native speakers of Israeli Hebrew. Unlike creoles, Hebrew was transformed from an existing second language, requiring overt learning, to a first language, acquired naturally by native children. Indeed, this is a fundamental criterion for any language to be considered as 'living,' that it have a speaker population with native linguistic competence, who acquires it as a first language from infancy. Certainly this is a basic prerequisite for normal transmission and development of a language, and it is only recently that Hebrew has been subject to a fully natural transmission from one generation to the next. Blanc was indeed accurate in pointing out that Modern Hebrew's 'most unusual feature' was not its mischaracterized transition from a dead to a living language, but that 'it was no one's mother tongue, and that there were no speakers of any dialects closely related to it' (1968: 237). The first quotidian speakers of Hebrew literally gave birth to the most vital extra-structural change that was incurred by the shift to Hebrew, native competence.

Weinreich, Labov & Herzog (1968: 150) explain, with obvious relevance to the case of Hebrew, that 'homogeneous structurists failed to offer an effective method for construing a single language out of chronologically disparate elements.' As did the classically-based prescriptive evaluations of the language, the structuralist nature of the first synchronic studies of Modern Hebrew were unable to explain the nature of change which brought the legacy of Classical Hebrew to a new language system. In other words, linguistic change in Hebrew could not be identified uniquely as either variation in performance (which is how generativists interpreted the neogrammarian 'gradualness' theories of change), or as modification of the grammar. A grammar may represent the substance of a native speaker's knowledge by assigning the correct structural description to every grammatical sentence in his/her language. However, without a speaker who internalizes this grammar, it could not represent the form of the knowledge by which a speaker acquires native competence in this language (Kiparsky 1968). Such a speaker, one who could generate every grammatical sentence in Hebrew, did not exist until speakers renativized Hebrew competence. The generativist viewpoint thus adds to the implication that Hebrew has not undergone 'normal' linguistic transmission, and that the revival could not be at the outset be a process of 'normal' linguistic change.

Labov (1994: 5) states that 'it is not likely that the explanation of language change can be drawn from linguistic structure alone, since the fact of language change itself is not consistent with our fundamental conception of what language is.' How, then, does one explain change in a language having no native speakers, where structure may be the only reference point for observing change? Clearly the structure of the Hebrew language had undergone some sort of modification, and the non-native speakers of colloquial Modern Hebrew (as distinct, in exactly this way, from the speakers and the language of Israeli Hebrew), by shifting to this structure, contributed material from their own native languages and linguistic competence to this transformation. In fact, the revival of Hebrew may represent a classic case of 'substratum interference,' as was pointed out in section 2.4. The word-based emphasis on description in the linguistic study of Israeli Hebrew provided ample evidence of borrowed vocabulary and loan-translations as 'contributions' from speakers' original languages to the preparation of Hebrew as a modern vernacular. However, more revealing in the development of Israeli Hebrew than lexical renovation was another component, which stands out as the most determining substratal influence in the genesis of Israeli Hebrew. The continuous efforts of descriptivists and prescriptivists alike to explicate the nature of its divergence from normative forms are testimony to something 'unusual' about Israeli phonology and the native Hebrew sound system.

[previous section] [top] [next section] [table of contents] [back home]

1997 Devon L. Strolovitch