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Rosén (1977: 19) wrote that 'an allusion that Israeli Hebrew was not really, fundamentally, and intrinsically Hebrew, would taint scholarship with ethnico-cultural [sic] attitudes, which we had better not allow to distort our insights.' It seems appropriate, then, that a brief discussion in one of the most comprehensive histories of the Hebrew language (Sáenz-Badillos 1993: 277) about the suggestion of Israeli Hebrew as just that should have initially inspired my exploration of the topic of this paper. The author, having reviewed the work of Rosén and others who argued for Israeli Hebrew's linguistic autonomy, points out that it is 'natural' to ask whether there is a point at which the language ceases to be a Semitic one, given the frequent claims of its 'Indo-Europeanization.' Having described the development of Israeli Hebrew as a process of abrupt creolization, it would seem equally 'natural' to consider here whether other models of non-genetic linguistic development offer further insight into the nature of Modern Hebrew.

Although Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's actual role in the holistic development of Israeli Hebrew speech is questionable, he remains the most salient figure of the revival movement, and certainly one of its most passionate advocates. His role in and aspirations for the revival of Hebrew have thus been compared to those of Ludwig Zamenhof, inventor and promoter of the Esperanto language, with some intriguing parallels observed. Both men were born in Belorussia, in consecutive years, speaking the same Northeastern variety of Yiddish as their first language. They each wrote what most consider to be their linguistic manifestos within a decade of one another, deriving much of their inspiration from their Jewish heritage. Both adopted new languages with the intent to spread them through a community as part of a quasi-religious philosophical idealistic movement, which resulted for each in withdrawal from their first-language culture (Wood 1979: 441).

The question of Modern Hebrew's linguistic affinity with Esperanto has been raised explicitly, by both Hebrew and Esperanto linguists (e.g. Kutscher 1982, Wood 1979). They ask whether it is possible that the revival of Modern Hebrew created an artificial 'Hebrew Esperanto,' a quasi-Semitic language analogous to quasi-Romance Esperanto. After all, we have seen how the phonological, the functional, and the conceptual relationships of Modern Hebrew have been restructured into 'new' systems, and how the classification of Israeli Hebrew within the Semitic language family is hardly uncontroversial. Perhaps its systems are best classified as 'artifacts' of the revival movement rather than the results of any sort of linguistic evolution, deliberately constructed in the same way as those of Esperanto. Wexler (1990b) does point to several significant differences in the Modern Hebrew and Esperanto movements, such as the claim of unbroken transmission and the resulting archaizing trends in the former. However, his claims hinge on his belief that both are cases of partial language shift, in the case of Esperanto by relexifying a Yiddish phonological and syntactical base with an 'unspoken' Latin vocabulary. Thus he states that while 'the inventor of Esperanto seems to have eschewed the question of classifying the language genetically...Esperanto is not "non-genetic," but a "dialect" of Yiddish -- hence of Slavic' (1990b: 122).

Yet Esperanto is non-genetic, by exactly the criteria I have adopted for the classification of Israeli Hebrew, because there was no normal transmission of a complete language system when the first Esperanto speakers shifted to a language for which there were no native speakers. In fact, I believe that for some purposes, it may be more instructive to the study of artificial languages to compare the case of Esperanto to that of Israeli Hebrew, rather than vice-versa. Esperanto's classification as 'artificial' may be as unwarranted as the classification of pre-revival Hebrew as a 'dead' language, since both labels imply a similar lack of inter-dependence between linguistic structure and language use. Still, one cannot but notice how differently two similar linguistic endeavors have unfolded. The failure of Esperanto to achieve a sustainable speech community is often viewed in relation to the success of Israeli Hebrew, a state language with over one million native speakers. Whatever the internal continuities of the chain of language shift that began some 2,600 years ago, the Jewish language phenomenon, including its most recent materialization in Israeli Hebrew, provided the essential resources upon which to build a viable community, for which Esperanto's linguistic resources were simply not sufficient.


Nevertheless, Wexler (1990b) is correct that genetic affiliation was probably not important to Ludwig Zamenhof. Esperanto was designed to transcend the cultural and political boundaries of linguistic nationalism, and thus the constraints of historical linguistics. Israeli Hebrew, on the other hand, cannot dissociate itself from the genealogical debate. Its existence was intended to affirm a unified Jewish nation as Semitic by re-declaring its unity with a people, a land, and a language of Semitic descent. If Israeli Hebrew has its origins in this Semitic language, then structurally creolized as it may be, it is held to be a Semitic language. This genealogical argument, the basis of the revival of Hebrew, has been bolstered to a degree by the typological arguments advanced by twentieth-century linguists, who have argued consistently that there are a sufficient number of structural and functional correspondences to other Semitic languages that even if Israeli Hebrew was born of non-Semitic linguistic stock, it is, or has become, formally Semitic.

The field of linguistics has yet to resolve what combination of genetic and/or typological considerations determine a language's pedigree. A century ago, this was not the case, and the legacy of this earlier attitude is such that in any index, even where the work attempts to show its 'Indo-Europeanization,' Hebrew is usually classified as a Semitic language. I have shown in this paper how a major feature of Israeli Hebrew typology, its phonological system, was primarily conditioned by the speakers of a language of distinctly non-Semitic genealogy. I have maintained that this conditioning was part of a process of 'abrupt creolization,' whereby Israeli Hebrew cannot be considered the genetic descendent of a single parent language. Furthermore, I have argued that such a conclusion is the inevitable result of the sociological and linguistic circumstances of Israeli Hebrew's origins. Hence, the inadequacies of past explanations of the Hebrew revival are due to a lack of recognition paid to these crucial factors, which operated both internally and externally in the development of Israeli Hebrew. Does this investigation, then, confirm the prediction by Spolsky (1991: 146) that 'it would be ironic and fitting if continued research were to establish that the contemporary Hebrew language owes it basic Indo-European bent to the Yiddish with which it successfully competed for loyalty?' Few communities identify so strongly with two languages, which are at once so intricately bound to one another's history, yet so opposed, in so many ways, for so many reasons. At the outbreak of World War II, Yiddish was spoken by more Jews than have ever spoken a Jewish language at any time. Consequently, as Roskies (1993: 159) put it, '[only] Yiddish would be the bridge to Loshn-koydesh and to modern Hebrew.' It is hardly ironic that there are concurrently those who strive to fuse further the stories and histories of Hebrew and Yiddish, while others cannot but defend one against the supposed onslaughts of the other. The linguistics of Modern Hebrew are indeed 'schizoid' in nature; perhaps Israeli Hebrew has transcended this phenomenon.

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© 1997 Devon L. Strolovitch