Is Hebrew the language of the prophets or the language of modern Israel? The question is symbolized by that well-known phenomenon of the new speaker of the language, fresh from her ulpan course, who sets off on a crusade to correct the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation to the benighted native speakers she encounters on the street.
The two stereotypical views of what constitutes proper Hebrew are played out this week on the centerfold of Ha’aretz ’s Hebrew book supplement, Sefarim . In side-by-side reviews of a new book, Israeli, a Beautiful Language by Ghil’ad Zuckerman, Hagai Hitron and Noam Ordan pursue a now-hoary debate about the actual and desirable relationship between the Hebrew language of the Bible and the Sages and the language spoken in Israel today. (I’m reacting here to the two articles, not to the book itself, which I haven’t read.)
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.”
What’s Zuckerman’s nafka mina, the practical conclusion he draws from this claim (according to both critics)? It’s that native speakers cannot err; therefore, if a word or grammatical form comes into common usage, it should be accepted and even celebrated even if it is ungrammatical or incorrect according to the rules laid down by various guardians of linguistic purity, like the Academy of the Hebrew Language, literary figures, and high school language teachers.
Hitron, for his part, slams Zuckerman for promoting ugly Hebrew and for making a claim that would divest the language and the culture it represents from any connection to its classical cannon, from the Song of Deborah to Agnon.
But the fact is that Ordan and Hitron, and apparently Zuckerman as well, are fighting a purely semantic battle. The question of whether to call the language spoken in Israel today “Hebrew” or “Israeli” is not a scholarly one. It will not be decided on the basis of evidence, such as how loan words behave or what are the origins of widely-used syntactic constructions in Israel today. It’s a cultural, even political decision. To say that we speak Hebrew is to say that we wish to stress and promote our modern language’s connection to a long Jewish cultural tradition. To say that we speak Israeli is to say that the Bible, the midrashim, the poetry of Yehuda Ha-Levy, and the prose of Yosef Haim Brenner need not be taught to another generation of Israeli children, and that modern writers in this country need not, indeed should not, write as part of that tradition.
Tellingly, the word “register” doesn’t appear in either article. Yet we can’t begin to speak about what is an error and what is standard in any language without making distinctions about the different contexts in which it is spoken and written. The scatological Hebrew spoken by soldiers is expressive and supple and fine for its context, but it would be totally out of place—in fact, rude and unacceptable—in a synagogue. The Hebrew of a scholarly tome needs to answer to different standards than that of a newspaper article and a children’s book.
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. If I were to write a story about Israeli teenagers, I’d have them speak colloquial, not standard, Hebrew. Perhaps, over time, the colloquial construction will become the standard one and thus acceptable in formal conversation and writing. That’s already happened in our lifetimes with any number of word forms—use the third person feminine plural future form you find in the old grammar books today and you sound like someone’s ancient aunt.
Ninety years ago, H.L. Mencken published a fat book in which he argued that the language spoken in the United States should be called “American” rather than “English.” He adduced reams and reams of evidence, some of it entertaining and fascinating. But in the end the Americans and the British decided not to go the way of the Serbs and the Croats, or the Czechs and the Slovaks, or other speakers of more or less mutually comprehensible tongues who split linguistically as a result of cultural, religious and historical differences. Americans proudly avoid putting superfluous u’s in words and maintain that a lift is something you get from reading an inspiring poem rather than something that takes you up to the tenth floor. But the Americans still teach their kids that their language’s literary heritage begins with Beowulf, that bloody epic written in Old English. Or Anglo-Saxon. Depending on who you ask.