Hebrew As She Is Spoke

Haim Watzman

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.

     <em>Hebrew needs change we can believe in</em>
Hebrew needs change we can believe in
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.

22 thoughts on “Hebrew As She Is Spoke”

  1. Very well written Haim. I can certainly identify with the struggle of modern language versus the historical one. Gavriel is coming home learning and speaking with taf and tsaf, and Ari laughed at me because I don’t know the difference. I told him that Yiddish at pronounciation is not something I ever studied. Now my goal is to get him to forget everything he learns in school and speak properly.

  2. Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckermann is a genius and you should read all his articles and books. Calling the language “Israeli” is not only a semantic issue. Your children have a grammar – in their brains. They do not need your Ulpan grammar books. And you have no right to correct them. Zuckermann argues that unlike Hebrew, Israeli does not have “polarity of gender”. In other words, you do not use the feminine numeral (asarA) for the masculine noun (shkalim) as you would have done in Hebrew. The reason: Israeli grammar is not only based on that of Hebrew. For example, in Yiddish you do not have such “polarity of gender”. Joel.

  3. My understanding is that modern American English is much closer to colonial-era English than modern British-English is. A good example is the word “stone.” Yanks stay “stone,” Limeys now say something akin to “stune.”

  4. Joel — I don’t want to get into an argument over the position of a scholar whose work I haven’t read, but labels are simply a way of creating boundaries. The language that Zuckerman calls “Israeli” sounds to me to be the same entity that other scholars would call “colloquial” or street Hebrew. Of course that has grammatical rules and constructions that differ from those of “standard” or literary Hebrew. But the issue of whether those colloquial constructions should be limited to certain contexts or whether they should themselves be made “standard” is not a linguistic one; it’s a decision based on culture, sociology, politics and history. So, for example, Arabic is seen by its speakers to be a single language despite its mutually incomprehensible spoken dialects. Historically and culturally the Arabs have maintained a collective identity that is expressed linguistically in a common literary, formal language they share–even though it is not the language they speak day-to-day. A nationalist Egyptian linguist or writer or politician might make the case that Egyptian spoken Arabic is a language distinct from Syrian Arabic and that its rules and vocabulary should be made standard and replace those of literary Arabic. He’d be opposed, no doubt, by others who would insist that Egyptian spoken Arabic is a substandard form of the language that historically unites all Arabs. Such border drawing in the nineteenth-century Europe reclassified what had previously been considered local dialects and made them national languages–Norwegian, for example. This was not determined by the language itself but by the consciousness of its speakers and writers.

  5. You are right, Haim. But Zuckermann is a historical linguist rather than a political leader. His role is to uncover hidden linguistic realities and to report them to the masses. The identity issue you are talking about is actually referred to in his book. He mentions Trubetzkoy’s “Selbstgefuhl” view that the speaker can think whatever she wants about her own language. But that is an anti-linguistic perspective. If you are a zoologist, would you write a book about koala bears? LOL. Prof. Zuckermann actually mentions this example in the book. I have read it and honestly believe it is the finest piece ever written about our complex language.

  6. I will have to get the book. But I still don’t see how a linguistic analysis can lead to a decision about where the boundaries between languages lie and what the languages should be called. No serious linguist argues that spoken Hebrew doesn’t have consistent grammatical rules and that these differ from those of the “standard” language–that’s true of all dialects and argots. What makes a dialect metamorphose into a language is a decision by its speakers (or rather, usually, by its political and literary elite) to disconnect it from the “standard” language to which it had been linked. So Latin argots became French, Spanish, Italian, etc. If you want to go with the biological metaphor (which is not really parallel) then a koalas become a separate species when a population of tree kangaroos stopped interbreeding with other tree kangaroos and started down an independent evolutionary path. There’s no specifiable level of morphological or genetic diversion from the median that suddenly makes a population turn into a species. Similarly, there’s no specific level of divergence of vocabulary, syntax, or grammar that automatically makes a dialect a separate language.

  7. Haim, tadlik et haorot bevakasha. The fact that Latin argots became French, Spanish, Italian, etc. has little to do with the case of what Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckermann (I am almost sure it is spelled the German way: with two Ns) calls “Israeli”. The reason is simple: as opposed to French, which is indeed the continuation of Latin, Israeli is not only the continuation of Hebrew. Zuckermann argues that Israeli is a hybrid based on many languages, Hebrew being only one of them. I hope my comments help. I am simply impressed by this revolutionary piece of work. It is always cheerful to find out that there are still brilliant thinkers around.

  8. Allow me to offer a similar perspective regarding Arabic – Egyptian Arabic, to be more precise – the debates we’ve been having in Egypt might inform the Israeli/Hebrew debate here.

    I do acknowledge that the difference between proper Arabic and Egyptian is large, and it effectively takes school education to understand the former. I remember once reading the newspaper (written in proper Arabic) to our illiterate cleaning lady – and she barely understood half of what I read.

    Would popular understanding not make the case for considering Egyptian a distinct language, and laying its grammatical rules as they are spoken?
    I am personally very opposed to the idea. Egyptian shouldn’t be anything more than a dialect of a mother tongue and should, in no case, be allowed to replace Arabic. I cringe when I see adverts written as they would sound in spoken Egyptian..

    Historical, religious and regional politico-social reasons would also disagree. (Proper) Arabic is one of the few ties between Arab countries today. Arabic being the language of the Koran is also an argument that often dominates the discussion.

    The only place I have come to see grammatical rules for Egyptian is books for foreign learners, who generally get the choice between classical arabic (or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)), and Egyptian arabic (or levantine, or moroccan, etc). And I think it should stay this way.

    Pardon the long discussion, and to go back to the Hebrew debate: I see no reason why ‘Israeli’ (or colloquial Hebrew) wouldn’t be tolerated in and of itself, with its quasi-distinct rules (chamesh shekel…) but these rules mustn’t be structured in grammar books, which would risk ‘proper Hebrew’ to be replaced by ‘proper colloquial Hebrew’, and the schism between classical literature – and, more importantly, the Bible – and modern reading comprehension skills to widen.

    Can you imagine, one day, classical Hebrew poetry to be accompanied by an Israeli translation? I couldn’t.

    A perennial clash between classical and colloquial, between the parents’ linguistics and the teenage lingo is unavoidable. But it is the definition of what considers the ‘right’ way to speak that maintains the continuation of a language.

  9. Do I have this right: Zuckerman (or is that Tzuckerman?) claims a new language called Israeli as distinct from Hebrew and this follows Shlomo Zand that we aren’t really Jews? Is Israel then Palestine? Or is Palestine Israel? I’m lost, a bit.

  10. Thanks, Mo-ha-med. As you illustrate, Egyptian could and would become a separate language, distinct from Arabic, if its speakers and writers were to decide that they want to create a distinct non-Arab Egyptian identity. It has nothing to do with the extent to which the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of Egyptian colloquial Arabic differ from the literary Arabic shared by the entire Arab world. Joel, your point is irrelevant precisely for this reason. Zuckerman can bring as many examples as he can of Hebrew being a hybrid language but it won’t make any difference regarding the language’s identity. The linguistic fact that modern Hebrew is a hybrid language is not a cultural fact that it is a separate language. As long as the speakers and writers of modern Hebrew look back on ancient and rabbinic Hebrew as the source of their linguistic and literary roots (and that culture as the wellspring of their modern culture), then they can and will call their language Hebrew, no matter what foreign influences have accrued.

  11. Several comments on your misleading analyses of Zuckermann’s book:

    “Zuckerman (or is that Tzuckerman?) claims a new language called Israeli as distinct from Hebrew and this follows Shlomo Zand that we aren’t really Jews? Is Israel then Palestine? Or is Palestine Israel? I’m lost, a bit.”

    On the contrary. Prof. Zuckermann’s “Israeli” language is axctually very Jewish. For instance, he underscores the impact of Yiddish, which is a Jewish language after all. The ones who deny Jewishness are the Diapora negators, those who despise the galuti Jew.

    “Can you imagine, one day, classical Hebrew poetry to be accompanied by an Israeli translation? I couldn’t.”

    Of course. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible is being translated these days into what Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckermann calls Israeli.

    “As long as the speakers and writers of modern Hebrew look back on ancient and rabbinic Hebrew as the source of their linguistic and literary roots […] then they can and will call their language Hebrew, no matter what foreign influences have accrued.”

    The impact of Yiddish on Israeli can’t be regarded as “foreign influence” simply because Yiddish was one of the primary contributors to
    what Prof. Zuckermann calls Israeli.

    May I recommend the book to all of you.

    I have found Zuckermann’s website:


    Peace. Joel

  12. For a descriptive linguist, the best way to find out what a language is called is to find out how its native speakers refer to it.

    I think if Prof. Zuckerman were to conduct this simple study, he would find that the language is called “Hebrew.”

  13. “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 English teachers.”

    Somehow, I don’t think that high school English teachers (even Israeli ones) spend a lot of time being “guardians of linguistic purity” for Hebrew.

  14. Native speakers can’t err of course in their mother tongue itself. So YOU’S (you guys, atem), for example, is not at all a mistake in English. But whenever we discuss linguistic concepts (such as the name of the language), then we should ignore what native speakers think and listen to professional linguists such as Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann. Our job is to speak and their job is to analyse our speech.

  15. “Youse” isn’t a mistake in New York spoken English but it certainly would be in North Carolina, where I lived for some years, and where the correct spoken term would be “Y’all.” So we’re not talking about absolutes but about what’s appropriate for where and when we’re speaking, what context we are in, who we are trying to influence, and what register we choose. So it’s no less legitimate or correct to choose to write literary Hebrew than it is to write or speak spoken Hebrew!

  16. So after all what you think is similar to some of Prof. Zuckermann’s arguments. Perhaps you should read the book. It is beautifully written.

  17. It seems that underlying this debate, apart from any after-the-event agendas, is a philosophical debate between two positions with mutually exclusive assumptions. Hitron is essentially a Platonist, that there is some perfect “form” of Hebrew floating out there that we can aspire to, and that Israeli is a poor reflection of. Zuckerman is a reductionist that “all there is is all there is” and will not have truck with any airy-fairy talk of something existing out there which in some sense does not. The problem with the argument is that the two belief sets have different axioms underlying them, that you can either accept or not. If you believe in forms then Hitron makes sense, if you don’t Zuckerman does. And that’s all there is really.

  18. Dan, I think your analysis is incorrect. Zuckerman, it seems (and again I note that I haven’t read his book yet, just the reviews and some stuff on his website), wants to replace one essentialist position with another. That is, he commits the same sin that Hebrew purists do, by insisting that there is one single correct form of the language Israelis speak today and that all other versions are substandard and should be dismissed. My whole point in this discussion is to assert linguistic pluralism–which means accepting the legitimacy of spoken Hebrew (Zuckerman’s “Israeli”) but also of formal literary Hebrew. Choosing to align or identify the modern language with the Hebrew of the Bible, Mishna, and Middle Ages is a legitimate cultural decision and has nothing to do with the facts of the language itself.

  19. Haim, you have a mistake, as they say in Yiddish, as well as in what Prof. Zuckermann calls “Israeli”. Zuckermann is the first ever Israeli linguist who argue that a language is an abstract ensemble of idiolects, sociolects, ethnolects, dialects etc. Thus, he would never reject any form/register/-lect of “Israeli”, puristic -lects included. What he rejects is the coercion by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, as well as the common myth that Israelis speak the language of Isaiah (with mistakes). You should simply read his insightful articles, as I have done. Many of them are written in English – see http://www.zuckermann.org/articles.html

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