A pair of interviews (1, 2, both RealAudio) with Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann on Jill Kitson’s weekly Radio National show about language, Lingua Franca (previously mentioned here), discuss Zuckermann’s controversial thesis that “Israeli is a hybrid language, both Semitic and Indo-European… Thus, the term Israeli is far more appropriate than ‘Israeli Hebrew’, a fortiori ‘Modern Hebrew’ or ‘Hebrew’ tout court.” The quote is from his paper “A New Vision for ‘Modern Hebrew’: Theoretical, Cultural and Practical Implications of Analysing Israeli as a Semito-European Mixed Language” [pdf file; HTML cache here]); it might help to read the paper before listening to the interviews, since that way you’ll be familiar with the details of the argument and can concentrate on the off-the-cuff remarks: that if it had been Moroccan Jews who’d arrived in Palestine and founded modern Israel, the language would be “very Semitic” instead of the hybrid he says it is today; that the Hebrew Bible should be translated into Israeli; that “a language which is a mishmash is nothing to be ashamed of.” I particularly liked his insistence that “a native speaker does not need grammar books.”
Here’s a bit of the paper to get you started:
The Mutual Intelligibility Assumption posits that Israeli is Hebrew because an Israeli speaker can understand Hebrew. Edward Ullendorff (pc) has claimed that the biblical Isaiah could have understood Israeli. I am not convinced that this would have been the case. The reason Israelis can be expected to understand the book of Isaiah – albeit still with difficulties – is surely because they study the Old Testament at school for eleven years, rather than because it is familiar to them from their daily conversation. Furthermore, Israelis read the bible as if it were Israeli and often therefore misunderstand it. When an Israeli reads yéled sha‘ashu‘ím in Jeremiah 31:19 (King James 20), s/he does not understand it as ‘pleasant child’ but rather as ‘playboy’. Ba’u banim ‘ad mashber in Isaiah 37:3 is interpreted by Israelis as ‘children arrived at a crisis’ rather than as ‘children arrived at the mouth of the womb, to be born’. The available examples are not only lexical: much more importantly, Israelis are often incapable of recognizing moods, aspects and tenses in the Bible.
Yet, Israeli children are told that the Old Testament was written in their mother tongue. In other words, in Israeli primary schools, Hebrew and Israeli are, axiomatically, the very same. One cannot therefore expect Israelis easily to accept the idea that the two languages might be genetically different. In English terms, it is as if someone were to try to tell a native English-speaker that his/her mother tongue is not the same as Shakespeare’s. The difference is that between Shakespeare and the current native speaker of English there has been a continuous chain of native speakers. Between the biblical Isaiah and contemporary Israelis there has been no such chain, while the Jews have had many mother tongues other than Hebrew…
Israeli educators and politicians, as well as laymen, often argue that Israelis ‘slaughter’ or ‘rape’ their language by ‘lazily’ speaking slovenly, ‘bad Hebrew’, full of ‘mistakes’ (e.g. http://www.lashon.exe. co.il). Most Israelis say bekitá bet rather than the puristic bekhitá bet ‘in the second grade’ (note the spirantization of the /k/ in the latter); éser shékel rather than asar-á shkal-ím ‘ten shekels’ (the latter having a polarity-of-gender agreement – with a feminine numeral and a masculine plural noun); aní yaví rather than aní aví ‘I will bring’. Issues of language are so sensitive in Israel that politicians are often involved. In a session at the Israeli Parliament on 4 January 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rebuked Israelis for using the etymologically Arabo-English hybrid expression yàla báy, lit. ‘let’s bye’, i.e. ‘goodbye’, instead of ‘the most beautiful word’ shalóm ‘peace, hello, goodbye’. In an article in the daily newspaper Ha’aretz (21 June 2004), the prominent politician Yossi Sarid attacked the common language of éser shékel etc. as inarticulate and monstrous, and urged civilians to fight it and protect ‘Hebrew’.
But what such public figures are doing is trying to impose Hebrew grammar on Israeli speech, ignoring the fact that Israeli has its own grammar, which is very different from that of Hebrew. For example, whereas the Hebrew phrase for ‘my grandfather’ was sav-í ‘grandfather + 1st person singular possessive’, in Israeli it is sába shel-ì ‘grandfather of me’. Similarly, whilst Hebrew often used smikhút (construct-state), in Israeli it is much less common. In a construct-state, two nouns are combined, the first being modified by the second. Compare the Hebrew construct-state ‘em ha-yéled ‘mother the-child’ with the Israeli phrase ha-íma shel ha-yéled ‘the mother of the child’, both meaning ‘the child’s mother’. Similarly, note the position of the definite article ha in the Israeli construct-state ha-òrekh dín ‘the lawyer’ (lit. ‘the arranger of law’), as opposed to the Hebrew construct-state ‘orékh ha-dín ‘id.’. Most Israeli pupils say la-bet séfer ‘to the school’ (lit. ‘to the house book’), rather than the puristic le-vét ha-séfer. Thus, Israeli is far more analytic than Hebrew…
The linguist Menahem Zevi Kaddari has criticized the young Israeli author Etgar Keret for using a ‘thin language’ – as opposed to Shmuel Yosef Agnon. When Agnon wrote ishtó méta aláv, lit. ‘his wife died (/dies) on him’, he meant ‘he became a widower’ (1944, cf. 1977: 13). When Keret says so, he means ‘his wife loves him very much’. Kaddari compares Keret to Agnon as if they wrote in two different registers of the same language. In the proposed study, I wish to test my hypothesis that Keret is, in fact, writing in a different language. Whilst Agnon attempts to write in (Mishnaic) Hebrew, which is obviously not his mother tongue (Yiddish), Keret writes authentically in his native Israeli. Israelis are not less intelligent than their ancestors. Their language is not thin and their vocabulary not poor, just different. Educators imposing Hebrew grammar on Israeli speech ignore the fact that Israeli has its own internal logic.
One can see in Kaddari’s rebuke the common phenomenon of a conservative older generation unhappy with ‘reckless’ changes to the language – cf. Aitchison (2001) and Hill (1998). However, prescriptivism in Israeli contradicts the usual model, where there is an attempt to enforce the grammar and pronunciation of an elite social group. The late linguist Haim Blanc once took his young daughter to see an Israeli production of My Fair Lady. In this version, Professor Henry Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle how to pronounce /r/ ‘properly’, i.e. as the Hebrew alveolar trill [r] (characteristic of Sephardic Jews, who happen to have been socially disadvantaged) rather than as the Israeli unique lax uvular approximant [®′] (characteristic of Ashkenazic Jews, who have usually controlled key positions in society). ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ is translated as barád yarád bidróm sfarád haérev ‘Hail fell in southern Spain this evening’. At the end of the performance, Blanc’s daughter tellingly asked, ‘Daddy, why was Professor Higgins trying to teach Eliza to speak like our cleaning lady?’
Whether or not one accepts his claim that Israeli is a completely different (even genetically different) language, I’m certainly convinced that the differences are greater than I had realized, and I always enjoy a good overturning of applecarts. (Thanks for the radio links, Anthony!)
Addendum. Guy Deutscher will be featured on Wordsmith Chat on August 20, 2005, 11 AM Pacific [GMT -7]. They’ve had quite a lineup of word people, the last three being Erin McKean, Michael Quinion, and Jesse Sheidlower; it should be an interesting chat.