Jabotinsky’s Hebrew.

I’ve started Halkin’s Jabotinsky: A Life, which is excellent (thanks, Paul!), and I thought this passage on language was worth posting:

Jabotinsky also covered the congress for Odesskaya Novosti, in which he published four long dispatches. The first two dealt with caucuses he attended. One was held by the Mizrachi, the religiously Orthodox Zionist party; struck by its moderateness, he deemed it capable of collaborating with secular Zionists. The other was convened by a Hebraist faction that demanded Hebrew’s adoption as the official language of the Zionist movement and of a future Jewish state. (The congress itself was conducted in German, with delegates free to use Yiddish, Russian, or Hebrew if they wished.) While confessing that he did not understand spoken Hebrew well enough to follow the proceedings, Jabotinsky was impressed by the speakers’ fluency and predicted that their goal would be accomplished in Palestine because Hebrew alone could serve as a lingua franca there; he was also struck by the Sephardic diction used by some of them, which he judged more exact and pleasing than the Ashkenazi pronunciation he was familiar with. The experience spurred him to take up the study of Hebrew again.

A quibble: while the book is in general very well proofread and copyedited, it consistently uses “Odesskaya Novosti” (‘Odessa News’) for what should either be Odesskiya Novosti (representing the prerevolutionary spelling) or Odesskiye Novosti (the modern version); as it is, it matches a feminine singular adjective with a plural noun. Tsk, I say, tsk.

Comments

  1. Jabo was also a proponent of Ataturking Hebrew to the Latin script. He published a book about Hebrew words called Taryag Millim (613 Words), written in Latinized Hebrew.
    I give talks about the Latinization movement occasionally. Here’s a video of one (in Hebrew):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iwdVSVDz4M

  2. Fascinating, I had no idea!

  3. It would actually be nicer to us philoglots, if modern Hebrew was revived in Latin script in full phonological glory, with all the schvas yadda yadda and extravagant Tiberian vowel qualities.

  4. By granting vowels the status of letters, latinizing Hebrew would obscure the three-letter consonant roots* that form the basis of every Hebrew word, and would hide the patterns and relationships that are the glory of the language.

    *occasionally two- or four-letter for the pedants among us.

    But Jabotinsky’s preference for the “Sephardic diction” put him on the winning side – Israeli Hebrew for the most part adopts Sephardic pronunciations.

  5. By granting vowels the status of letters, latinizing Hebrew would obscure the three-letter consonant roots* that form the basis of every Hebrew word, and would hide the patterns and relationships that are the glory of the language.

    Come, come, let us not exaggerate. While they would be “obscured” in the sense that they would not stare you in the face quite as blatantly, the patterns aren’t exactly hidden in kodesh/kedushah/kiddush/kaddish or siddur/seder/sidrah.

  6. Well, those are obvious examples, but the permutations can get much more complicated.

    And the issue is not just whether you can discern the root if you try. Hebrew is a wonderfully patterned language, with all sorts of changes that you can ring on the root letters, as regular and pleasing to the eye and ear as a set of bells. This is lost in transliteration. Once the vowels, which change, have equal status with the root, which is stable, the primacy of the root is psychologically diminished even though it can be discerned. And if one of the consonants is silent (which is quite common), in transliteration the vowel actually becomes dominant and the root letter disappears altogether.

  7. I’d like to know what any Maltese has to say on discerning the roots from the vowels in a Latin-scripted Semitic language.

  8. Bulbul?

  9. Yes, you can clearly see the b-l reduplication there.

  10. Hey!

  11. FWIW, Klein says Hebrew בלבול bulbul (the songbird family Pycnonotidae) is from Farsi. Wiki concurs. Hebrew probably picked up the term from Arabic.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Once the vowels, which change, have equal status with the root, which is stable, the primacy of the root is psychologically diminished even though it can be discerned. And if one of the consonants is silent (which is quite common), in transliteration the vowel actually becomes dominant and the root letter disappears altogether.

    But if it works in the spoken language, surely it’d still work in the written language if the vowels were spelled out?

    I’m immediately reminded of the claim that “Chinese” has too many homophones to be written in an alphabet. It doesn’t have too many homophones to be spoken.

  13. Yes, I was reminded of the same thing. People are amazingly good at rationalizing their instinctive preferences (which are usually what they grew up with).

  14. Bulbul?

    I meant our fellow Hattic of that name, who knows something about Maltese.

    Chinese … doesn’t have too many homophones to be spoken.

    No. But written Chinese contains bits of wényán (Classical Chinese), which are unintelligible if written in Pinyin, and the higher the register, the more wényán there is. They could be written in Dhyao Qiuanremm’s General Chinese, though.

  15. “But if it works in the spoken language, surely it’d still work in the written language if the vowels were spelled out?”

    The written language is a representation of the spoken language as the speakers perceive it. Obviously you don’t need to be able to read and write a language to be able to speak it, but once you do know how to read, it influences the way you perceive it.

    “People are amazingly good at rationalizing their instinctive preferences (which are usually what they grew up with).”

    And people are amazingly good at rationalizing away arguments that may be right but don’t agree with their fixed preconceptions. I’m happy to be disagreed with by someone who is willing to make an argument (e.g., David Marjanović), but this condescending bullshit just pisses me off.

  16. I meant our fellow Hattic of that name, who knows something about Maltese.

    Yes, I know. I just thought it was time to recall the songbird.

  17. George Gibbard says:

    The importance of Semitic root consonants is sometimes overestimated. For instance, the Arabic root “be” is k-w-n, which goes into the formation of the noun of place makaːn- meaning ‘place’ (being of the common pattern maCCaC-. But the root consonant w is ignored entirely in forming the plural of this, ʔamkina(t-) ‘places’, which looks like it was formed from a word with the root m-k-n (and the the double plural, formed by pluralizing the plural, is of the quadrilateral type from the consonants of the singular ʔ-m-k-n, so ʔamaːkin- also ‘places’, just as if the singular had had a quadrilateral root: that is, one does not distinguish between a consonant that is originally part of a prefix and one that is originally part of a root). From , <risaːla(t-) ‘epistle’ has the plural rasaː?il- of the quadrilateral type, as if the long vowel in the singular contained a root consonant w or y, while the same does not apply to the plural of rasuːl- ‘apostle’, which is rusul-. Words with vowels specified, including borrowings, are clearly in the lexicon, and so are e.g. plural noun forms, so ɟuzur- ‘islands’ vs. ɟazar- ‘carrots’ (from Persian), while often the consonantal root need only be invoked as part of derivational morphology (so barnaːmaɟ- ‘program’ (the noun), from Persian, only has the root b-r-m-ɟ on the way to forming the plural baraːmiɟ- (there is no normal formation 1a2naː3a4- whereby the singular could be derived from the same “root” as the plural) or the denominal verb barmaɟa ‘he programmed’. Root + pattern morphology takes on a greater reality in verbal inflection, though in the derived forms (“measures” — ʔawzaːn — other than I, the Grundstamm) one still needs to note in measures IV and X whether a medial semivowel is treated as strong or weak; meanwhile in measure I, the Grundstamm, both perfect and imperfect stems need to be treated as having lexical vowels, since often neither stem is predictable even given semantics (e.g. active vs. stative). Of course you may already know this and I hope it’s not too condescending; but I feel some people (possibly not you) have an exaggerated idea of the supposedly non-lexical or otherwise unnecessary nature of Semitic vowels. For what it’s worth, I’m sure it would be easier even for Arabs to read Arabic with the vowels written, though slower to write.

  18. George Gibbard says:

    read “From , r-s-l, risaːla(t-) ‘epistle’…”

  19. I’m happy to be disagreed with by someone who is willing to make an argument (e.g., David Marjanović), but this condescending bullshit just pisses me off.

    Yeah, sorry, it was lazy snark that I should have deleted rather than posting. It’s been a difficult week in these parts.

  20. They could be written in Dhyao Qiuanremm’s General Chinese, though.

    And in Vietnamese, too, with a phonology sufficiently complex to reflect a great portion of Middle Chinese phonological distinctions.

  21. easier even for Arabs to read Arabic with the vowels written, though slower to write

    This is always a tradeoff. The pressure to make a system easier to write tends to make all the letters look the same, but as the result is more or less illegible, they then have to be distinguished somehow, typically by diacritics. In the development of the Arabic script on the one hand, and the quite independent development of the Manchu script (a now-disused variant of the Mongolian script) on the other, from their common ancestor the Aramaic script, a very similar pattern is apparent. Analogously, the Devanagari script evolved for religious use, where documents were written once (and ornately) and read many times, whereas the Kaithi script was used from the 16C to the early 20C in the same parts of India for secular record-keeping, where writing large volumes of text quickly was important, and actually reading them rare or even nonexistent.

  22. Another thing that gets overestimated is the consonantalness of Hebrew orthography. It’s not at all true that Hebrew vowels aren’t written. I just did a count of the first hundred vowel phonemes in today’s Haaretz lead article; 56 aren’t represented in the spelling, 44 are. Of course the way they’re represented is often ambiguous, e.g. vav can stand for either [o] or [u], final he is usually [a] but can be [e] or [o], etc.; but there are similar ambiguities with consonants too. In fact the Hebrew writing system is far from a perfect abjad but is about halfway to being a full alphabet, with vowels and all.

  23. @Bloix: quite the contrary. Under a phonemic conversion, the mishkalim system becomes much more transparent. Consider that now קלקל and קבל have the same tense and agreement, but it’s not obvious from the script. In Latinization you can get qilqel and qibbel, showing exactly where in the template the root consonants fall. Watch my talk 🙂

  24. Well, most people would write קיבל and קילקל, when not using niqqud. This makes the binyan and agreement obvious, since the only other template consistent with that spelling would be qital, which doesn’t exist.

  25. qital, which doesn’t exist

    This instantly reminded me of one of Tolkien’s footnotes in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Tengwar, Tolkien’s main script, is an Arabic-style abjad that is almost always written with full vowel points, but as the footnote says:

    In Quenya, in which a was very frequent, its vowel sign was often omitted altogether. Thus for calma ‘lamp’, clm could be written. This would naturally be read as calma, since cl was not in Quenya a possible initial combination, and m never occurred finally. A possible reading was calama, but no such word existed.

    Curiously, languages rich in final consonants, such as Sindarin and English, were normally written with the vowel points attached to the following consonant, unlike any other writing system I know of. Tolkien also provided for a set of conventions for fully alphabetic writing (that is, with matres lectionis).

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