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]; 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.


  1. Folquerto says

    How about those constructions and words coined after European ways of saying? I know very little Hebrew, but I remember that in the formative state of Ivrit many abstract substantives ending on -ut were created to cover the needs of modern times, and even words like renaissance were just borrowed, as rnsns. Which by the way I learned from the book of an Israeli soldier in Florence, who I admired very much, a little stunned by her daring, as she travelled all alone through Europe to friends in the Netherlands. Amazing girl, proud, brave, intelligent.

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_Arabic lists parallels for most or all of these classical-modern differences: loss of mood distinctions, simplification of agreement patterns, analytic possessive, loss or replacement of pharangeals. Zuckermann says several times that the lack of a continuous chain of native speakers is a basic difference of Hebrew. But the end product seems to be about the same. Perhaps it’s because the colloquial Arabic varieties arose when Arabic was learned by local non-Arabic speakers. Or, vernacular Arabic-vernacular Hebrew parallels could be the result of borrowing from each other, vernacular Aramaic, or other languages.
    It would be nice if Zuckermann could list features specific to Yiddish that appear in today’s Hebrew, but he lists only generically European ones. Europeanized features are easy to find even in Modern Chinese.

  3. michael farris says

    caffeing, I haven’t read the linked article, but …
    I think once comment argument on the Israeli / Yiddish connection is that specific semitic features (derivation of tri-consonant roots, broken plurals) are no longer productive (or only minimally so).
    I don’t know enough about Hebrew to say whether or not that’s true.
    As for the classical/colloquial split in Arabic, the last I knew people were starting to think that the diglossia has always been there, that is that both a high and low form were exported from the Arabian peninsula. This is based on things that all the colloquials have in common (against classical Arabic, like negation (la before the verb in classical, but in all the colloquials, it’s either ma before the verb, -sh after the verb or both together.

  4. Dear Caffeind,
    I have been referred to you by a colleague of mine who says that you are asking me about the difference between the European influence on (“non-genetic”!) Israeli and the European influence on Arabic and other (“genetic”!) languages.
    From the point of view of TYPOLOGY, or *synchronic* characterization of language, you are right: there are indeed some similarities between the European impact on Israeli and that on some vernacular Arabics.
    However, from the *diachronic* point of view of GENETICS – which is currently of interest to me – the two cases are not paprallel. Comparing Israeli to Semitic languages characterized by both Indo-European traits (like Israeli) and a continuous chain of native speakers (unlike Israeli) is problematic.
    The formation of Israeli was NOT the result of language contact between spoken Hebrew and a powerful superstratum, such as English in the case of some vernacular Arabics, Kurdish in the case of Neo-Aramaic, or French in the case of English. Rather, *ab initio*, Israeli, which is only 100 years old, had several contributors: Yiddish, Hebrew and some other spoken languages. The unique case of Israeli is, therefore, not parallel to Greek, Japanese or Chinese.
    It looks as if Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – *symbolically* the “father of Israeli” – would have liked to have cancelled the heritage of the Diaspora and would have been most content had Israelis spoken Biblical Hebrew. Had the Hebrew revival been successful, they would indeed have spoken a language closer to ancient Hebrew than Modern English is to Chaucer, because they would have bypassed more than 2000 years of natural development.
    On the other hand, let us assume for a moment that Hebrew never died as a spoken language by the second century AD. It continued to be the mother tongue of generations of Jews. They eventually returned to the Land of Israel (or Palestine) continuing to speak Hebrew. It might well be the case that THAT Hebrew would have differed more from Biblical Hebrew than does Israeli. But this fact says nothing about the genetics of actual Israeli!
    The following is a summary of my thoughts, which I have formulated for you. It is related to my forthcoming book haivrit kemitos (Hebrew as Myth, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2005):
    Fascinating and multifaceted, Israeli (Zuckermann 1999) possesses distinctive socio-historical characteristics such as the lack of a continuous chain of native speakers from spoken Hebrew to Israeli, the non-Semitic mother tongues spoken by the revivalists, and the European impact on literary Hebrew. Consequently, it presents the cultural linguist with a unique laboratory in which to examine a wider set of theoretical problems concerning language genesis, social issues like language and politics, and practical matters, e.g. whether it is possible to revive a no-longer spoken language.
    Hebrew was spoken by the Jewish people after the so-called conquest of Canaan (c. fourteenth century BC). It belonged to the Canaanite division of the north-western branch of Semitic languages. Following a gradual decline, it ceased to be spoken by the second century AD. The failed Bar-Kokhba Revolt against the Romans in Judaea in AD 132-5, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated, marks the symbolic end of the period of spoken Hebrew. But the actual end of spoken Hebrew might have been earlier. Jesus, for example, was a native speaker of Aramaic rather than Hebrew. For more than 1700 years thereafter, Hebrew was comatose. It served as liturgical and literary language and occasionally also as a lingua franca for Jews of the Diaspora, but not as a mother tongue.
    Unlike Maskilic Hebrew (i.e. the Hebrew of the Haskalah, the 1770-1880 Enlightenment Movement led by Moses Mendelssohn and Naphtali Herz Wessely), a literary language, Israeli is a living mother tongue. Its formation was facilitated in Eretz Yisrael only at the end of the nineteenth century by the most famous revival ideologue Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), school teachers and enthusiastic supporters. Itamar Ben-Avi (1882-1943, born as Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda), Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son, is symbolically considered to have been the first native Israeli-speaker. He was born one year after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a native Yiddish-speaker, conversant in Russian and French, arrived in Eretz Yisrael.
    But it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that Israeli was first spoken by a community, which makes it approximately 100 years old. The first children born to two Israeli-speaking parents were those of couples who were graduates of the first Israeli schools in Eretz Yisrael, and who had married in the first decade of the twentieth century (see Rabin 1981: 54). In April 2000, the oldest native Israeli-speaker was Dola Wittmann (in her late 90s), Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s daughter, who also happens to be one of the first native Israeli-speakers.
    Israeli is currently one of the official languages – with Arabic and English – of the State of Israel (established in 1948) and is spoken to varying degrees of fluency by its 6.8 million citizens – as a mother tongue by most Jews (whose total number slightly exceeds 5 million), and as a second language by Muslims (Arabic-speakers), Christians (e.g. Russian- and Arabic-speakers), Druze (Arabic-speakers) and others.
    During the past century, Israeli has become the primary mode of communication in all domains of public and private life. Yet, with the growing diversification of Israeli society, it has come also to highlight the very absence of a unitary civic culture among citizens who seem increasingly to share only their language.
    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 left-wing (and thus often regarded by some as ‘enlightened’) politician Yossi Sarid attacked the common language of éser shékel (‘ten shekels’, rather than asar-á shkal-ím ‘ten-f shekel-mpl’, the latter having a polarity-of-gender agreement – with a feminine numeral and a masculine plural noun) as inarticulate and monstrous, and urged civilians to fight it and protect ‘Hebrew’.
    One could see in these rebukes the common nostalgia of a conservative older generation unhappy with ‘reckless’ changes to the language – cf. Aitchison (2001) and Hill (1998). But normativism in Israeli contradicts the usual ‘do not split your infinitives’ model, where there is an attempt to enforce the grammar and pronunciation of an elite social group. Using a ‘do as I say, don’t do as I do’ approach, Ashkenazic Jews (most of them originally
    native Yiddish-speakers), who have usually controlled key positions in Israeli society, have urged Israelis to adopt the pronunciation of Sephardic Jews (many of them originally native Arabic-speakers), who happen to have been socio-economically disadvantaged. In fact, politicians, educators and many laymen are attempting to impose Hebrew grammar on Israeli speech, ignoring the fact that Israeli has its own grammar, which is very different from that of Hebrew.
    Thus, 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, characteristic of Sephardim (cf. Judaeo-Spanish, Italian, Spanish), rather than as the Israeli unique lax uvular approximant (cf. many Yiddish and German dialects). The line ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ was adapted as barád yarád bidróm sfarád haérev, lit. ‘Hail fell in southern Spain this evening’. At the end of the performance, Blanc’s daughter tellingly asked, ‘Abba, why was Professor Higgins trying to teach Eliza to speak like our cleaning lady?’
    The genetic classification of Israeli has preoccupied scholars since the beginning of the twentieth century. The still prevalent, traditional view suggests that Israeli is Semitic: (Biblical/Mishnaic) Hebrew revived (e.g. Rabin 1974). The revisionist position defines Israeli as Indo-European: Yiddish relexified, i.e. Yiddish, most revivalists’ máme lóshn (mother tongue), is the ‘substratum’, whilst Hebrew is only a ‘superstratum’ providing lexicon and frozen morphology (cf. Horvath and Wexler 1997).
    From time to time it is alleged that Hebrew never died (e.g. Haramati 1992, 2000, Chomsky 1957: 218). It is true that, throughout its literary history, Hebrew was used as an occasional lingua franca. However, between the second and nineteenth centuries it was no one’s mother tongue, and I believe that the development of a literary language is very different from that of a fully-fledged native language. But there are many linguists who, though rejecting the ‘eternal spoken Hebrew mythology’, still explain every linguistic feature in Israeli as if Hebrew never died. For example, Goldenberg (1996: 151-8) suggests that Israeli pronunciation originates from internal convergence and divergence within Hebrew.
    I wonder, however, how a literary language can be subject to the same phonetic and phonological processes as a mother tongue. I argue, rather, that the Israeli sound system continues the (strikingly similar) phonetics and phonology of Yiddish, the native language of almost all the revivalists. These revivalists very much wished to speak Hebrew, with Semitic grammar and pronunciation, like Arabs. However, they could not avoid the Ashkenazic Weltanschauung – and consonants – arising from their European background.
    Unlike the traditionalist and revisionist, my own hybridizational theory acknowledges the historical and linguistic continuity of both Semitic and Indo-European languages within Israeli. ‘Genetically modified’, semi-engineered Israeli is based simultaneously on Hebrew and Yiddish (both being primary contributors – rather than ‘substrata’), accompanied by a plethora of other contributors such as Russian, Polish, German, Judaeo-Spanish (‘Ladino’) Arabic and English. Therefore, the term ‘Israeli’ is far more appropriate than ‘Israeli Hebrew’, let alone ‘Modern Hebrew’ or ‘Hebrew’ (tout court).
    What makes the ‘genetics’ of Israeli grammar so complex is the fact that the combination of Semitic and Indo-European influences is a phenomenon occurring already within the primary (and secondary) contributors to Israeli. Yiddish, a Germanic language with Romance, Hebrew and Aramaic substrata (and with most dialects having undergone Slavonicization), was shaped by Hebrew and Aramaic. On the other hand, Indo-European languages, such as Greek, played a role in (Semitic) Hebrew. Moreover, before the emergence of Israeli, Yiddish and other European languages influenced Medieval and Maskilic variants of Hebrew (see Glinert 1991), which, in turn, influenced Israeli (in tandem with the European contribution). This adds to the importance of the Congruence Principle, according to which if a linguistic feature exists in more than one contributor, it is more likely to persist in the Target Language (Zuckermann 2003).
    The distinction between forms and patterns (Zuckermann 2005, 2007) is crucial too. In the 1920s and 1930s, gdud meginéy hasafá, ‘the language defendants regiment’ (see Shur 2000), whose motto was ivrí, dabér ivrít ‘Hebrew [i.e. Jew], speak Hebrew!’, used to tear down signs written in ‘foreign’ languages and disturb Yiddish theatre gatherings. However, the members of this group did not look for Yiddish and Standard Average European patterns in the speech of the Israelis who did choose to speak ‘Hebrew’. (The term ‘Standard Average European’, SAE, was first introduced by Whorf (1941: 25) and recently received more attention by Haspelmath (1998, 2001) and Bernini and Ramat (1996) – cf. ‘European Sprachbund’ in Kuteva (1998).)
    This is, obviously, not to say that the revivalists, had they paid attention to patterns, would have managed to neutralize the impact of their mother tongues, which was often subconscious (hence the term ‘semi-engineered’). As Mufwene observes, ‘linguistic change is inadvertent, a consequence of “imperfect replication” in the interactions of individual speakers as they adapt their communicative strategies to one another or to new needs’ (2001: 11). Although they have engaged in a campaign for linguistic purity, the language the revivalists ‘created’ often mirrors the very cultural differences they sought to erase (cf. mutatis mutandis Frankenstein’s monster). The alleged victory of Hebrew over Yiddish was, in fact, a Pyrrhic one. Victorious Hebrew is, after all, partly European at heart. Yiddish and SAE survive beneath ‘osmotic’ Israeli grammar.
    I strongly believe that had the revivalists been Arabic-speaking Jews (e.g. from Morocco), Israeli would have been a totally different language – both genetically and typologically, much more Semitic. The impact of the founder population on Israeli is incomparable with that of later immigrants. The following is how Zelinsky (1973: 13-14) describes the influence of first settlements, from the point of view of cultural geography:
    “Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance to the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been […] in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants generations later.”
    Harrison et al. (1988) discuss the ‘Founder Effect’ in biology and human evolution, and Mufwene (2001) applies it as a creolistic tool to explain why the structural features of so-called creoles (which he regards as ‘normal languages’ just like English) are largely predetermined by the characteristics of the languages spoken by the founder population, i.e. by the first colonists. I propose the following Founder Principle in the context of Israeli:
    Yiddish is a primary contributor to Israeli because it was the mother tongue of the vast majority of revivalists and first pioneers in Eretz Yisrael at the CRUCIAL period of the beginning of Israeli.
    The Founder Principle works because by the time later immigrations came to Israel, Israeli had already entrenched the fundamental parts of its grammar. Thus, Moroccan Jews arriving in Israel in the 1950s had to learn a fully-fledged language (even though it often did not appear so to the Hebrew-obsessed language planners). Obviously, they initially developed their own variety of Israeli but ultimately the influence of their mother tongue was relatively negligible. Wimsatt’s (1999a, 1999b) notion of ‘generative entrenchment’ is of relevance here. As Salikoko Mufwene puts it, ‘the oldest features have a greater chance of prevailing over some newer alternatives simply because they have acquired more and more carriers, hence more transmitters, with each additional generation of speakers’
    (2001: 29).
    At the same time – and unlike anti-revivalist revisionists – I suggest that lethargic liturgical Hebrew too fulfills the criteria of a primary contributor for the following reasons: (i) Despite millennia without native speakers, it persisted as a most important cultural, literary and liturgical language throughout the generations; (ii) Revivalists made a huge effort to revive it and were, in fact, partly successful.
    Still, the revivalists’ attempt to belie their European roots, negate diasporism and avoid hybridity (as, in fact, reflected in Yiddish itself) failed. Thus, the study of Israeli offers a unique insight into the dynamics between language and culture in general and in particular into the role of language as a source of collective self-perception. Linguists and community leaders seeking to apply the lessons of Israeli in the hope of reviving no-longer spoken languages (e.g. Amery 1994, 1995, 2000; cf. Clyne 2001; Fishman 1991, 2001; Thieberger 1988) should take warning. When one revives a language, even at best one should expect to end up with a hybrid. I maintain that Israeli is a ‘non-genetic’, layered language, only partially engineered. Whatever we choose to call it, we should acknowledge, and celebrate, its complexity.
    (Unfortunately, I may not be able to retort to your follow-up, if any)
    Yours respectfully,
    Ghil`ad Zuckermann
    [Misspellings of author’s name: gilad zuckerman ghi’ad zukermann ghilad zukerman galahad sugarman gilead superman]

  5. Dr. Zuckermann: Thanks very much for your informative comment; I’m particularly pleased to learn about Dola Wittmann, who will be the subject of my next post now that I’ve googled her. (Love the list of misspellings too, Dr. Superman!)

  6. Thank you, dr. Zuckermann! I will read you, I downloaded and printed three articles by your hand. I love Borges too. And Mandarin. Some thirty years ago the Israeli girl in Florence, by the way she was called Iris, a Greek name, told me that she had a younger sister with a biblical name derived from the ancient Egyptian word for sister (sn.t), which name she and her family pronounced as Asnat. They were Jews of European descent. She informed me that in Israel a struggle was going on between the pronounciations Osnat and Asnat. I knew where that difference originated, so I was not amazed. From your words I understand that this struggle still remains and is in a way getting fiercer, as Israeli tends to arabify. At least, that is the last thing I heard about it at the university (Leiden, the Netherlands, Nino institute, Hebrew and Aramaic section). Well, there’s many a language nowadays in state of far-going flux and Hebrew carries a really heavy load of history! We’ll see. Which means in this case that I do not expect to see the end of it, nor do I find that disconcerting. Rather amusing, like when I understood that the children of my brother Jack are full-blooded Jews according to orthodox Jewish law. Not everyone finds that just amusing, I know. But, thanks!

  7. The transcripts of the radio programs are now up at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s1417557.htm (part 1) and http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s1422332.htm (part 2).
    And I couldn’t resist referring to a Language Log post on one particular difference of vocabulary between Hebrew and Israeli: “Begin arming Israel” http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001728.html

  8. What Len Prager says there about Ghil`ad Zuckermann’s theory is insightful. For example, “Zuckermann by no means denies the productive powers and expressive capacity of the language of the State of Israel commonly called Hebrew.”
    Date: 29 December 2005
    From: Leonard Prager
    Subject: This issue of TMR
    Ghil’ad Zuckermann’s new book, Hebrew As Myth [Am Oved] will be published shortly and he here gives a refined restatement of the argument he presented polemically in his reply to the Forward’s Philologus in TMR 8.013 (December 2004). [See http://www2.trincoll.edu/~mendele/tmr/tmr08013.htm%5D. Zuckermann commands a position midway between the traditionalists — semiticists largely who cling to the view of continuous development of a Hebrew language from biblical times to today — and the “revisionists” for whom Hebrew is relexified Indo-European. Zuckermann states squarely: “Israeli is a hybrid language based on both Hebrew and Yiddish” as well as on many other languages. Since his copious review of the Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (in the International Journal of Lexicography, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1999): 325-346) — and probably before — Zuckermann has wrangled with the glottonomy issue and it has unnecessarily won him sharp critics. Zuckermann by no means denies the productive powers and expressive capacity of the language of the State of Israel commonly called Hebrew. He insists on both its Indo-European and Semitic origins, its immense debt to Yiddish, its essential newness — and his name for it: “Israeli.” He concludes: “Whatever we choose to call it, we should acknowledge, and celebrate, its complexity.” The appearance of Zuckermann’s new book will doubtless stimulate much discussion.
    Date: 29 December 2005
    From: Ghil’ad Zuckermann
    Subject: The Israeli Language
    [Rest of comment deleted because it’s copied from here, where you can read it if you desire — LH.]

  9. David Marjanović says

    I clicked on the link to zuckermann.org and found this article from 2013 on the revival of an Australian language.

  10. Israeli unique lax uvular approximant [®′]

    That should be [ʁ̞] , I think, going by the paper.

    NB: A Unicode “combining down tack below” looks exactly like a qamats, which confused me no end…

  11. David Marjanović says

    Also, it’s probably unique for /r/ in a Semitic context, but it’s all over French and most of German today, among others. Also also, the “ɣ” (غ) of all languages of northwestern Africa at a minimum is [ʁ̞], too.

  12. A uvular realization of ر /r/ (etymological Classical Arabic r) is a typical feature of some Neo-Arabic languages of Iraq: Mosul, Tikrit, and the Christian and Jewish Arabic dialects of Baghdad. Also, I have heard that the Jewish Neo-Arabic language of Tripoli, Libya, has a uvular realization. Doubtless there are more varieties with this feature that I do not know about. As an example from Mosul, the woman says qanṭara قنطرة‎ “arch, bridge, aqueduct” with [ʁ] several times here when discussing this feature of her speech:


    The change was often blocked when it would entail the collapse of minimal pairs with etymological ġ—but ghayn is one of the consonants with the least frequency, anyway. In the Neo-Arabic languages where this change happened, it is sometimes distinct from the outcome of etymological ġ by having different effects on the vowels. Loanwords from Modern Standard Arabic and from Classical Arabic (religious vocabulary) retain their [ɾ] for /r/. Despite the presence of this feature in Jewish and Christian Arabic languages of Iraq (which we would expect to be the result of substrate influence from the Aramaic varieties once spoken in these communities), Geoffrey Khan has noted that this feature is apparently absent from surviving North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic.

  13. I still find it a bit astonishing that ghayn and qaf fell together in Farsi.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Two exotic sounds for the price of one, like theta and phi in Russian. Two fricatives in the Russian case, two uvulars in the Farsi one.

  15. two uvulars in the Farsi one

    Still distinct in Tajik.

  16. Zuckermann was featured last year on LH: http://languagehat.com/the-benefits-of-resurrecting-lost-languages/after DM’s comment.

  17. Two exotic sounds for the price of one, like theta and phi in Russian.

    I wonder whether the early speakers of New Persian considered ġ exotic. We can immediately think of many Persian words of the most homely sort that have good Iranian etymologies and have ġ:

    دوغ dōġ “churned sour milk; yoghurt diluted with water” (cf. Kurmanji dew, Zazaki do; root in Vedic dugdhá- “milked” > Hindi-Urdu दूध دودھ “milk”)

    روغن rawġan “oil, ghee” (Middle Persian rōγn; Kurmanji rûn, Zazaki ruwen; Avestan raoγna- “butter”)

    It is well-known that Firdawsi did not use many Arabic loanwords in the Shahnameh—perhaps he even consciously avoided them when composing the poem. So I paged through the first few narrative books of the Shahnameh (the reigns of Kayumars, Hushang, Tahmures, and Jamshid) for all the words with ġ and with q. It was interesting to compare them:

    مرغ murġ “bird” (cf. Middle Persian murw; Avestan mərəγa-, Kurmanji mir(îşk) “hen”; Sorani مراوی mrawî “duck”; Vedic mṛgá-, “forest animal, deer”)

    مغز maġz “brain, mind; marrow” (cf. Middle Persian mazg, “brain, marrow”; Vedic majján-, English marrow, etc.)

    فروغ furōġ “light, brilliance, splendor” (Middle Persian frōg “brilliance” < *fra-rauka-(?), cf. Vedic roká- and rókaḥ “light”; further New Persian perfect passive participle afrōxt < *abi-rauk-ta- “lit, ignited, set on fire, kindled”, Avestan raoxšna- “light”)

    غو ġav “roar” (presumably ultimately onomatopoeic)

    تیغ tēġ “sword” (cf. Middle Persian tēx “sharp edge, ridge”; Avestan taēγa- “sharp; sharp edge”; Vedic téjas- “sharp edge”)

    باغ bāġ “garden, orchard” (Middle Persian bāγ, “garden, orchard” doubtless < *“allotment, garden plot” cf. Vedic bhāgá- “portion, share, allotment”)

    چراغ čirāġ “lamp” (cf. Parthian ⟨crʾg⟩ čirāγ; Middle Persian čirāγ; Sogdian crʾγ, crʾʾγ; loanword in Armenian ճրագ črag; Khotanese cärau, all “lamp”; Ossetian Digor cirēn, Iron cyren, cren “flame”; H.W. Bailey offered a root etymology, to the family of English heat and Lithuanian kaĩsti “to get hot”, Pokorny *kā̆i-, *kī̆-, but this hardly imposes itself—perhaps a better etymology is out there that I don’t know about)

    Some of these words with ġ may be lateral inheritances in New Persian, early borrowings from Middle Iranian language other than Middle Persian, but I don’t think that qualifies them as exotic. In this regard, it is also notable that several of them have the un-Arabic majhūl vowels ō and ē.

    There are also a few words with q in these books of the Shahnameh:

    دهقان dihqān “farmer, peasant” (Arabicization of Middle Persian dahigān)

    قاقم qāqum “ermine” (Arabicization of Middle Persian ⟨kʾkwm’⟩; a loanword from Central Eurasia spread by fur trade?)

    قبله qibla “thing towards which people direct their prayers (originally the fire in the Shahnameh)” (from Arabic)

    قز qaz “silk of low quality”, which exists beside كژ kaž as a variant of كج kaj “crooked, silk of low quality”

    ياقوت yāqūṭ “ruby” (Arabic, from Syriac yqwnd’, yhqnṭwn, ywqnṭws, from Greek ὑάκινθος).

    It is interesting that several of these are Arabicizations of echt Iranian words, while others (a religious term, a luxury fur, a gemstone) belong to semantic spheres in which loanwords are typically encountered.

  18. Wow, that’s great stuff — thanks for doing that research!

    I wonder whether the early speakers of New Persian considered ġ exotic.

    I would guess not, judging by those examples; murġ “bird,” maġz “brain, mind; marrow,” bāġ “garden, orchard,” and čirāġ “lamp” are perfectly everyday words.

  19. David Marjanović says

    I wonder whether the early speakers of New Persian considered ġ exotic. We can immediately think of many Persian words of the most homely sort that have good Iranian etymologies and have ġ:

    Ah, maybe those were distinct for a while: a native velar [ɣ] and a borrowed uvular [ʁ].

  20. I tried to follow the links posted by anthony for the transcripts (August 15, 2005 at 12:02 am). Unsurprisingly, they have 404’ed. The web archive has the second, but not the first, alas.

    Why The Language Of Israelis Should Not Be Called Modern Hebrew, Part 2…

    There’s also a transcript of an interview with Zuckerman from 2006:

    Etymythology (The Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann on the role of lexical engineering in human mythologising.)

    (ABC’s website has archives of some of the shows, but not that far back)

  21. He certainly has the right attitude about language in general:

    Now the point is that most Israelis say éser shékel, they do not say asará shkalím, and Israelis, as native speakers of Israeli, cannot make mistakes. Now, in my view a native speaker does not make mistakes. So a native speaker does not need to read grammar books, because grammar books are written by linguists – sometimes linguists who are not even the native speakers of that language. Grammar books are not needed for the native speaker because the native speaker has the grammar already in his or in her head. No-one can come and say to a native speaker, ‘You do not know how to speak your language, you are uneducated,’ because every native speaker — and it doesn’t matter how intelligent he or she is — acquires the first language perfectly. I mean, you know, at the age of 10, every Australian speaks English perfectly. Obviously you might want him or her to write in a very high-register style, but the grammar of a spoken language is perfect, unless someone has a kind of a Freudian slip or something like that.

  22. I never say eser shekel, just as there are many speakers of American English who never say ain’t (even when others in their community do). All the same, the general argument holds, that language snobbery is deplorable, and the assumption that a “correct” linguistic absolute exists is false.

  23. Zuckermann argues against privileging one form of the language over another, but he’s arbitrarily privileging one form of language transmission over another. I think he’s right on the former and wrong on the latter.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    While one admires the sentiment, one of the (many) valid criticisms of Chomskyism is that it is actually not the case that all normal L1 speakers acquire their own language equally well. There are definite differences between speakers when it comes to the ability to create and understand some of the more complex and/or rarer constructions, for example. L1 learning is not an all-or-nothing thing where only those with something fundamentally wrong with them can fail to attain perfection: it is possible for L1 speakers to make actual systematic mistakes. (This is quite a different question from sociologically-determined status questions like “ain’t” versus “isn’t”, or the degree of formal education, though it might intersect with it at times.) Whether such mistakes are actually important, and why they might or might not be, are again separate questions.

    (The Chomskyan view, of course, is based on a deep misunderstanding of what human language actually is, combined with a thoroughgoing reductionism which, by design, eliminates anything from the domain of “language” that is not amenable to being fitting into the pre-prepared framework. Nobody would subscribe to such foolishness who had a proper view of language study as belonging primarily to the domain of anthropology …)

  25. That Chomskyan view is just a more opaque variation on “it’s not a word coz it’s not in the dictionary”, one assuming The Dictionary, the other assuming The Grammar of a language.

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