Reinventing Hebrew
Tuesday, February 2, 2016 at 7:51AM
Mark Scarbrough in Daniel Deronda, George Eliot

A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in a specific dialect of HebrewWhen Deronda learns Hebrew, it isn't quite the quiet, tame act it seems. Eliot is playing with Zionist fire. In the nineteenth century, the language itself was a charged subject--mostly because it had been long considered "dead," the province of rabbis, their students, and a few scholars. But in the mid-1800s, Hebrew began its quick resurrection.

Let's go back. Spoken Hebrew, the language of Torah (or the Old Testament) began falling out of favor sometime around 700 BCE, around the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. By 400 BCE, no one spoke Hebrew; it was merely a liturgical language, the language of the sacred text. Jesus and his followers did not speak Hebrew (and certainly didn't speak Greek, the language of the New Testament). They spoke Aramaic, the formerly official language of the Assyrian Empire and a language well spread throughout the northwestern Middle East, a language related to Hebrew and Phoenecian. Parts of the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel are written, not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic. And Aramaic, not Hebrew, became the important language of many of the commentaries on Torah. Even Hebrew itself, because it was not in use except for liturgical and rabbinic purposes, developed its own idiosyncracies unrelated to normal speech patterns. Medieval Hebrew is a language that was almost never spoken, only written, about the way Latin functioned in the Roman Catholic Church through parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eliezer ben-Yehuda (1858 - 1922)It probably would have stayed that way if it weren't for the rise of Zionism, the political movement that claimed the Jews were not Germans or Poles, but a unique people, subject to almost unprecedented levels of persecution, who could only find safety in a permanent homeland. Nothing aided that effort like the rise of a common language. Indeed, modern Hebrew, the language now spoken in Israel, is a nineteenth-century, Zionist creation. The Jewish intellectual Eliezer ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian newspaper editor, undertook the almost Herculean task of bringing the language back to life.

Here was his problem: after the destruction of the Temple and the upstart Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire in 70 A.D., the Jews were brutally scattered throughout the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent, and even into modern Italy, Turkey, and Bulgaria. (This great movement of their civilization is now known as the "diaspora.") Over the centuries, often in response to official pogroms or local persecutions, Jews began to fan out across wider and wider areas. Most eventually settled in east-central Europe: eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, and adjoining territories. This area has come to be known as the "pale of settlement." (That name was originally applied just to western Russia but soon began to include adjacent territories.)

While the bulk of the Jewish population settled here (and note that some of our novel takes place in Germany), many others settled far and wide. Over time, Aramaic--and even liturgical Hebrew--began fusing with the surrounding languages. By the nineteenth century, the bulk of Jews in central Europe spoke Yiddish, a fusion of Hebrew, German, Russian, and a smattering of other languages. Other Jews in Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa spoke Ladino, a fusion of liturgical Hebrew, the Sephardic dialect of Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish, and Arabic. Jews in Lithuania spoke Litvak, a local dialect of Lithuanian. Still others, far out in central Asia, spoke Bukhori, a fusion of Aramaic, liturgical Hebrew, Tajik, and a smattering of Hindi and Chinese. Still others left in Palestine spoke Judeo-Arabic, a mostly Arabic-influenced dialect of Aramaic.

Most of these languages have died off, thanks to the rise of modern Hebrew. But they do still survive in songs. (I once sang an entire Ladino concert with a group in New York City.) Here's a clip of fantastic singer doing a Ladino number:


And of course, Yiddish was kept alive for many years in New York City with its Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side and through many folk songs. Even if you don't know Yiddish, you know it as a line in a famous song (I think you have to get through a wretched ad first):

Modern Hebrew's problem was ancient Hebrew. Like all Semitic languages, Hebrew is built off roots. In Hebrew, three consonants in a set succession always represent some sort of general concept: water, life, meat, love, loyalty. For example, these three consonants, כתב, "ktb" (remember: Hebrew is read right to left), form the basis of the concept of "writing." Note that there are no vowels here. Hebrew is technically a language that only writes the consonants (the vowels are often added as dots and lines under or next to the consonants, dots and lines called "points," to help those not yet proficient in the language). For now, let's add a flat "a" between each consonant: katab. Now the word means "he writes." But we can start playing with, altering, and morphing that root, keeping those three consonants intact to create other words: katabnu ("we wrote"), yiktob ("he will write"), katib ("a writer"), hiktib ("he dictated"), hikatteb ("he wrote a letter"), miktab ("mail"). See: by altering the sounds around the root while keeping that root intact, we keep creating new meanings, all about writing. We can do this with hundreds of thousands of three-letter roots.

But that doesn't do much good for modern Hebrew. After all, the world is quite different from the time of King Solomon. What's the three-letter root that would offer us "democracy" or "cannon" or "tomato"? So Eliezer ben-Yehuda began fusing ancient Hebraic roots onto mostly Russian and German words. He was re-inventing a language to deal with concepts like "cotton gin" or "whiskey" or "czar." He was creating words. He also began to change the language itself, using the grammar of German and Russian to "modernize" Hebrew. For example, Biblical Hebrew isn't very big on verb tenses: past, present, future. They're there but slippery. Ben-Yehuda began introducing mode modern verb tenses into his version of Hebrew, standardizing the language to make it more "European."

In so doing, he was creating controversies. Most Rabbis considered his efforts heretical. Hebrew was liturgical, sacred. Furthermore, ben-Yehuda adopted a pronunciation system that was Sephardic--that is, mostly from Spain and northern Africa--not the Ashkenazi system favored by most Jews in central Europe.

But how else will you form a nation out of whole cloth without a unified language? Ben-Yehuda was one of the very earliest immigrants to Palestine in the early 1880s. But his ridiculously complicated efforts soon paid off. Zionism soon breathed life into the hope for a homeland. (It came too late for six million.) At the turn of the century, Jews began arriving more and more in the "Holy Land." They came from all over; they needed a common language, especially since they faced so much resistance among the local populations. Ben-Yehuda had crafted a ready answer. His work produced the Hebrew that is now the language of Israel.

And one more thing, closely related. If you don't know about klezmer, the Yiddish-focused music style popular with Jews across Europe (and of course, the namesake of a certain musician in our novel), here's one of my favorite groups, The Isle of Klezbos, a lesbian klezmer band, giving a rousing live performance:

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