Totally-Not-Antisemitic Pseudolinguistics, Part 1: Modern Hebrew

It is a view commonly held among amateur linguists, among whom I count myself, that Modern Hebrew is a constructed language “invented” by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. The official Tumblr of the Language Creation Society recently alluded to this, sparking a discussion on the LCS list which introduced a number of equally ridiculous claims, such as that Modern Hebrew was a “reconstructed language” in the same sense as Proto-Indo-European. I have edited my own remarks and am presenting them here, along with other things I subsequently learned.

It shouldn't need to be said that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did not need to reconstruct or invent the grammar of Modern Hebrew, which was instead based on the grammar of the Mishnah and of late Biblical Hebrew (see Kohelet for example). All of the changes between what many people incorrectly regard as “true Hebrew” (older Hebrew) and Mishnaic Hebrew were caused by the influence of Aramaic, where present participles are used to form the present tense (using suffixed pronouns in Aramaic), and the old proto-Semitic imperfect is used as a future tense.

Ben Yehuda's own role in the revival of Hebrew has also been questioned. There were already efforts underway to revive Hebrew as a spoken language long before Ben Yehuda ever emigrated to Palestine, and his efforts within his own family were not only unsuccessful but even abusive and damaging. The most credit Ben-Yehuda can be given is that he invented a large number of words, which he placed into dictionaries that were widely popular, and a great many of his neologisms were adopted, both in print and during the first mass-scale revival, the one that made Hebrew effectively the language of Zionism, in the 1920s. Though secular Jews were behind this large-scale revival, they had yeshiva backgrounds; they were well-educated in Jewish tradition in ways that most Jews today are not.

One reason why the revival of Hebrew was so successful is that a large (though almost exclusively male) portion of world Jewry already knew how to read, write, and otherwise communicate in the language; the difficulty came with using it to describe non-religious matters of everyday life. Religious education for men at the time was much more rigorous and much more universal than it is among Jews today, and in many cases (particularly in Eastern Europe), it was the only education available. A man who could not reason in Hebrew was considered a bit of a failure; a man who could also reason in Aramaic was a sage, a rov (see Dovid Katz's “Words on Fire” for more discussion of this). If you listen to the lectures on dafyomi.org, you'll get a sense for how Jewish Yeshiva education involves a non-trivial amount of reasoning directly in Hebrew and Aramaic. This type of education is, incidentally, the main source of the various divergent Jewish languages and dialects full of Hebrew and Aramaic terms.

Since its revival, the main grammatical changes that have been made from Mishnaic Hebrew to Modern Hebrew involve derivational suffixes, largely loans from European languages. There have also been a large number of idioms borrowed from European languages that would certainly be unfamiliar to anyone who understood Rabbinic Hebrew or Mishnaic Hebrew prior to the revival. But this did not involve construction, reconstruction, or anything of the sort; it involved the rather more boring element of semantic borrowing.

Another frequent point raised regards the use of suffixed forms of של instead of the direct application of suffixed pronouns to the construct form, which was typical of the earliest Biblical Hebrew. But this was, in fact, a widespread Canaanite feature, found also in Punic; indeed, it is found throughout Plautus's Poenulus as “silli” (my), “syllochom” (your), and is attested in inscriptions as 𐤔𐤋𐤀 (his/her), 𐤔𐤋𐤉 (my). The Phoenician two-word equivalent, 𐤀𐤔 𐤋𐤉‎ (ʾš ly, “my” or literally “which is to me”), shows the ultimate derivation of the Punic and Hebrew pronoun.

The common Canaanite shel pronouns are attested Biblically, for example, in Song of Songs 1:6: אֶת־הַכְּרָמִ֔ים כַּרְמִ֥י שֶׁלִּ֖י לֹ֥א נָטָֽרְתִּי “my own vineyard I did not keep”

They also appear, for example, in Pirkei Avot, one of the oldest sections of the Mishnah:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם. הָאוֹמֵר שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, זוֹ מִדָּה בֵינוֹנִית. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, זוֹ מִדַּת סְדוֹם. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, עַם הָאָרֶץ. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, חָסִיד. שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלִּי, רָשָׁע:

Pirkei Avot 5:10: There are four types of character in human beings: One that says: “mine is mine, and yours is yours”: this is a commonplace type; and some say this is a sodom-type of character. [One that says:] “mine is yours and yours is mine”: is an unlearned person (am haaretz); [One that says:] “mine is yours and yours is yours” is a pious person. [One that says:] “mine is mine, and yours is mine” is a wicked person.

An analogous form exists in Aramaic: דידי (of me), דידך (of you), etc. I previously believed that the Hebrew form was a calque from Aramaic, but this seems to be specious on account of its clear Punic and Phoenician counterparts.

Additionally, it must be noted that as in Mishnaic Hebrew, the suffixed pronouns exist even today alongside the shel forms. They are a regular part of many ordinary constructions, and are not grammatically incorrect in any sense when they appear in less natural speech; they can even sound literary and sophisticated to many people, depending on the audience.

The only thing that was an innovation of Mishnaic Hebrew was the use of של as a preposition, which continues in Modern Hebrew. Like in Aramaic, the construct form ceased to be used outside of compound terms; in Aramaic, ד served the function of both של and ש.

The decision to make Mishnaic Hebrew, rather than an idealized Biblical Hebrew, the standard, was made by Maimonides, when he began composing works in a form that was considered relatively “purified” – contemporary works in the Hebrew of his time tended to be extremely Arabicized and thus difficult for non-Arabic-speaking Jews (for example, the Aramaic speakers of Northern Iraq) to comprehend. Maimonides made a conscious decision to write in the “purer” Mishnaic Hebrew, and due to his eventual influence, this became the way educated Jews wrote in the coming centuries, including at the time of the revival of Modern Hebrew. This wasn't a conscious choice made by the revivers of Hebrew; it was the standard that had already existed for centuries. Most people didn't have any interest in reviving an idealized Biblical Hebrew as fetishized by philologists; they were trying to speak the Hebrew language as it had evolved as the Jewish lingua franca, the one that it was possible to actually begin speaking.

I should add finally that I am not a Zionist and even believe Zionism has done a lot of harm to diaspora communities. I was not taught my own history and culture, was not taught the Ashkenazi pronunciation but was told that Israeli Hebrew was “correct” instead, and was discouraged from learning Yiddish. I had to find out all of this myself, which has taken a great deal of time and painstaking research.

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