Elinor Haftel: The Revival of the Hebrew Language. From “sleeping” to “wake” mode and what we can learn from it as linguists.

“Moishe, Moishe gei runter und bring mir de pakh zevel which stands in the pina,” is an often-quoted expression in my family, used whenever one of us got mixed up between languages. My grandmother overheard it in the early 1950s in the condominium in Tel Aviv where she grew up, and it was a simple command by one neighbor to her son: “Moishe, go downstairs and bring me the garbage can which stands in the corner.” The sentence contains at least three languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, and possibly German), and it is exemplary of the Babylonian confusion of tongues that often marks the transition from one language to another. Language, our primary means of communication and arguably the most important medium of culture, is subject to change, much like plant or animal species. Languages that used to be significant in the past have become nearly extinct or disappeared altogether. Only once in history has a nearly extinct language been fully revived. In this essay, I want to shed some light on this process of revival and find out why it was successful, and whether we can transfer some of these insights to other attempts at language revival as well.

According to Hebrew historian Angel Sáenz-Badillos, ancient Hebrew was a spoken and written language for several hundred years before it became extinct around the years 200 and 400 AD (Even though it is difficult to exactly date the use of Hebrew as a spoken and written language, Sáenz-Badillos writes: “The Israelite tribes that settled in Canaan from the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries BCE […] used Hebrew as a spoken and a literary language until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. It is quite likely that during the First Temple period there would have been significant differences between the spoken and the written language, although this is hardly something about which we can be exact. What we know as BH (Biblical Hebrew) is without a doubt basically a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile existed alongside living, spoken, dialects”. Angel Sáenz-Badillos: A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993. P. 52.), when the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel. Its full revival was achieved between approximately 1880 and 1920 in Eastern Europe and Palestine. By analyzing the process of the revival of Hebrew, several linguists (e.g. Harshav 1993, Nahir 1984; 1998, Zuckerman and Walsh 2011, Kuzar 2001) have tried to develop a general set of conditions applicable to all language revival attempts, and use it to empower other endangered languages. This paper will show what conditions need to be fulfilled for a successful language revival and to what extent “willpower” (Benjamin Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. University of California Press 1993. P. 81.) contributed to the revival of Hebrew. It will show that determination played an important part, but that many other factors in the process were random or coincidental. Therefore, I argue that it would be hard to achieve this kind of “full revival” again. To explain the process, I will begin by defining language revival and outlining the three conditions (domains) that have to be met in order to call a language “living” or “active” (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 115.), and how they interrelate and develop. Then, I will show how these three interrelated domains developed in four stages. Finally, I will discuss in how far conscious willpower contributed to establishing Hebrew as the dominant language in the three domains, and which factors were “accidental” (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 81.) and therefore unlikely repeatable.

According to the linguist Moshe Nahir, “language (or speech) revival can be defined as the attempt to turn a language with few or no surviving native speakers back into a normal means of communication in a community” (Moshe Nahir: “Language planning goals: A classification.” In: Language Problems and Language Planning 8.3 (1984). Pp. 294-327. Here p. 324). The everyday vernacular of a community is a complex structure of communication on different levels. Harshav considers three aspects as essential in making communication in a particular tongue desirable: It needs to be the base language of the text, of the individual, and of society (Moshe Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” In: Language in Society 27.3 (Sep. 1998). Pp. 335-357. Here p. 337.). The base language of the text means it is the language in which most of its sentences are formulated, and that forms the framework of text. It constitutes the main vehicle of written culture, of literature, journalism, theatre, radio, academic literature, et cetera. The base language of an individual is not necessarily his or her first or only language, yet the base language of life, thought, and consciousness. The base language of a society is the language in which social and cultural acts (i.e. public life) are conducted. The network of social systems, such as public administration, the legal system, politics, education, and the media, operate in this language. The three domains are “intertwined” and “interrelated” (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 175.): Written text relies on the language spoken by individuals and used in public life, while individuals develop and enlarge their personal use of speech by borrowing from literature and from the social life they participate in. Public life requires the individual to understand the common language and depends on a sufficient number of individual speakers and of written texts. Harshav describes this interrelatedness as follows: “Without many individuals whose base language is Hebrew, no language of a Hebrew society could function; and vice versa, without a living society in Hebrew, a Hebrew-speaking individual is nothing but a curiosity” (ibid).

In the case of Hebrew, each domain was beginning to develop independently over a time period of about fifty years, and later, around the year 1900, they began to overlap and operate in combination with one another. The process took place in four stages (see Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. Pp. 104-176; Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.”). First, it is important to stress that Ancient Hebrew was not “dead”, but “embedded” (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 119.) in the languages Jews developed and used for everyday communication. To name a few examples, Yiddish was spoken in Central and Eastern Europe, Ladino in North Africa, Turkey, and Greece, and Judeo Marathi was used in India and Pakistan. They all contained various elements of the old Hebrew. Also, every male Jew, whether poor or wealthy, learned to read the holy texts (Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” P. 342.). Jewish prayer services were conducted in Hebrew, meaning that women were familiar with it as well. This situation of Jews worldwide can be seen as a good starting point from which to launch a revival.

The awakening or modernization process started in the middle of the 19th century in Eastern Europe (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 97.). Jewish intellectuals began to write secular modern literature in Hebrew because they loved its beauty and saw it as part of their identity. Writers like Mendele Mocher-Sefarim, Mapu, and Bialik wrote modern novels, poetry, and essays on current and everyday subjects (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. Pp. 97-99.). They studied the language, extended its vocabulary, and transformed it to suit their modern requirements, bringing it out of the strictly religious context. This process was instrumental to making modern Hebrew the base language of the text: Jewish intelligentsia all over Europe started to correspond in Hebrew.

The process received additional momentum when poverty, pogroms, and Zionist ideas triggered the first wave of massive Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1882 and 1903, the so called “First Aliyah”. The new immigrants now “viewed the language revival as critical for national revival in the ancient homeland, which was their ultimate goal” (Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” P. 341.). All pupils in the new settlement were taught Hebrew, as most schools taught “Hebrew in Hebrew” (a rather radical approach, considering that the teachers’s mother tongues were not Hebrew). At this stage, Hebrew was still a “second language” (Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” P. 349.) for most settlers and their children, but this process marks the beginning of the oral use of Hebrew, making it, at least occasionally, the base language of the individual.

In the final stage, the immigrants of the “Second Aliyah” (second wave of immigration, 1904-1918) achieved “the actual shift” (Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” P. 346.) to Hebrew as the first language to a large number of individuals. As Nahir describes it, the shift occurred in four steps: (1) School children were instilled with a certain attitude towards Hebrew: It was the only prestigious language to be favored by all adults, even if they could not speak it. (2) They learned to speak it sufficiently in school (“Code learning”, for details see Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” P. 347). (3) They began to speak it among themselves and brought it into their homes. (4) They grew up and married, their children becoming the first generation to speak it as their mother tongue.

A contemporary observer watching youngsters playing football in 1913 remarks:

Even in the most heated moments of the game you could not hear them utter a single non-Hebrew word. To me that was the best proof that the language had ‘penetrated’ them and had become an integral part of their being. It was a great victory for the pioneers of the revival of the language (Yehoash: From New York to Rehovot and Back. P. 160.).

At this (and partly in the previous) stage, large public institutions (like banks, health insurance funds, schools) were established and conducted in Hebrew, and since then “a significant segment of the community” relied on Hebrew as a “native language” (Nahir: “Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.” P. 339.). Thus, Hebrew became the base language of the society.

The three domains (base language of the text, individual, and society) were thus established individually (yet later overlapping) in the four stages described above. It is important to stress that “[…] the combination of these factors enabled the revolution in all three dimensions. As soon as such a three-dimensional and circularly interdependent network was established in principle […] it could be filled with ever more material in all three dimensions” (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 176.).

In order to shed light on whether a language revival could succeed again in different contexts, it is insightful to examine the “intentional” as opposed to “coincidental” aspects in the process of Hebrew revival. On the one hand, strong willpower and determination significantly influenced the revival during all phases. In the early stages, secular literature was consciously used in order to bring Hebrew into more frequent use. The writers were strong believers in the beauty, power, and necessity of Hebrew. Thus, they can be seen as role models for other revivalists. Later on, Zionism, a social movement driven by a strong ideology, gained strength among individuals and groups. Systematically established schools now taught “Hebrew in Hebrew”. Furthermore, a number of strong-willed intellectuals like Ben-Yehuda, Katzenelson, or Bialik worked independently and were able to create unique and meaningful texts for a society they envisioned, although it did not yet exist. Finally, it was essential that the settlers devoted all their power to revive the Hebrew culture in Palestine and continued to regain Hebrew as their main (future) language, teach their children, and discard all other languages. On the other hand, a number of accidental components also contributed to the revival’s success. Hebrew was embedded in the languages spoken by the Jews in the Diaspora, and very present in the religious life of practically every Jew worldwide: This is a rare starting point, which many sleeping languages, such as Australian and North-American Aboriginal languages (Michael Walsh/Ghil’ad Zuckermann: “Stop, Revive, Survive: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Application to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures.” In: Australian Journal of Linguistics 31.1 (2011). Pp. 111-127. Here p.117.), lack. Furthermore, Hebrew served as a unifying force for the settlers who came from different countries and cultures, and settled in a “social wasteland” or “vacuum” situation (Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. P. 142.), where no single culture (Arab, Turkish or British) was particularly dominant. In contrast to other endangered languages, Hebrew was never challenged by political authorities, namely the British Mandatory rulers in Palestine who accepted Hebrew as the national language.

To conclude, this paper has retraced the conditions necessary for a language revival by analyzing the process of the revival of Hebrew. For successful transformation into an active language, three domains need to be established: the base language of the text, the individual and the society. The interdependence of the domains is essential. Although some of the success in the case of Hebrew can be attributed to the determination of individuals and groups during all stages, many aspects can be considered coincidental. Consequently, it can be concluded that a full language revival is a difficult thing to achieve.

Linguists like to cite Hebrew as an example for successful language revival, since it is yet the only example, but as I have tried to show, the historical process involved many factors that are difficult to reproduce. Make no mistake: language revival comes at a price. In Palestine and later in the young State of Israel, each generation of immigrants had to give up their first, and for them stronger, language and communicate in a weaker, stranger tongue. In our family, we laugh about the clumsy three-language sentence picked up by my grandmother, but it also preserves the memory of the difficulties of transition, the language limbo, and the loss of identity that left a mark on so many generations of immigrants.

»Moishe, Moishe gei runter und bring mir de pakh zevel which stands in the pina,« is an often-quoted expression in my family, used whenever one of us got mixed up between languages. My grandmother overheard it in the early 1950s in the condominium in Tel Aviv where she grew up, and it was a simple command by one neighbor to her son: »Moishe, go down- stairs and bring me the garbage can which stands in the corner.« The sentence contains at least three languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, and possibly German), and it is exemplary of the Babylonian confusion of tongues that often marks the transition from one language to another. Language, our primary means of communication and arguably the most important medium of culture, is subject to change, much like plant or animal species. Languages that used to be significant in the past have be- come nearly extinct or disappeared altogether. Only once in history has a nearly extinct language been fully revived. In this essay, I want to shed some light on this process of revival and find out why it was successful, and whether we can transfer some of these insights to other attempts at language revival as well.

According to Hebrew historian Angel Sáenz-Badillos,  ancient  Hebrew was a spoken and written language for several hundred years before it

 

 

 

 

became extinct around the years 200 and 400 AD1, when the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel. Its full revival was achieved between approximately 1880 and 1920 in Eastern Europe and Palestine. By analy- zing the process of the revival of Hebrew, several linguists (e.g. Harshav 1993, Nahir 1984; 1998, Zuckerman and Walsh 2011, Kuzar 2001) have tried to develop a general set of conditions applicable to all language revival attempts, and use it to empower other endangered languages. This paper will show what conditions need to be fulfilled for a successful language revival and to what extent »willpower«2 contributed to the revival of He- brew. It will show that determination played an important part, but that many other factors in the process were random or coincidental. There- fore, I argue that it would be hard to achieve this kind of »full revival« again. To explain the process, I will begin by defining language revival and outlining the three conditions (domains) that have to be met in or- der to call a language »living« or »active«3, and how they interrelate and develop. Then, I will show how these three interrelated domains deve- loped in four stages. Finally, I will discuss in how far conscious will- power contributed to establishing Hebrew as the dominant language in the three domains, and which factors were »accidental«4 and therefore unlikely repeatable.

According to the linguist Moshe Nahir, »language (or speech) revival can be defined as the attempt to turn a language with few or no survi- ving native speakers back into a normal means of communication in a

 

 

  • Even though it is difficult to exactly date the use of Hebrew as a spoken and written language, Sáenz-Badillos writes: »The Israelite tribes that settled in Canaan from the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries BCE […] used Hebrew as a spoken and a literary language until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 It is quite likely that during the First Temple period there would have been significant differences between the spoken and the written language, although this is hardly something about which we can be exact. What we know as BH (Biblical Hebrew) is without a doubt basi- cally a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile existed alongside living, spoken, dialects.« Angel Sáenz-Badillos: A History of the Hebrew Language. Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press 1993. P. 52.
  • Benjamin Harshav: Language in Time of University of California Press 1993. P. 81.

3    Ibid. P. 115.

4   Ibid. P. 81.

 

 

 

 

community«5. The everyday vernacular of a community is a complex structure of communication on different levels. Harshav considers three aspects as essential in making communication in a particular tongue desir- able: It needs to be the base language of the text, of the individual, and of society6. The base language of the text means it is the language in which most of its sentences are formulated, and that forms the framework of text. It constitutes the main vehicle of written culture, of literature, jour- nalism, theatre, radio, academic literature, et cetera. The base language of an individual is not necessarily his or her first or only language, yet the base language of life, thought, and consciousness. The base language of a society is the language in which social and cultural acts (i.e. public life) are conducted. The network of social systems, such as public adminis- tration, the legal system, politics, education, and the media, operate in this language. The three domains are »intertwined« and »interrelated«7: Written text relies on the language spoken by individuals and used in public life, while individuals develop and enlarge their personal use of speech by borrowing from literature and from the social life they parti- cipate in. Public life requires the individual to understand the common language and depends on a  sufficient  number  of  individual  speakers and of written texts. Harshav describes this interrelatedness as follows:

»Without many individuals whose base language is Hebrew, no language of a Hebrew society could function; and vice versa, without a living soci- ety in Hebrew, a Hebrew-speaking individual is nothing but a curiosity«8. In the case of Hebrew, each domain was beginning to develop indepen- dently over a time period of about fifty years, and later, around the year 1900, they began to overlap and operate in combination with one another. The process took place in four stages9. First, it is important to stress that

 

 

  • Moshe Nahir: »Language planning goals: A « In: Language Problems and Language Planning 8.3 (1984). Pp. 294-327. Here p. 324
  • Moshe Nahir: »Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic « In: Language in Society 27.3 (Sep. 1998). Pp. 335-357. Here p. 337.
  • Harshav: Language in Time of P. 175.
  • See Harshav: Language in Time of Pp. 104-176; Nahir: »Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic framework.«

 

 

 

 

Ancient Hebrew was not »dead«, but »embedded«10 in the languages Jews developed and used for everyday communication. To name a few examp- les, Yiddish was spoken in Central and Eastern Europe, Ladino in North Africa, Turkey, and Greece, and Judeo Marathi was used in India and Pakistan. They all contained various elements of the old Hebrew. Also, every male Jew, whether poor or wealthy, learned to read the holy texts11. Jewish prayer services were conducted in Hebrew, meaning that women were familiar with it as well. This situation of Jews worldwide can be seen as a good starting point from which to launch a revival.

The awakening or modernization process started in the middle of the 19th century in Eastern Europe12. Jewish intellectuals began to write secular modern literature in Hebrew because they loved its beauty and saw it as part of their identity. Writers like Mendele Mocher-Sefarim, Mapu, and Bialik wrote modern novels, poetry, and essays on current and everyday subjects13. They studied the language, extended its vocabulary, and transformed it to suit their modern requirements, bringing it out of the strictly religious context. This process was instrumental to making modern Hebrew the base language of the text: Jewish intelligentsia all over Europe started to correspond in Hebrew.

The process received additional momentum when poverty, pogroms, and Zionist ideas triggered the first wave of massive Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1882 and 1903, the so called »First Aliyah«. The new immigrants now »viewed the language revival as critical for national re- vival in the ancient homeland, which was their ultimate goal«14. All pu- pils in the new settlement were taught Hebrew, as most schools taught

»Hebrew in Hebrew« (a rather radical approach, considering that the teachers‹s mother tongues were not Hebrew). At this stage, Hebrew was

 

 

 

  • Harshav: Language in Time of Revolution. 119.
  • Nahir: »Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic frame- « P. 342.
  • Harshav: Language in Time of P. 97. 13 Ibid. Pp. 97-99.

14  Nahir: »Micro language planning and the revival of Hebrew: A schematic frame- work.« P. 341.

 

 

 

 

still a »second language«15 for most settlers and their children, but this process marks the beginning of the oral use of Hebrew, making it, at least occasionally, the base language of the individual.

In the final stage, the immigrants of the »Second Aliyah« (second wave of immigration, 1904-1918) achieved »the actual shift«16 to Hebrew as the first language to a large number of individuals. As Nahir describes it, the shift occurred in four steps: (1) School children were instilled with a certain attitude towards Hebrew: It was the only prestigious language to be favored by all adults, even if they could not speak it. (2) They learned to speak it sufficiently in school17. (3) They began to speak it among themselves and brought it into their homes. (4) They grew up and mar- ried, their children becoming the first generation to speak it as their mother tongue.

A contemporary observer watching youngsters playing football in 1913 remarks: