Modern Hebrew: old or new? (Part 2)

May 20, 2011 by

As mentioned in the previous posting, in Ben-Yehuda’s own time many perceived his “revived” form of Hebrew as a modernized version of the old language, Biblical Hebrew. Some liked the continuity and viewed the revival of the language as a means to revive the people, their national self-identity. Others, in particular in religious quarters, thought it sacrilegious to use (a modernized version of) the sacred language for everyday purposes. But in recent years many theories have been proposed that view Modern Hebrew not as a continuation of Biblical Hebrew but as something new entirely. Some scholars, such as Gil’ad Zuckermann, do not call it “Modern Hebrew” at all (for Zuckermann, it’s “Israeli”).

What Modern Hebrew is, if not a development of the old language, differs from scholar to scholar. Some consider it to be “Yiddish with Hebrew words”; others, including Zuckermann, highlight the impact of Yiddish but also of other languages spoken by the revivalists, most notably Russian and Polish. Yet others, including Paul Wexler, consider Modern Hebrew to be a Slavic and not at all a Semitic language; hence, the title of Paul Wexler’s 1990 book: The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew: A Slavic Language in Search of a Semitic Past. So what makes one doubt that Modern Hebrew is a Semitic language?

While Ben-Yehuda searched Biblical, Rabbinic and, to a lesser extent, Medieval Hebrew sources for words and created new words based on the Semitic paradigm patterns (binyanim for verbs, mishkalot for nouns), when it comes to grammatical (i.e., syntactic) patterns, the situation is more complicated. Since Ben-Yehuda and other early revivalists spoke only broken Hebrew, their grammar, while reflecting (Late) Biblical Hebrew, also exhibited significant aspects of Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian and sometimes even German and French. And in most cases the revivalists were probably not even aware of this grammar-mixing, much the same way that people who speak a foreign language often unknowingly make mistakes based on the grammar of their native language.

Consider, for example, the matter of word order. In Biblical Hebrew, the predominant word order is Verb-Subject-Object (VSO), as illustrated by the following example from Genesis 26:11 (the symbol “?” marks a glottal stop; “ACC” in the gloss is accusative case marker).

va- yacav ‘avimelex ‘et kol-ha-?am
and-warned Avimelech ACC all-the-people
‘So Avimelech warned all the people…’

In contrast, in Modern Hebrew the predominant word order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), as in the following example:

Dani ‘ohev ‘et Ruti.
Danny loves ACC Ruth
‘Danny loves Ruth.’

Moreover, in Modern Hebrew indefinite subjects can appear after the verb (actually, at the end of the sentence), as in the following example:

pana ‘elaj ‘ezeʃehu baxur
faced to-me some chap
‘A chap came up to me.’

Does this word order pattern in Modern Hebrew look like Russian to you? I thought it might.

But the word order patterns of Modern Hebrew do not always correlate with those of Russian. For example, in both Russian and Modern Hebrew wh-questions (or content questions), the question word is fronted to the beginning of the question. For example, if you question the time of a certain event, the question word matay (in Modern Hebrew) or kogda (in Russian) must appear in the beginning of the question (note that this is not true of all languages; for example, in the corresponding Mandarin Chinese or Japanese question the question word would appear next to the verb):

Matay ata xozer? [Modern Hebrew]
Kogda ty verneshsja? [Russian]
when you return
‘When do you return?’

But Russian and Modern Hebrew differ when it comes to their treatment of multiple wh-questions: in Russian both question words must appear in the beginning of the sentence, while in Modern Hebrew only one of them does:

Mi xozer matay? [Modern Hebrew]
who returns when

Kto kogda vernetsja? [Russian]
who when returns

Both: ‘Who returns when?’

Similarly, Modern Hebrew does not exhibit all the same word order patterns as Yiddish does. For instance, Yiddish is a verb-second language, meaning that the tensed verb must appear in the second position, as in:

Oyfn veg vet dos yingl zen a kats.
on-the way will the boy see a cat
‘On the way, the boy will see a cat.’

This is not true of Modern Hebrew, where — much like in English — the tensed verb follows the subject, regardless of what appears in the first position:

Ba-derex ha-yeled haya ro’e xatul.
on-the-way the-boy was seeing cat
‘On the way, the boy used to see a cat.’

To recap, the word order patterns of Modern Hebrew are in some cases similar to those of Russian or Yiddish, but in other cases they are not. In fact, even the SVO order in clauses may not be a reflection of a Russian influence after all. While classical Semitic languages — Biblical Hebrew and Classical Arabic (the language of the Quran) — are VSO languages, the modern variants of these languages are SVO languages. This includes not only Modern Hebrew with its SVO pattern illustrated above, but spoken, colloquial varieties of Arabic as well. Even Modern Standard Arabic allows SVO order alongside the more traditional VSO order. And it is in SVO order that the verb must agree fully with its subject, as shown by the following examples (3 = 3rd person, M = masculine, SG = singular, DU = dual):

VSO: singular (i.e., default) agreement on the verb
?ištarā rrajulāni kitāban
bought(3.M.SG) the-two-men book

SVO: verb must agree fully (i.e., in gender and number)
?inna rrajulayni štarayā kitāban
indeed the-two-men bought(M.DU) book

While Modern Arabic too developed in part under the influence of other neighboring languages, those languages, which belong mostly to the Cushitic, Berber, Turkic and Iranian language families were typically not SVO languages, but SOV languages. Hence, the development of Arabic from VSO to SVO cannot be ascribed to the influence of the languages it has been in contact with.

So all in all, while the influence of the revivalists’ native tongues — Russian, Yiddish, Polish — cannot be denied, Modern Hebrew seems to follow roughly the same path as other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. In the following posting, we will consider how Modern Hebrew has changed since the early revival days.

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