Modern Hebrew: old or new? (Part 3)

May 20, 2011 by

In the previous posting, I discussed word order patterns in Modern Hebrew and suggested that while the influence of the revivalists’ native tongues — Russian, Yiddish, Polish — cannot be denied, Modern Hebrew seems to follow roughly the same path of development as other Semitic languages. And it is important to remember that today’s Modern Hebrew is not the same language it was over a hundred years ago, in the early revival days. Modern Hebrew is a living language, and as such it keeps changing.

Those changes occur in all areas of language: its pronunciation, lexicon and grammatical patterns. For example, one area of pronunciation where changes are underway is the word stress. The old stress rule (which goes back to the Masoretes, 7th-11th century scholars who compiled a system of pronunciation and grammatical guides in the form of diacritical notes on the Biblical text in an attempt to fix the pronunciation and interpretation of the Jewish Bible) had Hebrew words stressed on the final syllable. Many but not all words of Biblical or Rabbinic origin still show evidence of this rule. However, most words of foreign origin are not subject to this rule. For example, the Modern Hebrew word telefon is generally stressed on the first syllable (i.e., TE-le-fon), and its plural form is stressed on the second-to-last (i.e., penultimate) syllable: te-le-FO-nim. It is only in the so-called “official Hebrew” — used only by trained experts for public newscasts, on radio and on television — that these words are stressed on the final syllable: te-le-FON, te-le-fo-NIM.

In fact, in Modern Hebrew the stress may lay not only on the last or penultimate syllable — the only two options allowed by the Masoretic system of word stress, with the former being by far the predominant pattern — but on any syllable. For instance, shoes (na-‘a-LA-yim) from the Israeli city K’far Sava (in spoken Hebrew, k’var SA-ba) are na-‘a-LA-yim k’far SA-ba-i-ot — with the stress on the forth to last syllable!

Another change in pronunciation of Modern Hebrew is a gradual loss of the so-called “beged-kefet rule”, named as an abbreviation of the six consonant letters to which this rule originally applied: bet, gimmel, dalet, kaf, pey and tav. According to the Masoretic form of this rule, each of these letters had two pronunciations: as a stop consonant or as a fricative. In (Standard) Modern Hebrew, the rule applies only to three of the original six “beged-kefet letters”: bet, kaf and pey. These consonants are pronounced as fricatives [v], [x] or [f] after a vowel, and as a stop [b], [k] or [p] elsewhere. For example, according to this rule the “kav” in the word ko’ax ‘force’ must be pronounced as the fricative [x] if it is preceded by the prefix/preposiiton be ‘in’: be-xo’ax ‘forcibly’. However, most speakers of Modern Hebrew today would say [be-ko’ax], with a stop consonant rather than a fricative, thus ignoring the “beged-kefet rule”. Similarly, in the loanword noun telefon, which we considered above in connection with the stress pattern, the letter “pey” is pronounced as a fricative [f], but in the corresponding verb til’pen ‘he phoned’ the “beged-kefet rule” leads us to expect a stop consonant, [p], since it is not after a vowel. However, most speakers of Modern Hebrew today would say [til’fen], maintaining the fricative of the loanword noun.

The vocabulary of Modern Hebrew keeps changing too. New words are often borrowed, many of them from English. This includes not only words for new objects and concepts, like our old friend telefon (now you know exactly how it is pronounced!), but also words for concepts that already existed in Hebrew, often to give them a new shade of meaning. For example, the loanword spetzifi means ‘very specific’, in contrast to the native Hebrew word m’suyam ‘specific’.

Another very popular way to create new words in Modern Hebrew is creating acronyms: for example, xaver k‘neset ‘member of Parliament’ becomes xak, an abbreviation of the first letters of constituent words, and its plural is formed by adding the regular plural morpheme -im: xak-im (instead of the full plural xav’re k’neset).

But even when new words are created in Modern Hebrew, they often follow the old Semitic mishkalot patterns, or templates. For example, the template CaCeCet (where Cs represent root consonants) is used to form names for various diseases: ‘ademet ‘rubella’ (from the root √A.D.M ‘red’), kalevet ‘rabies’ (from the root √K.L.V. ‘dog’), tzahevet ‘jaundice’ (from the root √TZ.H.V. ‘yellow’), sakeret ‘diabetes’ (from the root √S.K.R. ‘sugar’), nazelet ‘runny nose’ (from the root √N.Z.L. ‘drip’) and even nayeret (from the root √N.Y.R. ‘paper’). Can you guess what the last word means? (Scroll down for the answer at the end of this posting).

Finally, one aspect of the grammar of Modern Hebrew that seems to be changing from the Modern Hebrew of the early revival days to today’s language involves the null-subject parameter. In a null-subject language, such as (Standard) Italian and Spanish (below, I will use the former to illustrate), the subject may be left out if it is understood from the agreement on the verb and context, as in Parla italiano, literally ‘speaks Italian’ — who exactly speaks Italian can be understood from contexts, who we are talking about. The subject can also be placed sentence-finally, as in Ha telefonato sua moglie, literally ‘has telephoned your wife’, and if a sentential subject (i.e., a subject that is itself a mini-sentence, or a clause) is placed sentence-finally, no placeholder subject in the beginning of the sentence is necessary, or even possible. For example, È chiaro [che Louisa non partirà], literally ‘is clear that Louisa will not leave’ (the bracketed portion of the sentence is the sentential subject).

In a non-null-subject language, such as English or French, none of these are possible: a subject must be present even if it can understood from agreement and context, as in She speaks Italian. The subject (except if it is a sentential subject) cannot be placed sentence-finally: Your wife has telephoned rather than *Has telephoned your wife. And in sentences with a final sentential subject, a placeholder subject it must appear in the beginning of the sentence: It is clear [that Louisa will not leave].

Modern Hebrew started in Ben-Yehuda’s days as a null-subject language, allowing sentences like Nidme li she-… literally ‘Seems to me that…’ (without a placeholder subject!) and Magi’a ha-rakevet literally ‘Arrives the train’ (with a sentence-final subject). But since then Modern Hebrew has changed from a null-subject language to a (mostly) non-null-subject language. For example, as pointed out in Joel Hoffman’s book In the beginning. A Short History of the Hebrew Language,

“previous generations would use “was important that…”, while the current generation prefers “it was important that…”. Along with this trend away from null-subjects, Hebrew has also tended to adhere more closely to its SVO word order” [thus, exhibiting a strong dispreference for sentence-final subjects]

All in all, Modern Hebrew — like any other living language — has been changing, but it still shows a strong continuity trend with both Early Modern Hebrew of Ben-Yehuda’s days and with Biblical Hebrew of antiquity.

Nayeret (literally ‘paper-disease’) is … ‘paperwork’!

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