Israeli Hebrew - It's Not What You Think

Dr. Nurit Dekel's talk at the ITA Lecture Evening (Tel Aviv, October 5, 2010) "Israeli Hebrew - It's Not What You Think" caused an uproar and a furor. Arie Gus' talk was fascinating and enjoyable. Good mix, wouldn't you say? Happily, Nurit spoke before Arie, so the evening ended on a pleasant note.

Without getting into the discussion of modern Hebrew compared to old Hebrew, and to what extent the former is a continuation of the latter or a different language in its own right, I'd like to add my 7 agorot's worth (at today's exchange rate).

I think the purely linguistic observations and analysis totally miss a salient point, mentioned by Micaela Ziv and a few other sensible, down-to-earth people.* Every language has different registers; it has colloquial, slangy, spoken language and it has literary, educated, higher language. In society, you're allowed to use the former so long as you can also express yourself in the latter when and where appropriate. And this is where both Nurit and her colleague Prof. Ghil'ad Zuckerman fall flat on their faces.

Zuckerman says he has no problem with sub-standard Hebrew expressions like "shalosh shekel" (= three shekels, but using the grammatically incorrect form of the numeral); but I am sure he would not be caught dead saying it, because – if he were to do so in an environment where he is not known – it would immediately brand him as an ignoramus, or at least lower-class and uneducated. Certainly not the refined international professor that he is. Same goes for Dekel. She says that she does not correct her daughters when they use grammatically incorrect but linguistically logical forms of verbs and nouns. But she is doing them a disservice. I wonder how she would feel if her daughter went for a job interview, say, and got rejected because her spoken language made her sounded like a common "fakatza" or "frecha" (empty-headed bimbo). Though of course, in reality, many HR interviewers speak Hebrew that is not much better than their interviewees. Perhaps that's precisely what Kedem is counting on – pretty soon, lowest-common-denominator language, whether it's called Hebrew or Israeli, will prevail, becoming the accepted norm. No one will object to it. But that's not the worst of it.

As Micaela wisely and sadly pointed out:

"I am all for languages evolving and see Nurit's lecture as a sign that the revival of Hebrew has been a success. On the other hand, some of Nurit's fine examples indicate what I already know as a former educator: the level of spoken Hebrew is very low.
A language can / should / does evolve; the question is how it does so - i.e., are the younger generation articulate in Hebrew? The answer, sadly - is for the most part - no!
I am not too perturbed about whether Hebrew is adopting more "Europeanized" syntax or not, but I am very concerned that so many youngsters have a very limited vocabulary ("kazeh, ke'ilu") which means they can neither think, speak nor write clearly and coherently - and that is very dangerous for our future.

If anything, studies like Nurit's should be conducted on a written corpus and this will reveal the real issue. The problem is not that informal speech differs from written text. That is true in almost every country. The problem is that today, many young Israelis can only write the way they speak because the education system does not require them to make any serious effort to express themselves well."


* A couple of other sensible, level-headed reactions:

"My dispute with Nurit Dekel is not the name nor the fact that language/s evolve but that she advocated adopting the lowest common denominator as the rule-setter."
Nathan Ginsbury

"Does that mean "the miracle of the revival of the Hebrew language never happened?" No. It just means the brilliant pioneers who toiled with great love and skill to bring Hebrew into the modern age as the spoken language of the renascent Jewish state devised a version of Hebrew that has a lot in common with the European and other languages they spoke. To me this makes it no less a miracle that we speak Hebrew - a version that has enough in common with ancient Hebrew so that we can understand it."
Shoshana London Sappir



T.Rakei said...

It's true almost by definition that over time, animal communities get better. That's evolution. But human communities are different. We see that sometimes they get better and sometimes they get worse. Language is part of being human. There's a place for descriptivism, but there's also a place for prescriptivism because by communicating thoughts more logically and feelings more precisely, and by consciously sharing the past that our language embodies while also incorporating novel expressions, we can improve the quality of our language, hence of our interactions, hence of our society.

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