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The Hebrew Revival: Lessons for Indigenous Australia

July 27, 2009 – 10:53 pm16 Comments

Jewish and Indigenous Australian ElderBy Ghil’ad Zuckermann

What lessons could one draw from the Hebrew revival in the Promised Land to current revival attempts of no-longer spoken Aboriginal languages in the Lucky Country? Heaps! While the Hebrew revivalists, who wished to speak pure Hebrew, failed in their purism, it is nevertheless hard to imagine  a more successful revival attempt –  for the following reasons: (1) the remarkable strength of the Jewish revivalists’ motivation, zealousness, Hebrew consciousness, and centuries of ‘next year in Jerusalem’ ideology, (2) the extensive documentation of Hebrew – as opposed to ‘sleeping’ Aboriginal languages, and (3) the fact that Jews from all over the world had only Hebrew in common whereas there are dozens of Aboriginal languages to be revived and it would be hard to choose only one – unless it is Aboriginal English. I propose that the revival of a clinically dead language is unlikely without cross-fertilization from the revivalists’ mother tongue(s). I therefore predict that any attempt to revive an Aboriginal language will result in a hybrid.

That is of course not to say that we should not revive dead languages and cultures. On the contrary! My research on the transition from ancient Hebrew to new Israeli should encourage Aboriginal leaders and revival linguists to be more realistic about their goals, and can share with them crucial linguistic insights about what components of language are more revivable than others. Words and conjugations, for example, are easier to revitalize than intonation, associations, connotations and semantic networkings.

For example, my research analyses the hitherto-overlooked camouflaged semantic networking being transferred from one language to another. Whereas mechanisms as calques (loan translations such as superman, from German Übermensch), phono-semantic matches (e.g. crayfish, from Old French crevice, a cognate of crab that has little to do with fish) and portmanteau blends (e.g. motel, from motor+hotel) have been studied, there is a need to uncover concealed semantic links between words in the Target Language which reflect – often subconsciously – semantic networking in the Source Language. Consider the Israeli word gakhlilít ‘firefly, glow-worm’ – coined by poet laureate H. N. Bialik (1873-1934). This word is semantically and etymologically linked to the Biblical Hebrew word gaHelet ‘burning coal, glowing ember’. Morphologically, Israeli gakhlilít derives from Hebrew gaHelet plus the reduplication of its third radical [l]. However, no Israeli dictionary reveals the crucial semantic networking aspect, namely that the Israeli concoction, gakhlilít, in fact replicates a European mindset, apparent, for example in Yiddish גליווארעם glivórem ‘firefly’, lit. ‘glow’ (cf. gaHelet) + ‘worm’, or in German Glühwürmchen.

Some Aboriginal people distinguish between usership and ownership. I even have a friend who claimed that he owned a language although he only knew one single word in it, namely its name. Consequently, one could find indigenous Australians who do not find it necessary or important to revive their ’sleeping’/comatose tongue. I, on the other hand, have always believed in Australia’s very own roadside dictum: ‘Stop, revive, survive!

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, D.Phil. (Oxford), Ph.D. (titular) (Cambridge), M.A. (summa cum laude) (Tel Aviv), is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow in Linguistics at The University of Queensland. His most recent iconoclastic book Israelit Safa Yafa “Israeli – A Beautiful Language. Hebrew as Myth” was published by Am Oved (Tel Aviv) and became a controversial bestseller. His website is www.zuckermann.org .

The first Australian Workshop on Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (AWAAL), an international conference that Ghil‘ad is organizing, will take place in Brisbane on 11-13 September 2009, concurrently with the Brisbane Writers Festival (9-13 September) and QBE Riverfire (12 September).

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