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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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  • Jonathan says:


  • gedalia says:

    Interesting. Professor Dov Spolsky of Israel, formerly New Zealand has done a lot of linguistic work with indigenous Maori to revive Maori as a spoken language, based on the revival of modern Hebrew. A similar construct and philosophy.

  • eli says:

    As to the comment “the fact that Jews from all over the world had only Hebrew in common” I would beg to differ that although it was the common written language of tefillah, that Yiddish was much more common as both a written and spoken language at least among Ashkenazim Jews for the last 1000 years.

  • Ghilad,

    Please excuse the totally off-topic comment – this is something I’ve wondered about for a while and as a linguist, you might have a view on it. The “bible codes” kicked up a big storm, and one of the tests of its validity they did was to look for codes in large classical English works like Moby Dick.

    I postulated that a reason they are able to find codes in Hebrew works is because of the grammatical structure of Hebrew, where there is a relatively small number of 3-letter root words (shorashim), and everything else is formed by prefixes and suffixes that modify the meaning of the root.

    If you look at modern Hebrew, it really uses this to full advantage with very few new roots, but rather using different conjugal forms to create entirely new words.

  • Ben says:

    Eli, how can you talk about Yiddish as a common language, given that it was foreign to millions of Jews from the Arab world, for example.

    David, I’ve found the palindromic story below, which was composed by Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann at http://www.zuckermann.org/recreational.html

    I believe Zuckermann is making use here exactly of what you are talking about.

    ריצת-צִיר (פַּלִינְדְרוֹם) מס’ 1671ג

    מעֵט גלעד צוקרמן

    שם, היא לקחה לשון ורדים
    ממידרונו של החקלאי המש

    שם, היא לקחה לשון ורדים וחולדה טרפה תולעת. לא נגרם אסון צורף וסבל. בַּרחוב, צעני בְּשֵם מתוּשלח דחף בְּחרוּף נפש רופא לבוּש צְחוֹרים. ברור וחשוב לציֵן: הבחור, השוכר דירות ברחוב פִּינֵס, זכר סוֹד רמאים והלך לדוּג בְּים הזּרמים הרמים. הזרמים נָטְרוּ סוּג פֶּלֶג לפוֹעלוֹ. נוצר בּוֹ המוּזר בתוך היּם.

    זמר להקה עמד ושאב רוחות מפּרְשן שבוי. האיש בלט והפיח נועם בקורס הכנה לבחן בספורט.

    איבה נוצרה והרצון הביא טֵרוּף. סב נח בּלֶה נכֵה סרוּק במעון חיפה וטל בשיא היוֹבש נשרף מתוח ורב אש ודמע.

    הקהל רמז מי הכּוֹתֵב רֵזוּמֵה וברצונו לעוף לגלפּגוֹס, ורטן: מי מרזה? מי מרה מִיּם רזה? מי בּגוּד לכלה? ומי אמר: “דוֹס רכּז סְנִיף בּוֹחֵר בְּתוֹר יד רכוש”? הרוחב הניצל בו שחור ורב.

    מי רוחץ שובל אפור? שפן פורח בפחד, חלש ותם משבי, נעץ בּוֹ חרב.

    לבסוף: רוּץ, נוּס, אמרגן, אל תעלות הפרט הדלוח ומידרונו של החקלאי המּש.

    English Translation (Non-Palindromic)

    There, she took a ‘bunch’ of roses, and a rat devoured a worm. No pure disaster or suffering was caused. On the street, a Gypsy named Methuselah pushed in mortal danger a doctor dressed in white clothes. It is clear and important to mention that the fellow, who rents flats in Pines Street, remembered a liars’ secret and went to fish in the sea of great currents. The currents reserved a certain stream for his activity. He became the strangest in the sea.

    A band-singer stood and inhaled spirits from a captive commentator. The man stood out and inspired grace in a preparatory course for the sports test.

    Hatred was created and the desire brought madness. A grandfather rested worn out, handicapped and combed in a Haifa (rest)home. Dew in the maximal aridity burned, thinly spread and full of fire and tears.

    The audience hinted at who writes a résumé and wishes to fly to the Galapagos, and complained: Who reduces weight? Who gained power from a sea which reduces weight? Who is betrayed by a bride? And who said ‘An orthodox Jew, co-ordinator of a (local) branch, chooses property as help’? Its remaining width is black and great.

    Who washes a grey train (of dress)? A rabbit escaping out of fear, weak and naïve from captivity, plunged a sword into him!

    Finally, run, flee, impresario, to the tunnels of the filthy individual and to the slope of the moving farmer.

  • Gedalia says:

    Unfortunately I’m not a linguist.

    modern Ivrit may have its basis is classical or biblical Hebrew, and has much meaning within particular words. Its not just the shoresh. When it comes to gematria, and other unique Hebrew language identifiers (eg hifil or causitive language) a completely different dimension of meaning is added to words themselves. In biblical text the way the words are written (Ktiv) and spoken (the use of trope) can also differ, providing meaning, insight, and interpretation. This is what makes Hebrew so amazing. Its so much more than a written language.

    I don’t know the first thing about Aboriginal dialects, but obviously pronounciation is tremendously important. Maybe there is a parallel here. It would certainly have to be richer than the monodimensional, monolithic and monotone drool that is otherwise called Australian English.

  • Rachel says:

    Ben: Thank you for sharing with us Zuckermann’s impressive palindrome. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a genius.

  • Gedalia: I am going to have to disagree with you on a few points. First of all, gematria indicates absolutely nothing about the meaning of a word. It’s a game that many play (in fact, I’ve even seen it played with the Greek text of the New Testament as well!), but it doesn’t actually shed light on etymology.

    Secondly, the use of “trope” (as well as the written vocalisation that accompanies the Biblical Hebrew text) reflects the commentary of the Tiberian scholars who lived from the 7th to the 11th centuries. While it does add a layer of meaning to the text, that layer of meaning is not actually any more a part of the text than is the masoretic apparatus that they added in the margin, and which can be seen in any critical addition of the Tanakh. “Trope”, first and foremost, functioned as punctuation. While much of it was disambiguating, you cannot mistake the punctuation for the text itself, and many Rabbinic scholars over the ages (notably Ibn Ezra) have disagreed with it. In fact, sometimes it’s at its most troublesome where it is disambiguating! Choosing an ambiguous clause over an unambiguous clause – simply on the grounds that the ambiguous reading is of greater antiquity – is not always so easy to do.

    Thirdly, would you care to explain what you mean by describing Australian English as “monodimensional, monolithic and monotone drool”?? Being a native speaker of Australian English, I must note that it serves my purposes quite adequately as a vehicle for communication. Are you suggesting that it would be a better language were it tonal, perhaps? Less well-known? Or possessed, maybe, of a fourth dimension?

    I also enjoyed Ghil’ad’s article, as I generally do all of Ghil’ad’s articles. I feel, however, that I should point out that all three of Ghil’ad’s examples (calques, phono-semantic matching, and portmanteau blends – the latter term having been coined by Lewis Carroll) are common to all languages, and are not the peculiar product of language revival. It is in Ghil’ad’s fourth example (gakhlilit) that he has attempted to demonstrate something peculiar to “Israeli” (sic). Granted, anybody who wants more information on this should refer to Ghil’ad’s voluminous publications (in particular, Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew), but – even though this has only been a brief article – I have a question about the choice of example given here.

    Ghil’ad, you suggest that gakhlilit duplicates a “European mindset”. Just as the Yiddish word for “glow-worm” (as well as the English and the German) combines a word for “glow” with a word for “worm”, so too does the same thing happen with Bialik’s gakhlilit. Could you please point out which part of gakhlilit corresponds to the worm?

  • TheSadducee says:

    I guess a critical question concerns whether indigenous Australians have the infrastructure and capabilities to bring these dormant (dead?) languages back into current usage?

    I’m thinking of this in terms that the Hebrew revivalists had a lot of advantages in comparison which may be the reason that they succeeded in their endeavours. Any thoughts?

  • Gedalia says:


    My comments were not intended to be academic. I study Torah for the sake of Torah. Using Torah solely as an eptimological tool undermines its value. The reality is that Hebrew words can have meaning and context due to their shoresh that are lost in any form of translation or adaptation. The Hebrew language brings ideas and values into its construct that often integrate different concepts. This is very hard to achieve with the English language.

    With Trope, I think we are arguing the same point, differing over whether the glass is half full, or half empty. I have undertaken plenty of Torah study where the use of trope contributes to understanding the meaning of a pasuk. Sometimes it does confuse or complicate the issue more, but that is part of the beauty of Torah study itself. Whether it is emphasis or punctuation, the “dibbur” of the Torah, in contrast to the “ktiv” can certainly add meaning and insight. Sometimes deriving direction from the text can be difficult without the aid of Trope. Gematria too has a role in assisting to derive context, and on occasions meaning and interpretation. Only if you choose to see it that way.

    Rather than give an example of what I mean by monotone Austrlian drool, I can only suggest listening to Julia Gillard for a few minutes. Yes, our Australian English allows us to communicate, but is it a language of classical beauty? Hebrew language can communicate so much more than words.

  • eli says:

    Ben, if u had read my post ,all 3 lines of it , you would have read that i said “….among Ashkenazim Jews for the last 1000 years.”
    Of course it was foreign to the Jews living in Arab world, but then their first language would have been Arabic not Hebrew either.

    I was questioning Ghilad’s assertion that “…the fact that Jews from all over the world had only Hebrew in common” Yes as prayer but not as spoken, written dynamic language.

    I am guessing here, so forgive my ignorance, but i could be wrong but that was why Hebrew needed to be revitalised.

  • Sadducee,

    Indigenous Australians have two big challenges with trying to revive their language: geographic diversity has contributed to a huge number of dialects, and there is a lack of literacy culture. From a language perspective, these are two big differences between theirs and Hebrew/Jews. I think these are insurmountable.

    Gedalia & Simon,

    English is a mongrel of a language – just look at its many ancestors and the huge number of synonyms. In addition, Australians (and many Americans) suffer from a lazy mouth, and this is what has contributed to the “bogan-speak” employed by Julia Gillard, Kath and Kim, and many others. Schools may teach written skills, but sadly good diction just isn’t taught any more (this is coming from a professional voice artist).

  • A professional voice artist you may be, but there is no such condition as “lazy mouth”, and the fact that every single regional dialect develops its own idiosyncracies has absolutely nothing to do with energy, commitment, or any form of merit. English is no more a “mongrel” of a language, lexically and grammatically, than is Hebrew. In fact, it is fitting that this discussion should take place here! Ghil’ad’s whole thesis concerns the hybridity of (what he terms) “Israeli”.

    The same is true with Biblical Hebrew. The influences upon the language were many and varied, with different periods of composition exhibiting different degrees of language contact. Chief among the languages that seem to have influenced the various dialects of Hebrew to which the Bible testifies are Aramaic, Greek and Persian – the latter two of which are non-Semitic. I don’t imagine that you would call Hebrew a mongrel of a language, but I must ask why. Granted that we’ve little to no idea how people pronounced it, what makes you think that it was any more ‘pure’ than English? After all, when it comes to languages, what is ‘purity’?

  • Simon,

    I used the phrase “lazy mouth” to describe what I heard and saw among people. After your comments, I did some research and didn’t take too long to find a speech therapist describing a child with a lazy mouth, and that “it is because he doesn’t use his muscles to the fullest capacity when making sounds”. This is similar to what I’ve observed amongst some English speakers – a lack of movement that causes words to be not fully pronounced and blend together into the drawl sometimes described as “strine”.

    Wikipedia on the history of English talks about the ancestors of the language, and how it “… developed into a “borrowing” language of great flexibility, resulting in an enormous and varied vocabulary”.

    Because you don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah, there’s little point me delving into a discussion of how biblical Hebrew is “lashon hakodesh”, and as such distinct from other languages. However, it’s certainly more of an ancestor to the other languages you mention than a descendant.

    Given some languages are derived or borrow from others over time, it’s reasonable to speak of them in the same terms as we speak of family trees and bloodlines. So a “pure” language would be one that is further up the chain (i.e. fewer ancestors), and that has been less “diluted” over time. On that basis, English is definitely more of a mongrel than Hebrew. Of course, I’d be happy to defer to a qualified linguist on the issue.

  • David,

    I wasn’t having a go at you, but you can’t possibly be serious if you are going to liken what this speech therapist calls “lazy mouth” to the way that an entire nation of people speak? It’s really beside the issue anyway, given that (as noted) we have little to no idea how Biblical Hebrew was even spoken by the average Israelite, and good reason to assume that “Biblical Hebrew” subsumes a number of dialects (both chronological and geographic). Judges 12:6 testifies to a phonological variant, but there is solid evidence to presume grammatical variation as well.

    Your definition of purity is an interesting one, as that makes Classical Arabic more pure than Biblical Hebrew. The geographic isolation of the Arabs has been such that, despite Arabic poetry and the literature of the Qur’an being so much later than the composition of the Bible, it testifies to a greater number of proto-Semitic forms than does Biblical Hebrew.

    I would never suggest that Hebrew is a descendant of Greek and Persian (although you couldn’t argue that it is an ancestor either) but simply a different language that borrowed a number of Persian and Greek words. That always happens with languages, and it means nothing. Of greater import is the development of morphology (the manner in which words are constructed) and syntax (the manner in which higher units of meaning – clauses, phrases and so on – are constructed). From that perspective, Aramaic would appear to be of greater antiquity than Hebrew, and Akkadian of greater antiquity than Aramaic.

    But there’s really no way of knowing. All that we have to go by is the textual evidence. So far as the textual evidence is concerned, whatever you might personally believe about the Bible, the language that it reflects is generally considered to be somewhat later than you might think. One way that a number of people get around that is by deferring to the notion that the Bible was edited over a substantial period and that the language was updated. This might appear to be the case with orthographic issues (ie: related to the spelling of individual words), but it’s a pretty non-kosher idea when it comes to whole units of meaning.

    My reply is already too long (and I think we have successfully steered well off topic), but suffice it to say that the preceding paragraph merely represents scholarly consensus and is not necessarily bona fide fact. This touches very heavily upon my research at the moment, and the scholarly consensus is something that I’m rejecting. I don’t personally think it’s possible to date Biblical texts on linguistic grounds, and there’s less linguistic evidence to make things “late” than many scholars assume. But then, as you so rightly suggested, I also don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah, so you’re unlikely to like my general methods even if, in this one instance, you would agree with my conclusion.

  • I was never suggesting that the entire nation speak that way – rather a further discussion about Julia Gillard’s “bogan-speak” and where that comes from. That sort of thing certainly doesn’t contribute to making ‘strine a “beautiful language”.

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