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You say Hebrew; I say Israeli!

August 9, 2009 – 10:30 am4 Comments

israelitThe language spoken in today’s Israel is a multifaceted and fascinating fin-de-siècle hybrid, based not only on ‘sleeping beauty’ (or alternatively, ‘walking dead’) Hebrew but also on the revivalists’ mother tongues such as Yiddish, argues Assoc. Prof. Ghil‘ad Zuckermann in his recent controversial iconoclastic bestseller Israeli, A Beautiful Language (Am Oved, Tel Aviv, December 2008).

Israeli politician Yossi Sarid and many others clearly cannot free themselves from ‘asara sheqalim (10 shekels) and the other shackles of what I call the ‘purism prism’ or ‘purism prison’. But just as the ‘Jerusalem artichoke’ has to do with neither Jerusalem nor artichoke (even though some Jerusalem restaurants take pride in serving it), what Sarid calls ‘corrupt Hebrew’ is neither corrupt nor Hebrew: it is grammatical Israeli, a beautifully multi-layered and intricately multi-sourced language that one should embrace and celebrate.

Several days before the publication in Tel Aviv of my most recent book by Am Oved Publishing House, I finally received its cover. Ignoring the idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, I looked at it and darkness was made in my eyes: whereas the title of the book was israelit safa yafa, i.e. ISRAELI, A Beautiful Language (challenging and modelled upon the old Zionist slogan ivrit safa yafa ‘Hebrew is a beautiful language’), the last sentence on the back cover was ‘this is his first book in HEBREW’! Worriedly, I called Am Oved and was given an ultimatum: either we leave it as ‘this is his first book in Hebrew’ or change it to ‘this is his first book in Israeli and his last book at Am Oved’!

Eventually, the compromise was ‘this is his first book published in Israel’.

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, says Juliet to Romeo (or Yael to Ram, as per a fin-de-siècle translation to ‘Modern Hebrew’) in a piece by the famous playwright referred to by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi as ‘Sheikh Zubeir’. There are cases in which the name is extremely important because it determines the way people perceive the thing it stands for. Just as thought influences language, language can shape thought. It was Confucius who said 2,500 years ago that the first thing one has to do is to rectify names!

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 book is Israelit Safa Yafa “Israeli – A Beautiful Language. Hebrew as Myth” is published by Am Oved (Tel Aviv).  His website is www.zuckermann.org . The first Australian Workshop on Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (AWAAL), an international conference that he 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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