The Genetics of the Israeli Language: Mosaic or Mosaic?

By Zuckermann, Ghil'ad | Midstream, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Genetics of the Israeli Language: Mosaic or Mosaic?


Zuckermann, Ghil'ad, Midstream


Hebrew was spoken by the Jewish people after the conquest of Israel (c. 13th century BCE). Following a gradual decline (even Jesus, "King of the Jews," was a native speaker of Aramaic rather than Hebrew), it ceased to be spoken during the second century CE. The Bar-Kokhba revoit in Judaea against the Romans, which took place in 132-135 CE, marks the symbolic end of the period of spoken Hebrew. As the Roman historian Dio Cassius relates, the Romans killed 580,000 Jews, in addition to those who died of hunger, disease, and fire, and Bar-Kokhba himself met his death in 135 CE during the fall of Bethar. During the period of repression that followed, the Jewish population in Judaea was largely exterminated due to massacres, religious persecution, slavery, and forced relocation. Thereafter, for more than 1700 years, Hebrew served only as a liturgical and literary language and occasionally also as a lingua franca (language of communication) for Jews of the Diaspora, but not as a mother tongue. The formation of Israeli (the name I use for so-called "Modern Hebrew") was facilitated at the end of the 19th century by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and others to further the Zionist cause.

During the past half-century, Israeli has become the official language of Israel, acting as the primary mode of communication throughout all state and local institutions and in all domains of public and private life. Yet, with the growing diversification of Israeli society, it has come as well to highlight the very absence of a unitary civic culture among Israeli citizens. The exalted status currently enjoyed by Israeli is, in fact, the result of an ideological process linking its historical development with the politics of national revival.

As a result of distinctive characteristics, such as its lack of a continuous chain of native speakers, Israeli presents the linguist with a unique laboratory in which to test a wider set of theoretical problems concerning language evolution and genetics. The genetic classification of Israeli has preoccupied linguists from the beginning of the 20th century. The still prevalent, traditional view suggests that Israeli is Semitic: (Biblical/Rabbinic) Hebrew revived. Educators, scholars, and politicians have contributed to this assumption, in their efforts to impose a nationalist narrative on linguistic reality. Revisionists counter that it is actually Indo-European: Yiddish "relexified," that is, Yiddish with Hebrew vocabulary. My own hypothesis is that Israeli is a hybrid language, both Semitic and Indo-European. I argue that both Hebrew and Yiddish act equally as its primary contributors, accompanied by many secondary contributors: Russian, Polish, Judaeo-Spanish ("Ladino"), Arabic, English, etc. Thus, the term "Israeli" is far more appropriate than Israeli Hebrew, let alone Modern Hebrew or Hebrew tout court.

This article seeks to expose as myths the linguistic assumptions that traditionalists (and in some cases revisionists) take for granted: (1) The Stammbaum Model Myth; (2) 'The Internal Development Myth; (3) The Mutual Intelligibility Myth; and (4) The Thin Language Myth.

(1) The Stammbaum Model Myth

The Stammbaum Model (family tree) insists that every language has only one parent. To refute this legend, revisionists have drawn heavily on linguistic debate about creole languages. Undoubtedly, creolistics has an important bearing on the problem of Israeli. Yet, I would challenge their particular application. The terms "substratum" and "superstratum," invoked by revisionists to support their argument that Israeli is fundamentally Yiddish, are often used in creolistics and in studies of language evolution to describe the relative influence of one language on another. Traditionally, the substratum is the base language, which determines the structural foundations of the emerging creole. The superstratum is the prestigious language influencing the emerging creole from above, especially with regard to vocabulary.

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