Multilayers in Modern Hebrew Syntax

Article excerpt

Modern Hebrew syntax not only reflects the syntax of Mishnaic Hebrew, as frequently suggested by various scholars, but integrates all historical layers of Hebrew syntax, from Biblical Hebrew on. Modern Hebrew syntax is not an artificial creation, namely the consequence of deliberate integration of Biblical and Mishnaic elements, but the natural product of a gradual process, building up through all stages of Hebrew and subject throughout to the influence of foreign languages. This view is tested by following the development and expansion of one Hebrew construction, the Hebrew content clause, widely used in Modern Hebrew.


It has long been known that Modern Hebrew incorporates language elements from earlier stages: Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, (1) the diverse types of Hebrew found in written sources from the Middle ages (= Middle Hebrew), and the Hebrew of the Enlightenment and Revival. These stages contributed to all aspects of Modern Hebrew: phonology, vocabulary, morphology, and syntax. The integration of linguistic sources is already manifested in Hebrew stages earlier than Modern Hebrew. Integration of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, for example, is found in the language of liturgy and prayer, and it also exists in the diverse Hebrew sources of the Middle Ages. Two prominent sources of this kind are the mass of literature and correspondence written in Hebrew prose influenced by Arabic and the type of language called Rabbinic Hebrew. (2) Precise evidence of such a merger of various sources is found in the words of Judah Ibn Tibbon, the famous twelfth-century translator, in the introduction to his translation of Bahyai ibn Paquda's book [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (hovot ha-levavot) from Arabic into Hebrew:

   and let me not be deemed a wrongdoer because I have mixed
   Biblical Hebrew with Mishnaic Hebrew [literally: the language
   of our teachers] in certain places, and I have presented
   Mishnaic Hebrew where I should have used Biblical Hebrew:
   for I used a handy language and as it occurred to me during
   the translation; whoever revises it later where necessary is
   praiseworthy. (4)

The Hebrew phrase "Leshon Qodesh / loshn qoidesh," widespread in all language stages from Mishnaic Hebrew on, is further evidence of the longstanding awareness of distinct Hebrew elements, originating in Biblical Hebrew.

Classification of the Hebrew stages and the complexity of Modern Hebrew structure have drawn much attention over the years. I mention here only one instance, the presentation of Ze'ev Ben-H. ayyim at the Eighth World Congress of Jewish Studies in 1981, on the historical unification of Hebrew and its classification into historical stages. This presentation was followed by a series of responses, and later discussed again at a 1983 colloquium on the same topic at a seminar of the Department of Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (5)

From the ancient Hebrew language of the liturgy and prayer until Modern Hebrew, numerous individual differences may be seen in the way earlier language elements merge into later texts. These differences are due to individual authors' preferences in language and style. Modern Hebrew, despite individual differences, evinces general language tendencies typical of its stage, and generally the contributions to it of different language stages in phonology, vocabulary, morphology, and syntax are not equal. Most scholars concur about the enormous contribution of Biblical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew in morphology, and about the important contribution of Mishnaic Hebrew to Modern Hebrew in syntax.

Chaim Rabin said the following on this issue:


   The written Hebrew language since its revival is a consolidation.
   Its definitive character was imparted to it in Mendelei's day:
   a meld of materials from several earlier periods: morphology
   which is mainly Biblical, except for some facets of Biblical
   Hebrew grammar, syntax which is close to Mishnaic Hebrew, and
   vocabulary from the Bible, from Mishnaic Hebrew, and from
   Middle Hebrew, along with appropriate loans from
   Talmudic Aramaic. …