The Languages of Jerusalem

The Languages of Jerusalem

The Languages of Jerusalem

The Languages of Jerusalem


The Old City of Jerusalem, small and densely populated, is a complex microcosm of Israeli society. It is a multilingual community characterized by unequal power relations between the speakers of the two official languages of Israel--Arabs and Jews. The authors begin with a sociolinguistic sketch of the Old City in the present day. They then provide a historical background to their field study, discussing Jewish multilingualism from the period of the Second Temple until modern times, the sociolinguistics of revival and spread of Hebrew. They go on to develop a model of the rules of language choice which arises from their social context. The authors demonstrate that, because of the close association between language use and social structure, the study of language use in a multilingual society is at the same time both powerful and delicate method of studying the dynamics of group interactions.


A conversation that we overheard a few years ago in a bus terminal prompted us to think about the central issue that has permeated our study of the sociolinguistics of the Old City of Jerusalem. Two young Israelis who seemed to be strangers to each other were talking; one was an orthodox Jew and the other a Muslim Arab. Their conversation, about religious beliefs, was being conducted in fluent colloquial Hebrew. The Jewish young man was arguing that the great monotheistic religions hold certain beliefs in common: these common beliefs are true, he said. But before completing the utterance, he asked his Arab interlocutor if the Arabic word he remembered for 'true' was the correct one; when he was assured that it was, he completed his statement using the Arabic term.

The socio-linguistic facts interested us, and we discussed them afterwards for a long time. The fact that the Israeli Arab had learned to speak Hebrew fluently, whereas the Israel Jew had not learned the local variety of Arabic (he explained to us afterwards that he only spoke Mugrabi, the North African variety his parents had brought with them when they came to Israel from Morocco), highlighted the unequal power relations between speakers of the two official languages of Israel. However, in this conversation, the Jew's expression of regret at not knowing Palestinian Arabic, and his offering, as it were, of a word of Arabic appeared to be an attempt to mitigate the harshness of this situation. His use of an Arabic word in a Hebrew sentence seemed to him to strengthen the universalism of its content: in spite of differences of religion, he was saying, the two of them could agree on beliefs.

But using the first language of one's interlocutor is not always intended to be, nor is it always interpreted as, a friendly gesture. We later heard one account of an Israeli Jewish woman, a teacher of Arabic in an Israeli school, who addressed a shopkeeper in the Old City of Jerusalem in her fluent Arabic. 'Don't speak to me in Arabic,' he shouted; 'use your own language!' Her use of fluent (but Hebrewaccented) Arabic may well have struck the shopkeeper as an inappropriate claim for solidarity. Barriers between groups, it seems, can be maintained more easily if the key to contact is in the hands of the gatekeepers.

The complexity of the issue of language knowledge and related attitudes may be illustrated by two news stories that appeared on different pages of a Hebrew daily paper in March 1989. The first reported a recent study of the teaching of Arabic in Jewish schools by Dr Hezi Brosh of Tel Aviv University. The item headlined the investigator's belief that the learning was being blocked by strong feelings against Arabs: you cannot learn the language of your enemy, it seemed to . . .

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