Naming the flowers

Robert Alter

  • A History of the Hebrew Language by Angel Sáenz-Badillos, translated by John Elwolde
    Cambridge, 371 pp, £24.95, December 1993, ISBN 0 521 43157 3
  • Language in Time of Revolution by Benjamin Harshav
    California, 234 pp, £19.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 520 07958 2

One of the most intriguing and in some ways bewildering aspects of the Hebrew language is that it has managed to stay in continuous literary use for over three thousand years; roughly the same length of time as Chinese and Sanskrit, the two other major ancient literary languages that are still in written use. The most dramatic changes that have occurred over the centuries have been the emergence of rabbinic Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew towards the end of the pre-Christian era; the complex encounter of Hebrew with Arabic poetry and philosophy beginning in the tenth century; and the early 20th-century revival of Hebrew as a vernacular in the new Zionist settlements, itself preceded – and made possible – by the revival in Enlightenment Europe of Hebrew as a secular literary language. In each of these historical transitions, the language went through significant changes in vocabulary, grammar, syntax, verb-tenses and patterns of idiom. Because of the authority of the Bible, however, orthography and morphology, as well as much essential vocabulary, remained relatively constant. And because Jewish culture as a whole clung so tenaciously to its ‘sources’ (as they are habitually called in Israeli Hebrew), the earlier strata of the language may have become in some ways antiquated but were never made obsolete. A literate speaker of modern Hebrew is probably no farther removed from the language of the Bible than a speaker of modern English is from the language of Shakespeare: the basic vocabulary is perfectly accessible, though a modern reader is likely to construe some terms anachronistically and puzzle a bit over the tenses (which may in fact be aspects – designating completed and uncompleted action – rather than tenses in the modern Western sense).

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