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).

Angel Sáenz-Badillos is a professor of Hebrew language and literature in Madrid, and his main emphasis is on the Biblical period, or rather periods, to which he devotes more than half the book, though he has authoritative things to say about rabbinic and medieval Hebrew, and his brief final chapter on modern Hebrew reflects his familiarity with that phase of the language. Sáenz-Badillos has scrupulously sifted through every relevant scholarly investigation in all the major Western languages as well as in modern Hebrew. His judgment on matters under dispute is balanced and persuasive, his analysis of linguistic examples is precise; his fund of pertinent data is seemingly inexhaustible. He makes careful and instructive discriminations on the place of Hebrew as a north-west semitic language in the ancient Near East; on the specialised and archaic language of Biblical poetry, the stylised language of Biblical narrative, and the inferred vernacular of the Biblical period; on the watershed changes from Biblical to rabbinic Hebrew; on the evolving phonetic system of the language; and much else. The book is written for people who know Hebrew, and who have more than a passing familiarity with linguistic terminology. It makes constant reference to grammatical categories that would be unintelligible to anyone else, and the argument for the most part is conducted through a marshalling of minute examples, with words and phrases cited in Hebrew characters followed by transliteration. For students of Hebrew, this is an invaluable book, at once providing a large historical conspectus and a detailed analysis of the evolution of the language.

But is it, after all, one language? Sáenz-Badillos comes down strongly on the side of ‘the historical unity of Hebrew throughout its existence’. In his concluding chapter, he represents Israeli Hebrew as ‘the final link in a never completely broken chain, connecting it across more than three thousand years to the earliest passages of the Bible’. But he also recognises that the revival of Hebrew does not fit normal patterns in the history of languages. ‘Conceived and brought to reality by the determination of a people wanting to recapture its own identity’, Israeli Hebrew, he writes, ‘is not the result of natural evolution but of a process without parallel in the development of any other language’. The precise nature of that process is studied in illuminating detail by Benjamin Harshav, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Yale, in Language in Time of Revolution.

Harshav’s book is addressed not to specialists alone but also to readers interested in the formation of modern culture, the intricate reciprocities between language and social institutions, and the distinctive problematic of modern Jewish history. He organises his account of the revival of Hebrew in two ‘concentric essays’, the first of which offers a probing account of the historical context while the second is informed by a strong theory of how language interacts with social frameworks and individual experience. The time of revolution referred to in the book’s title is that following the wave of pogroms in Russia in 1881, when large numbers of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe seized on one or another ideology in order radically to redefine their identity as Jews in a new and baffling world. The year 1897, Harshav notes, is an exemplary meeting-point for the divergent revolutionary trends in world Jewry: Herzl founded the World Zionist Organisation in Basel; the Yiddish-language socialist party, the Bund, was founded in Vilna; the immensely influential Yiddish daily, the Forvets, began publication in New York; the great Hebrew literary journal, Ha-Shiloah, was launched in Odessa; Simon Dubnov formulated his theory of Jewish Diaspora autonomism in the first of his Letters on Old and New Judaism; and Freud (already writing The Interpretation of Dreams) joined the Bnai Brith chapter in Vienna.

The second half of Harshav’s book is devoted to an account, part narrative and anecdotal, part analytical, of the revival of Hebrew, which he sees as one of the many manifestations of revolutionary energy among Jews who were consciously renegotiating the basic terms of their collective existence. The new Hebraism is set alongside Yiddishism, Jewish socialism, Zionism, autonomism and psychoanalysis, as one expression of the cultural-political possibilities that Jews were exploring. As historical events turned out, it was the one Jewish revolution that proved to be an almost unqualified success.

How did the devotees of Hebrew manage to resuscitate a language that, with only the most marginal exceptions, had not been spoken for almost two thousand years? It has often been pointed out, justly, that Hebrew was never really a ‘dead’ language, but continued to be used for community chronicles, certain kinds of correspondence, travel books, rabbinic responsa and commentaries, and even as a lingua franca for Jewish merchants operating in different countries. From tenth-century Iberia to 18th-century Italy, there was a continuous tradition of secular literature in Hebrew, followed by a more self-consciously programmatic secular literary movement that began in Moses Mendelssohn’s Germany and moved east to Poland and Russia, generating journals and literary coteries as well as some original writers. But Harshav, aware of the way languages work, rejects the category of dead and live languages, and proposes that Hebrew is no more than an extreme instance of the interplay between written and spoken, past and present, in all languages: ‘Isn’t it the case that in any language there are layers of the language that are not “alive” in the sense of being used in daily speech, or even in habitual writing? And isn’t speech influenced by various genres of writing, as much as the reverse?’

The new Hebraists, then, had at their disposal a language that had long been restricted to writing and yet incorporated many elements that pointed to living speech. The Hebrew of the Midrash and the Talmud was vernacular-like in simulating, respectively, the oral immediacy of the sermon and the oral give-and-take of legal debate or anecdotal report. The new Hebrew fiction in Europe had created a world of characters engaged in dialogue before there were any speakers of Hebrew. And, as Harshav aptly observes, Yiddish – the mother tongue of most of the Hebraists – itself incorporated all sorts of fragments of Hebrew texts and even integrated certain Hebrew grammatical forms into its more or less Germanic grammar.

At the turn of the century as the vernacular revival was getting shakily under way, there was something of a linguistic framework for making Hebrew once more a spoken language. There were nevertheless enormous lexical gaps, and concerted efforts were required by various ideological groups in Palestine to carry out the unnatural act of displacing a mother tongue with a learned language. Harshav describes a meeting in 1913 between a teenage girl in one of the new Zionist settlements and the American Yiddish poet Yehoash. The poet was impressed by the fact that a group of girls were actually playing together in Hebrew, but when he asked one of them to name the flowers in her garden, she replied: ‘Flowers don’t have names.’ In order for the names to enter the cultural lifestream, what was required, as Harshav notes elsewhere, was not merely someone to invent terms for a botany textbook but an elaborate circular system in which social institutions implemented linguistic practice and linguistic innovation made social institutions viable. The lexical expansion ‘took root when botany teachers guided groups of schoolchildren in learning to know nature and distinguish between the various kinds of flowers: and vice versa: those distinctions could be made only with such names in hand. In other words, the social process of expanding a semiotic field went hand in hand with the linguistic process of expanding a subfield of the language.’

The peculiar sociology of the early Zionist settlers provided the matrix for the sort of dedicated groups – Harshav’s paradigmatic botany teachers – who could carry out this linguistic revolution. The overwhelming majority of those who came to Palestine in the first decade and a half of the century, and again immediately after the First World War, were single people in their late teens and early twenties. They had torn themselves from family and traditional life in Europe. ‘Theirs was a consciousness of the end of all previous history: the end of two thousand years of exile and the end of thousands of years of class warfare – in the name of a new beginning for man and for Jew.’

A serious degree of Europeanisation was probably inevitable in order for Hebrew to be able to absorb the Western thought-patterns necessary to get along in the modern world. Harshav provides a beautifully instructive analysis of a leading article from the Israeli daily Ha-Aretz on the missile race. The microsyntax and grammar of the passage are indigenously Hebrew, but the macrosyntax, the idioms, the Hebrew coinages for international terms, not to speak of the loanwords, make the passage thoroughly European – nothing would be lost by turning it into English or French or German. If one were to choose a page of Hebrew prose from one of the new Israeli novelists such as Meir Shalev and David Grossman, however, one would be more likely to encounter dense constellations of idioms, peculiar lexical usages and allusive resonances that are distinctively Hebrew, many going back to the Bible and the language of the early rabbis.

Such a restless dialectical movement between linguistic sameness and distinctiveness is, I think, an index of the vitality of the ancient language flourishing again in the modern world. At one point Harshav draws a brilliant inference to this effect from what at first seems the driest of phonetic observations. As it was pronounced by the Jews of Europe Hebrew tended to have the accent placed on the penultimate syllable of a word. Loosely adopting the so-called Sephardi accent of Middle Eastern Jews, which, as Harshav explains, seemed a way to rid oneself of the baggage of the Diaspora, the self-conscious speakers of the new Hebrew had to accent the final syllable of the vast majority of words. The result was a Hebrew that had a radically new – supposedly ‘virile’ – rhythm. But there is a compensatory counter-movement in Israeli Hebrew: in ordinary speech most proper names as well as most loanwords are given a penultimate accent and poems and songs favour feminine forms in which the accent is also penultimate. This play of sound is construed by Harshav as a symptom of the Israeli cultural condition, and of the dual nature of the revival of Hebrew: ‘This is not just a phonetic issue, it gives specific character to Israeli speech and its speakers. And beyond that, this is the basic mode of the whole revival in Eretz-Israel: an ideological decision and a drastic imposition of a new model of behaviour, radically different from the Diaspora past, are accompanied by a subtext of old behaviour, which re-emerges with time: the Jew comes out from under the Hebrew.’