Sleeping beauties awake

Linguists and revivalists worldwide have much to learn from Hebrew's remarkable, hybridic modern-day rebirth, says Ghil'ad Zuckermann

January 19, 2012

Credit: Gemma Latimer

Revived Hebrew, or what I usually refer to as Israeli, is the most cited example of language revival. But to be truthful, the modern-day vernacular spoken in urban Tel Aviv is a very different language, typologically and genetically, from that of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) or of the Mishnah, the first major redaction of Jewish oral traditions.

Even so, Israeli is so far the most successful known reclamation of a sleeping beauty tongue. As a language movement it has been in progress for more than 120 years. By comparison, language revival movements elsewhere are in their infancy. With globalisation, homogenisation and coca-colonisation, there will be more and more groups added to the forlorn club of the lost-heritage peoples. Language revival will therefore become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their heritage. There is an urgent need to offer comparative insights and provide information about the Hebrew revival to other linguists, language endangerment experts and revival activists.

I propose the establishment of revival linguistics, a new discipline studying the universal mechanisms and global constraints apparent in revival attempts across all sociological backgrounds. As a branch of both linguistics and applied linguistics, it is closely related to contact linguistics (when different languages interact) and complements the established field of documentary linguistics.

For linguists, the first stage must involve a long period of observation and careful listening while learning, mapping and characterising the specific indigenous or minority or culturally endangered community. Only then can one inspire and assist. That said, there are linguistic constraints applicable to all revival attempts. Mastering them would help revivalists to work more efficiently: for example, to focus more on basic vocabulary and verbal conjugations than on sounds and word order. Revival linguistics may also help revivalists to be more realistic and to abandon discouraging slogans such as "Give us authenticity or give us death!"

Take, for example, revived Kaurna, an Aboriginal language spoken in South Australia. The language was subject to linguicide by Anglo-Australians and the last native speaker died in the 1920s, but it is currently being reclaimed.

However, the impact of the revivalists' mother tongue (Aboriginal or Australian English) on reclaimed Kaurna is far-reaching. Consider sounds: a retroflex "r" in classical Kaurna is pronounced in neo-Kaurna as the English "r". Consider vocabulary: there are numerous calques (loan translations): cricket (the sport) is replicated as yertabiritti (the term for the insect with the same name in English). Consider word order: while in classical Kaurna it was free but tending to be subject-object-verb, in neo-Kaurna it is subject-verb-object, replicating the English.

Now let us look at Israeli. Consider sounds: the classical Hebrew "r" was pronounced like the Arabic "r". But the Israeli "r" is the one occurring in most dialects of the revivalists' mother tongue, Yiddish (as in German). Consider vocabulary: there are numerous calques such as ma nishma ("What's up?", literally "what's heard?") from the Yiddish vos hert zikh and parallel expressions in Polish, Russian and Romanian. Consider word order: in Biblical Hebrew it was verb-subject-object, but in Israeli it is subject-verb-object, replicating Yiddish and Standard Average European.

Unlike Hebrew and Kaurna, where there are no native speakers of the sleeping, original tongue, in Hawaii one can observe both. Hawaii is a fascinating case of both a severely endangered language (classical Hawaiian, fewer than 1,000 speakers) and a reclaimed language (neo-Hawaiian, approximately 3,000, still non-native, speakers). Hawaiian offers scholars a unique laboratory to explore the constraints of language revival. Genetically engineered neo-Hawaiian can indeed be systematically compared to the organically evolving classical Hawaiian, as the latter is still spoken by several hundred people, who are unfortunately not involved in the reclamation.

One day we may invent devices to "inject" a language into our brains. But until then, any attempt to reclaim a hibernating language will result in a hybrid that combines components from the revivalists' and documenters' mother tongues and the target tongue. In the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!"

The punch line? One, if your language is endangered, do not allow it to die. Two, if your language dies: stop, revive, survive. Three, if you revive a language, embrace its hybridity.

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