Are Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew the Same Language, or Two Different Ones?

What separates language from language, and language from dialect.





A man reads the newspaper at a cafe at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on September 5, 2017. Hadas Parush/Flash90.
observation
Feb. 5 2020
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A recently published book by the educator and linguist Jeremy Benstein, Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes, is an entertaining and knowledgeable tour for English speakers of the modern Hebrew language. Despite its light tone, it raises some serious questions. One of them that recurs in the book is the relationship between what Benstein calls “Historical Religious Hebrew (HRH)” and “Contemporary Vernacular Israeli (CVI).” Are HRH and CVI, he asks, the same language or two different ones?

This question has been asked before. In fact, the Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckerman, a leading proponent of the “two different languages” school of thought who is frequently mentioned by Benstein, once had me for a debating partner at a public evening dedicated to this subject.

Why do I think that Zuckerman and others like him are wrongheaded? After all, one can point to—and Zuckerman that night did point to—numerous ways in which CVI is so removed from HRH that the average CVI-speaker is unable to comprehend even a relatively simple HRH text.

Thus, the average Israeli who has not received a religious education would have to struggle to make sense of the straightforward biblical Hebrew of a book like Samuel and would be baffled by the more difficult prose of Isaiah, let alone by the even more densely intricate language of Job. Shown a poem on a simple theme by a medieval Hebrew poet like Yehuda Halevi or Shlomo ibn Gabirol, he would throw up his hands in despair as if confronted by a foreign language.

Indeed, in the little over a century since Hebrew was revived as a spoken tongue in Palestine/Israel, it has undergone such enormous phonetic, morphological, grammatical, syntactical, lexical, and idiomatic changes that even a late-19th-and-early-20th-century Hebrew poet like Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, who died in 1934 after living in Tel Aviv for roughly a decade, might find an ordinary CVI conversation in 2020 incomprehensible. Benstein illustrates this with an amusing story:

I recently flew from Israel to the United States and was seated next to a young ḥasidic man [who] was flying home after a visit to the Holy Land with his rebbe. . . . We chatted in English, and I asked him about his visit: how did he find Israel, and how did he get along in communicating with the natives? His answer was that it wasn’t too hard: “The language they speak there, it’s a little like loshn koydesh [Yiddishized Hebrew for ‘the Holy Tongue’]”—meaning that CVI, a language he refused to name or that he couldn’t imagine as a version of what he knew to be Hebrew, had many things about it that reminded him of the HRH with which he was deeply familiar. . . . I’m sure that for him, walking around the streets of Israel, seeing signs with letters he recognized, gathered into words and sentences that he did not, was like being a proud Parisian transported to the jungles of French Guyana, hearing some local creole or patois and feeling that despite the bizarre surface similarity, there wasn’t much that these two languages had in common.

 

It’s a good comparison. Another such comparison might liken Benstein’s Ḥasid to a resurrected speaker of Latin who finds himself in 21st-century Rome. Listening to the Italian spoken around him, he will recognize words and even some phrases. When someone says “va bene,” “that’s good” or “I’m fine,” he will understand perfectly, because in 2nd-century Rome va bene had the same meaning. For the most part, however, the conversations he hears will be unintelligible, and this is why we call the language that was spoken by him Latin and its descendant that is spoken today Italian. Why, then, shouldn’t we follow suit, as Zuckerman and others suggest, by calling HRH “Hebrew” and CVI “Israeli?”

Yet Italian and Latin aren’t the only relevant examples. Suppose I asked you what language the following is in:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte and his modgeÞanc,
weord wuldofaeder swa he wundra gehwaes,
ece drihten, or onstealde.

You have no idea? Well, it’s English: Old English to be exact. The text is  a Christian hymn written by a 7th-century poet named Caedmon, and it translates as:

It is meet that we worship the Warden of heaven,
The might of the Maker, His purpose of mind.
The Glory-Father’s work when of all His wonders
Eternal God made a beginning.

If you look at it closely, there are a few words and phrases here, too, that you may be able to identify once you know what they mean—but, for the most part, Caedmon’s poem might just as well be in Icelandic or ancient Norse as far as a contemporary English speaker is concerned. And yet we call both Caedmon’s language and our own by the same word. Why?

The reason is that, unlike Latin, which fathered several different languages that are spoken today (principally, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, French, Italian, and Rumanian), the language of Caedmon was—with the exception of Highland Scots, today all but extinct—an ancestor of modern English alone. It would be confusing to call Italian “Modern Latin,” or to refer to Latin as “Old Italian,” because Spanish and French are also “Modern Latin” and Latin is also “Old Catalan” and “Old Rumanian.” In the case of English, there is no such need to disambiguate.

Similar examples can be offered from languages all over the world. We do not, for instance, refer to Russian as “Modern Slavic” because Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Serbian, etc., descend from the same ur-Slavic tongue. We do, on the other hand, speak of ancient Greek, koine Greek, Byzantine Greek, and Modern Greek, because ancient Greek, like Old English, never sired any language or dialect that couldn’t be considered Greek itself.

Of course, it is sometimes arguable whether a given form of speech is a dialect or a separate language. Mutual intelligibility is only one criterion by which to judge; history, culture, and politics are others.

Speakers of Cantonese Chinese and Szechuanese Chinese cannot understand each other at all, yet since all share the same system of writing and many of the same cultural traditions, since they have lived for all or most of their history under the total or partial control of the same central governments, and since they regard themselves as belonging to a single people, their differences of speech are thought of as merely dialectical. Conversely, although Danes and Norwegians can generally understand one another, Danish and Norwegian are considered different languages because their speakers live in different sovereign states. No Norwegian would call himself a Dane, or vice-versa.

 

Judged by nearly all of these criteria, the case of Hebrew is far more like that of English, Greek, and Chinese than like that of Latin and Italian, Slavic and Russian, or Danish and Norwegian. Hebrew has never given birth to any language that wasn’t Hebrew. Its speakers and readers have shared throughout their history a sacred literature written it, a religion, and a body of traditions. They have always thought of themselves as part of the same Jewish people. They have never lived as citizens of different Hebrew-reading-or-speaking sovereign states.

In a word, just as it makes sense to speak of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, so it makes at least as much sense to speak of Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew. Indeed, Modern Hebrew is incomparably closer to the Hebrew of the Bible, the Mishnah, and the medieval rabbis than Modern English is to the English of Caedmon or Beowulf. I would be in complete agreement with Jeremy Benstein, who asks “So, [are HRH and CVI] two different languages?” and answers, “The grammatical case is a strong one, but my verdict is no,” were it not that the grammatical case in my opinion is not that strong, either.

Ultimately, the argument put forth by Ghil’ad Zuckerman and others is an ideological one. It is not so much about Hebrew as it is about Jewish history. If one believes that the Hebrew-speaking state known as Israel is not an organic outgrowth of Jewish history—that it is in some sense foreign to it, perhaps even a distortion, usurpation, or overthrowing of it—then  there is a logic to calling CVI “Israeli” as a way of stressing its non-continuity with the Jewish past. If one doesn’t believe it, there’s every reason to call CVI Hebrew.

In the end, you might say, it boils down to a question of Zionism.

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More about: Biblical Hebrew, Hebrew, Israel & Zionism, Linguistics, Modern Hebrew