The Revolutionary

The following is an example of “revolutionary” rhetoric taken from a recent message on the ITA mailing list, entitled: Nurit Dekel’s Reply

Dr. Dekel, a published linguist who studied spoken Hebrew, (e.g., her book “A Matter of Time”), claims that modern Hebrew is in fact a separate language, which she calls “Israeli” (or perhaps “Israelisch” or “Israelian). There were many irate responses as mailing list members pointed out that most Hebrew speakers can freely understand the Bible, the Mishnah, Medieval Hebrew poetry, etc., so that there was no need to sever current usage from more ancient language layers.

Following this heated debate, a member of the group sent Dr. Dekel a synopsis of the discussion. Her response was quite long and more or less reiterated her position.

Beyond the contested issues (discussed below), of special interest is the unique rhetoric adopted by Dr. Dekel in addressing the ITA group:

“I thank everyone for the feedback. I am aware that this issue is problematic, and also aware that many people disagree. I have no problem with this. Each person has a right to think whatever he or she wants.”

This opening clause is very democratic, open minded, and perhaps reminds one of Voltaire’s famous dictum: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend your right to say it to the death,” but with a certain postmodern tone that does not seem to have the fervor of dying for another’s right to express an opinion. Indeed, the next paragraph reveals the fact that though everyone has a right to differ, Dr. Dekel holds those who exercise this right in low regard:

“The situation today is that most people disagree with the theory because they have been habituated to think in a certain way, and because there is some kind of taboo on this subject in Israel”.

Thus, the seeming largess of the opening sentence is quickly replaced by a neo-Marxist-flavored conspiracy theory, wherein the reason people disagree with Ms. Dekel is that they have been indoctrinated. They only disagree with her because the powers-that-be have habituated them to think wrongly (i.e., they are not free, like Dr. Dekel, to think in other ways), in fact, this inculcation is so deeply ingrained that Dr. Dekel diagnoses a taboo (for a quick exposition see Taboo).

Taboos, of course, are social mores that may be quite silly or unreasonable (to an enlightened mind) but are blindly adhered to by the ignorant. Moreover, those who break taboos are often faced with dire consequences, and may therefore be considered brave and selfless people who are willing to place their own well-being in jeopardy for the sake of truth, liberty and reason.

Having cast her detractors more or less in the role of indoctrinated and superstitious savages, she now proceeds to paint her own role:

“I am well aware of the fact that this is a call of ‘the emperor is naked’”.

In the original Andersen story we find:

A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.”The Emperor is naked,” he said.

This child, not yet indoctrinated, is the epitome of empiricism. A child who could ‘only see things as his eyes showed them to him…’, a child who cannot be suspected of any agenda, any bias, any self-interest – he is the one who can see the truth and say: “the emperor is naked”!

Indeed, the point of the story is that anyone can see that the emperor is naked, but only a child is pure enough to speak out the truth.

Thus, Dr. Dekel has positioned her theories as a non-mediated, directly perceptible truth. An empirical fact as clear and poignant as a naked emperor, if only her detractors would detach themselves from their indoctrination, they too would perceive this self evident truth.

Dr. Dekel continues:

“The linguistic policy in Israel has done an excellent job, and most of us walk about incessantly correcting each other’”.

Obviously Dr. Dekel is opposed to people correcting each other, yet the people are not to blame. Rather, it is the system, the faceless “linguistic policy” that has done an “excellent job” of inculcating us with an incessant itch to linguistically criticize each other.

Dr. Dekel continues:

“I am happy that this stimulates argument. One of the respondents rightly wrote (and thanks!!!) that many can’t bear the thought that Israelish is not a unique continuation of Hebrew. This is a psychological problem. Not a linguistic one”.

Those who reject Dr. Dekel’s findings suffer from an emotional-psychological problem.

This rhetoric, which has now added the burden of emotional and psychological problems to those who reject Dr. Dekel’s findings, now serves as a prelude to a condescending assumption of responsibility for the “unwashed masses”:

“I am aware,” says Dr. Dekel, “that it is very difficult to free oneself from something that one is used to, and that I have my work cut out for me… clearly, this will also take time to ingest. Something that is the opposite of what you thought and believed before. This is completely alright it is expected… and acceptable…”

Dr. Dekel’s educational mission is now fully delineated. Faced with people who have been indoctrinated by the system, who are enthralled by taboos and who display emotional and psychological disturbances – she has nevertheless taken it upon herself to enlighten them.

The rest of her letter is devoted to reiterating her basic argument that Israelish and Hebrew are different languages, and many classic rhetoric devices may be found in her arguments, of which I will list but a few.

It seems that Dr. Dekel’s central claim hinges on an arbitrary distinction between written and spoken language. If a literary people write in a language for thousands of years, the language is still considered dead, because purportedly no one spoke it. If people prayed in the language everyday, this doesn’t count because that is for “liturgical purposes” and if people did business in that language all over the world, it doesn’t count because it is “a specialized commercial language”, if people wrote poetry and philosophy in that language – the language is considered dead because it was, purportedly not spoken.

This distinction is arbitrary and obviously based on “Ipse Dixit”, i.e., it is thus because I have said it is thus, and other colleagues in my branch agree with these distinctions, so this is the “scientific” classification.
Indeed, this position is based on the fact that since the beginning of the 20th century, linguistics as a discipline has focused on evolutionary changes in languages – changes that are reflected in speech patterns.

Based on this arbitrary distinction, Dr. Dekel proceeds to describe current spoken Hebrew as a form of “creole language” worthy of a different name, and also (probably following Zuckerman), offers a small fable regarding its origins:

“The teachers who taught Hebrew thought in other languages so that they obviously consistently “erred” in their Hebrew speech in certain places. There is also evidence for this. These children took these “failing” systems and made them into a new law, wherever their language was not orderly. Thus was Israelisch born.

No evidence is provided for these amazing claims that Israeli children were obliged to create a Creole language because the Hebrew speakers who taught them were thinking in other languages. If Dr. Dekel is referring to the generation of Bialik, then this is doubly surprising. She no doubt bases her contention on Zuckerman’s work, which posits (no less arbitrarily, see below) that the loans incorporated in Hebrew from European languages have created a completely different language: Israelisch.

In the original discussion, Dekel was presented with a tangible refutation of her claim that Hebrew was intelligible to speakers of Hebrew, i.e., an ancient poem perfectly comprehensible to current speakers of Hebrew: a “written” (ergo “dead language”) document understood by “speakers” of Hebrew, she offers the following argument:

“As to the poem, I would like to see one Israeli use this language in everyday communications – including its words and structure, who has not been yet hospitalized in a mental asylum.”

Besides the insinuation regarding the mental stability of her detractors, the entire argument is again based on the idea of “every-day communications” being totally divorced from other layers of the language, and therefore distinct.

Dr. Dekel explicitly reiterates her axiom:

One should distinguish between written and spoken language… No one belittles the sources of Israelish, nor ignores the fact that one of them is certainly Hebrew… but the differences between Hebrew and the new language are too many for the two languages to be considered a single language, from a linguistic point of view.”

So, first one arbitrarily distinguishes between written and spoken language, then focuses on the spoken language, which is now analyzed into its constituent parts as a form of Creole. Yet nothing said goes beyond the declarative: this is so, because I say so. I say that Hebrew and Israelisch are like Zebras and Donkeys, different species, and this makes them so. (This would make native Hebrew speakers who speak Israelisch as a second language into Zeedonkeys).

So, the linguistic point of view has reached such fine distinctions that it is now possible to separate native speakers of Hebrew from the written expression of their language and convince them (once their taboos have been overcome) that they have become bilingual. Indeed, the argument is so difficult to support that Dr. Dekel is forced to make another amazing analogy:

“To the same extent that we understand this poem, we can also understand Aramaic texts from the same period. Yet I have not heard anyone say that we are speaking modern Aramaic.”

The axiom has now come full circle. A triangle has three sides. How do we know this? Because by definition a three sided shape is a triangle. How do we know that the poem is not intelligible to current speakers of Hebrew? Because it is an ancient written text (and therefore dead). Aramaic is also an ancient written language. Conclusion: Just as Aramaic is a written language that is no spoken, so is Hebrew a written language no longer spoken. quod erat demonstrandum.

The fact the poem is easily comprehensible to most modern Hebrew speakers and quite similar to other, modern works, is irrelevant, since the arbitrary categories established by Dr. Dekel have already excluded it.

Following these arguments, Dr. Dekel presents an amazing passage that has nothing to do with linguistics, but I suspect is the core of her position, and may represent the revolutionary vision that is driving her hypotheses. It is at this particular point that she calls on “science” in a general way to validate her position:

“The feeling that we, a chosen people, have managed to do what no one has done before us – to revive a dead language – is a wonderful feeling, and it is very convenient to boast of super-human powers that were bequeathed to us by way of brainwashing. This is so ingrained that we can no longer distinguish between it and reality.”

The vision of Hebrew as a “dead” language brought to “life”, is the one propagated by Ben-Yehuda, to which members of his own generation refer quite cynically, since there were many Hebrew-speaking-and-writing creative geniuses during his period and throughout history, and the expansion of lexical content does not a new language make. Hebrew simply never died, so there was nothing to resurrect. It’s only fault is that it managed to preserve its identity with little change (and is therefore considered dead), in the same way as the Jewish nation never lost its self-identity, even though it had no State to contain it. In fact, the arbitrary axiom that Hebrew died and was resurrected, is the mainstay of Dr. Dekel’s claim that there are no speakers of Hebrew. As far as she is concerned Hebrew remains as dead as it ever was.

Thus, since according to Dr. Dekel, long-dead Hebrew was never revived, all those who believe in the resurrection have been brainwashed to think of themselves as superhuman, and have lost the capacity to distinguish between fact and fancy.

“It is a deception,” write Dr. Dekel, “… I am sorry to disappoint you, but from a scientific point of view, a language cannot be resurrected, even by a chosen people.”

As the “scientoistic” trump card is dealt, the brainwashed believers must face the harsh light of scientific fact. Moreover, those who still resist the verdict of “science” are now scientifically analyzed by Dr. Dekel:

“It is my opinion that those who protest against Israelisch are engaged in a kind of psychological warfare that stems from some kind of fear to lose something of our being as Hebrews. He who is secure in his identity, will lose nothing of himself by using the term “Israelisch”

So the neologism “Israelisch” or “Israeli” to denote a new language, is stated as an axiom. Why is this term applicable or relevant? Because it has been axiomatically determined that Hebrew is a different language from that spoken by Hebrew speakers. And only the insecure will balk at this determination.

Unlike the long deceased Hebrew:

“English,” according to Dekel, “has never ceased to exist. It has changed beyond recognition, but there is a continuity between English in more ancient times and present day English, and this continuity can be reconstructed and the changes that have taken placed within it”.

Though this claim is presented as an accepted fact, it utilizes the evolutionary connections between Old English and English, i.e., various regular transformations in form that led from one to the other, to categorically claim that they are the same language from a linguistic point of view.

To say the least this is quite misleading, as such transformations have been found in all modern European languages, so that each and every one of them can be shown to be a transformation of some previous language, and usually a mixture of quite a few. Thus, Spanish and French both come from Latin, and it is possible to point to regular transformations leading from one to the other. Yet they are considered different languages. English itself shares a Proto-Indo-European origin with both German and Russian, but a Proto-Germanic origin with German, and has considerably drawn on many sources including many French and Latin words. Thus the reconstruction of continuity does not prove a language is the same, in fact, since Old English is generally unintelligible to English speakers, probably more so than French is unintelligible to Spanish speakers, it may perhaps be more plausibly classified as a different language.

Yet, all these classifications are but fabrications in the mind of the linguist, as English speaking people relate to Old English as an older version of their own language, and it is this claim that make the difference: Just as people who speak very similar languages can claim their language to be different and unique.

The Terralingua website offers the following insights:

“Another criteria used for distinguishing language from dialect is mutual intelligibility. If two speakers are able to understand one another, we can assume that they are speaking different varieties of the same language.
Although this definition seems clear-cut, there are many problems with it’s application.

Using mutual intelligibility as a criterion we can arrange varieties in a chain, known as a dialect continuum. In this chain, each pair of adjacent varieties are mutually intelligible, but pairs that are not directly adjacent in the chain are not (Hudson).

This leaves us with a problem – how do we draw boundaries between languages? How do we decide where one language ends and another begins?

The answer appears to be due to social and political, rather than linguistic factors. Since a ‘standard language’ can act as a symbol of independence, many groups are keen to keep their language separate from others, despite being practically identical (e.g. Serbian and Croatian).

A language is a political or socially created concept, not based on linguistic differences.

So, if there is no linguistic basis for Dekel’s contention that the Hebrew spoken today is not Hebrew, i.e., there are no sufficient differences for her contention that Hebrew and “Israeli” are different languages, can it be that there is a political and social agenda hovering backstage?

Dekel’s next contention is based on a bare-assertion-fallacy (or more precisely “Ipse Dixit”, for there is no doubt that her academic standing is the mainstay of her argument):

“The situation in Hebrew is different”, writes Dekel, “Hebrew has ceased to exist as a spoken language almost two thousand years ago. This extinction has caused the language to remain unchanged for there were no native speakers. Science defines a language with no native speakers as a dead language. The fact that people wrote and created in Hebrew does not change this – writing that is not in the mother tongue does not express the changes in linguistic rules. These only occur as a result of live speech”.

The tautology has come full-circle: Though people have been creating and writing (and talking, and praying and teaching and reading aloud and singing) in Hebrew, it is still considered dead from a “scientific” point of view, because there were no changes in it, and a written language that does not express changes, is defined as a dead language, because there are no changes.

Hebrew has not changed in thousands of years, (because it is a written language, the product of civilization, actively supported as the standard “Holy Language” of the Jewish people), so there must not have been any speakers of Hebrew (for had it been spoken, it would have changed), since there were no native speakers, then Hebrew is scientifically defined as a dead language.

A language that was daily used for prayer and study – that was and is understood by all Hebrew speakers, is arbitrarily set aside, according to a set of rules that have been artificially contrived.

Here is the syllogism:

  1. The Hebrew language has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
  2. This means there were no native speakers.
  3. If there are no native speakers then it must be dead.
  4. Since it is dead it has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Zuckerman presents similar contentions to those presented by Dekel (e.g., Zuckerman. G. (2009). “Hybridity versus Revivability”. Journal of Language Contact – VARIA 2):

Israeli possesses distinctive socio-historical characteristics such as the lack of a continuous chain of native speakers from spoken Hebrew to Israeli…

As in Dekel’s case, this statement uses a neologism as if it were a given, i.e., calling Hebrew “Israeli” – Ipse Dixit. It also reiterates Dekel’s unsupported claim that “there is lack of a continuous chain of native speakers from spoken Hebrew to Israeli”. (Based on the same artificial definition of “native speaker” as Dekel above).

Is a person writing prose or poetry in a style that is rarely spoken, using a dead language? According to Dekel and Zuckerman: Yes indeed.

There is no need to prove anything, for it stated as an axiom.

Thus, a language that is not learned as a mother tongue but as the sophisticated product of a civilization, a language of elites, who learn to use it at an early age, as their second language, so that it becomes their main language of discourse, is considered dead. Latin, for example, which meets all of these specifications is considered a dead language. Yet it was a required school subject in most of Europe well into the twentieth century and was widely used in a variety of contexts.

So what “kills” a language from a linguistic point of view – well obviously – whenever a language enters the “ratchet effect” (to loan an evolutionary term) where writing makes it possible to preserve it in a form which changes only very gradually, it is effectively dead, since linguists have predetermined that spoken, i.e., constantly changing languages are the object of study.

The case of Hebrew is even more poignant. As a written language of great antiquity, it has not only been in continuous use as an active medium of communication (lets use “active medium of communication” as a euphemism circumventing the live-dead spoken-written dichotomy), but has also been subject to intensive language-upkeep, since its status as a holy language required certain words to be spoken in just such a way and no other (קרי ולא כתיב) so that the spoken version was also preserved. The various phonetic variants of Hebrew (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, various Chassidic inflections, Yemenite and more) are akin to the many dialects of English, which yet express a common written language, or even the twenty or more dialects of Chinese that express the same written language. Once a language is written, once it grows beyond the natural boundaries of native language acquisition into the realm of human civilization, it enters a completely different framework that is little addressed by linguistics, since the discipline emphasizes evolution and change, and de-emphasizes the conscious cultivation of language.

In summary: “Israelisch” is a fiction based on the abuse of academic authority, wherein various arbitrary contentions are made in the name of “science”, but are in fact a thinly veiled political agenda aimed at deconstructing the fundamental Israeli sense of unity and continuity as part of a national resurrection.

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