Linguistics, Hebrew, and Orwell’s Law

There is a widely circulating quote by George Orwell stating that “Some ideas are so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” This appears to be a paraphrase of an actual statement by Orwell from “Notes on Nationalism”:

“One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Poster boy of the week is some linguist who claims that modern Hebrew does not really descend from Hebrew but instead descends from Sorbian, a basically extinct language whose closest living relative appears to be Polish. (Some further digging reveals that this is part of a campaign to “prove” that today’s Ashkenazi Jews [like myself and, presumably, himself] are impostors of Central European origins and this not really Jewish, therefore have no true claim to the Land of Israel, and similar 21st-century sophisms. You can imagine which types of sites quote this ‘research’ approvingly.)

Full disclosure: I am fluent in Modern Hebrew and understand Biblical Hebrew. Leaving learned linguistic discussions aside: if you speak Modern Hebrew, then Biblical Hebrew is about as comprehensible to you as Shakepeare’s English is to an American of today. (The technical term for what Shakespeake wrote is Early Modern English, or Elizabethan English.)

I asked a native Polish speaker at work who is also fluent in Hebrew about the “Sorbian hypothesis”. He just shook his head.

Yet the Wikipedia article on Hebrew treats this crank as if his theory is worthy of serious discussion. A “compromise” theory offered is that of the controversial Ghil’ad Zuckermann, who argues modern Hebrew is a mixture of Biblical Hebrew with Germanic (via Yiddish) and Slavic elements. Zuckermann hs in fact proposed renaming the language “Israelit” (“Israelish”) rather that “Ivrit” (“Hebrew”).

I may not be a professional computational linguist like Zuckermann, but by his argumentation English should be called a mixed Romance-Germanic language: over 50% of entries in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary descend either directly from Latin, or indirectly via Old French (which accounts for almost a quarter of the vocabulary, thanks to Guillaume le Conquérant/William the Conqueror). Yet mainstream linguists universally classify English as a Germanic language — based on not just historical arguments, but grammar, and the fact that of the 1000 most commonly used words in English, 85% descend from Old English (including Old Norse, itself a Germanic tongue).

True enough, modern Hebrew is replete with borrowings or calques (literal loan translations) from other languages, not just from Latin and Greek (and from the Talmud’s language, Aramaic) but also from Yiddish, Russian, English, High German,… I hate to rain in Dr. Zuckermann’s parade, but the same is true of Dutch and especially of English. German and French are somewhat more protective of their vocabularies’ “purity”, but especially in the colloquial register, both languages are full of borrowings and loan (mis)translations from especially English (not to mention Arabic-derived words in French youth slang). My Russian-speaking colleagues complain that they can no longer understand Russian internet chats thanks to all the borrowing that slipped in.

Zuckermann will argue that in the case of Hebrew it exceeds borrowings and extends to morphology: a well-known example is the word pattern “[something]izatziya” (“-ization”), like “[something]izm”. But come on: does Zuckermann really think similar things don’t occur in, for example, Romance or Germanic languages?!

But I am willing to admit Zuckermann’s theory at least has some basis in reality, however much he resorts to special pleading. In comparison, Wexler’s crank theory does not even pass the laugh test.


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