Germany's Transport Minister claimed to have struck an important blow for the preservation of the German language yesterday after enforcing a strict ban on the use of all English words and phrases within his ministry.But if the German language, which has been spoken in its own land for an unbroken chain of many centuries, what about Hebrew, which only relatively recently was revived to reclaim its place as the language of the Jewish state?
Peter Ramsauer stopped his staff from using more than 150 English words and expressions that have crept into everyday German shortly after being appointed in late 2009.
His aim, which was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, was to defend his language against the spread of "Denglish" – the corruption of German with words such as "handy" for mobile phone and other expressions including "babysitten" and "downloaden". As a result, words such as "laptop", "ticket" and "meeting" are verboten in Mr Ramsauer's ministry. Instead, staff must use their German equivalents: "Klapprechner", "Fahrschein" and "Besprechung" as well as many other common English words that the minister has translated back into German.
Back in December 2007, in an article commemorating the 150th birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Meir Shalev wrote about the threats to the Hebrew language:
Yet Hebrew is also a battlefield of words and expressions, existence and survival. It rapidly goes through painful processes that other languages underwent slowly. Without intending to do so, Ben-Yehuda embarked on a process that in the future will see Hebrew split into a modern language and a classic language. At this point already, many Biblical allusions are not being understood by readers, while ancient idioms are forgotten. We also use others idioms without recognizing their origin. Should we be sorry about this ignorance? Not necessarily. When an idiom becomes detached from its origin, we know it has achieved an independent and strong status.Insisting on using Klapprechner for laptop, narrowly viewed, does seem silly. But is it really that difficult to see where Ramsauer is coming from?
As we celebrate Ben-Yehuda’s 150th birthday, Hebrew is an existing fact. Yet it is being threatened by a few more dangers. One of them is diminishment and shallowness. Another one is foreign languages. Not the productive kind of exchange between languages, but rather, imitation and self-depreciation. The third one is a true existential danger. Hebrew would not continue to exist without Israel. Without a Jewish state it would die within two generations,
To me, that article is a reminder how for our part, we lose sight of what is special about Hebrew.
David Hazony also wrote about Hebrew on the occasion of Ben-Yehuda's birthday:
Although every language is unique, there is something especially intriguing about Hebrew. Part of it is the lingual leverage: It is a compact tongue in which prepositions become one-letter prefixes, possessives become one-letter suffixes, and the word “is” does not exist. As a result, you can say in just a few words things that in English may take long sentences. The words of the prophets are both more powerful and more intimate when read in the original. And modern Israelis are constantly referring back to Old-Testament idioms and ideas.Caroline Glick--known more for her writings on political topics--touched upon the special qualities of the Hebrew language in an article in 2008:
But what is especially beguiling is the story of the language. When the founder of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born (150 years ago this week!), the language was essentially an ecclesiastical one, like Latin: Restricted to the Bible, the synagogue, and scholarly texts, used in conversation only when Jews of distant lands had to communicate. Of all the achievements of the Zionist movement, the re-establishment of modern Hebrew is one of the most impressive and enduring. Today, an entire country thrives on an ancient tongue, which has modernized and developed to cover every aspect of life, from sex to sports to politics to art.
Writing in Hebrew is a qualitatively different experience than writing in English. Hebrew is a more compact language than English. It has fewer words and the words it has are denser and more flexible than English words. A 1,200-word essay in Hebrew will be 1,800 words in English.So yeah, I have an idea where Ramsauer is coming from.
This is a mechanical difference. But there are deeper distinctions as well. One level beyond the mechanics is the multiple meanings of Hebrew words. The density of meaning in Hebrew is a writer’s dream. Nearly anyone can imbue a seemingly simple sentence with multiple, generally complementary meanings simply by choosing a specific verb, verb form, noun or adjective. These double, triple and even quadruple meanings of one word are a source of unbounded joy for a writer. To take just one example, the Hebrew word “shevet” means returning and it also means sitting. And it is also a homonym for club – as in billy club – and for tribe.
In 2005, the IDF named the operation expelling the Israeli residents of Gaza and Northern Samaria “Shevet Achim,” or returning or sitting with brothers. But it also sounded like it was making a distinction between tribesmen and brothers. And it also sounded like “clubbing brothers.”
As this one example demonstrates, one joyful consequence of the unique density of the Hebrew language is that satirical irony comes easily to even the most dour and unpoetic writers.
For a Jew, knowing, speaking and writing Hebrew is an intimate experience. This is particularly so for those of us whose mother tongue is not Hebrew – because as the secrets of the language slowly reveal themselves to us we feel we are discovering ourselves.
Hebrew encapsulates the entirety of the Jewish story. Modern Hebrew in particular is an eclectic amalgamation of classical Hebrew, Yiddishisms, and expressions from the Sephardic Diaspora experience. Greek, Roman, Aramaic, Turkish, Arabic and English expressions meld seamlessly into the stream of words. It is not simply that it is the language of the Bible. Hebrew is also an expression of the unique culture of a small, proud, often besieged, often conquered and permeable people.
Its power to explain that cultural experience and that historical baggage is something that often leaves a newly initiated member of the Hebrew-speaking world gasping in a mixture of disbelief and relief. It is unbelievable that a language can be so immediately and unselfconsciously expressive of feelings that have traversed millennia. Understanding its power as a tool of expressing the Jewish condition is one of the most gratifying discoveries a Jew can make.
But the experience of speaking in Hebrew and of living in Hebrew is incomplete when it is not experienced in Israel. It is one thing to pray in a synagogue in Hebrew or even to speak regular Hebrew outside of Israel. The former is a spiritual duty and a communal experience. The latter is a social or educational experience. But speaking Hebrew in Israel is a complete experience. Hebrew localizes the Jewishness, Judaism and Jews. It anchors us to the Land of Israel. Taken together, the Hebrew language and the Land of Israel stabilize a tradition and make the Jewish people whole.
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