The struggle for Hebrew

There is much to say about the sorry state of “Hebrew” in Israel.  What now passes for “Hebrew” is naught but a garbled pigeon-English that is an insult to the ears, sounds like a comatose Frenchman choking on a (still living) frog and shouldn’t even be called a “language” at all.  Of course there are individuals, in Israel, who are better than that but practically all Israelis under the age of 40 or so, who have been processed by the education system there, speak in the laziest manner possible.  Israeli “Hebrew” as used on radio is certainly better but still a far cry from what it should be.  All said, if every Israeli would just give up “Hebrew” and speak Arabic instead, they’d probably be closer to real Hebrew than what they have now.  Apparently back in 1979 there was still hope and a man by the name of Dr. Abraham Matalon wrote a book about it.  Dr. Matalon was born in Egypt and moved to Israel in 1949, where he was active in promoting the Hebrew language.  I do not know if he is still alive.  As far as I know, this book has never been translated into English.  I’ve translated only the forward (minus the last couple of paragraphs) and here it is:

“The Hebrew Pronunciation in its struggle” by Dr. Abraham Matalon.  Tel Aviv 1979


This book is an expanded version of a pamphlet that was published in 1965: “The Degeneration of Hebrew in Israel”.  Many were shocked that we chose such a title for the pamphlet.  For those who considered this to be a testimony of contempt for our language, in fact we come to redeem the disgrace of our beloved (language), to demand the return of its crown to its head and the restoration of its lost honor.
Everybody agrees that the situation of our language is steadily deteriorating, in vocabulary and the wonton intrusion of foreign words, and syntax – which is vulnerable to foreign influences without end, and in the realm of pronunciation.  This is all because of a lack of coordination and rules.
Prior to the foundation of the State of Israel, it was common opinion that a struggle for the restoration of the language is a worthy cause, just like activism for the independence of Israel in its land.  From the time that the State of Israel was announced, people became complacent for we had “achieved our goal”.  A few demanded that the Zionist movement be disbanded, for its goal had been met according to them.  Others sought to sever the historic ties between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, claiming that there is now an “Israeli identity” which is distinct from the dispersed Jewish people.  Others even lost interest in fighting for the continuation of revitalization of Hebrew, since it was announced to be the national language of Israel.  Voices were heard claiming that Hebrew need not be preserved in our mouths for we can expect, and make possible, the emergence of a new language that would replace “traditional” Hebrew.  In order to facilitate the morphological, grammatical and phonetic replacements of Hebrew, they sought to free the people from “outdated” conventions.
Thirty years after the establishment of the State of Israel, there is still difficulty in defining three primary concepts in the life of our people and we ask: Who is a Jew?  What are the boundaries of the State of Israel?  What is the preferable pronunciation of Hebrew?  The lack of historical, and linguistic, norms against these questions brings deep and great confusion to our society and even blemishes the faith of many in (the concepts of our) people, nation and language.
Even though the correct pronunciation was fixed at the beginning of the century, some educators rose up against rules that were contrary to what they were used to and they cast doubt upon the authority of those who had defined the correct pronunciation.  New rules were not set and they argued that a solution not be reached until a later time.  However, since the language was a living one, it required immediate solutions to unprecedented problems that arose.  When people are appointed to teach the rules of a language and to publicize them, we would get expected answers – or, at least, close to those that would be expected.  But when there are no rules, we get answers that are shocking and undesirable, that cripple the language’s ability to develop in ways that are faithful to its past and its foundations.   Without fixed rules, behold “each man does what is right in his own eyes.”  Each teacher teaches as he sees fit… and they all serve as a bad example for the ears of the people.  Hebrew pronunciation is divided by the tribes of Israel and its statuses, according to societal dynamics.  The mix of pronunciations in Israel might bring about a situation where “one man cannot understand the speech of his fellow” as was said about the people of Babylon in ancient times.
Hebrew, in our days, is like a maiden by a fork in the road under a flourishing tree: anybody who wishes has his way with her; but the city leaders see and say nothing.  Verily it is so with Hebrew these days, our age can be called “the generation of chaos.”
Within the thirty years of statehood that have elapsed, groups of Jews have migrated here who have packed, within their baggage, the trappings of non-Western culture.  From the beginning people arrived from different cultural backgrounds.  Since solutions were not found to generally accommodate the social habits of these people, many problems developed and even worsened.
There were educators and public servants, in Israel, who believed that anything that had any hint of non-Western culture – must be considered “primitive”, and anybody who wished to be considered “modern” would hasten to distance himself from those things.  There came to be a negative connotation and wholesale rejection of the family structure, of tradition and religion, of mannerisms, of traditional garb and cuisine.  The fire of criticism spread to the Hebrew pronunciation of these Jews who had come from the lands of Islam.  Their sons were handed over to educators who flooded their ears, as if it were some kind of wonder, a pronunciation that was different from that of their forefathers and that was contrary to the correct pronunciation.  In the hearts of the students was solidified the conviction that they must abandon the pronunciation of their ancestors as if it were a despicable thing, that they must join the procession to become “modern” toward the “new” Hebrew.  Just as they were taught to disdain the traditions of their fathers, so too were they taught to hold the correct pronunciation in contempt, since it was represented as primitive.
We should feel fortunate and say that, within the last few years, there has been a change for the good in Israeli society.  They no longer put off societal problems until “time does what it will”.  Many community leaders are prepared to admit that the path we took in the past, the wholesale throwing into the sea of all aspects of Oriental Jewish culture, is not acceptable.  The drunkenness with “Western” culture is gradually subsiding with the revelation that some evils were gotten from there: drugs, abandonment of moral principles, spiritual destruction and a lack of faith in values.  Will this wave of sobriety reach also to the realm of language, so that we may continue in our efforts to restore Hebrew to its correct pronunciation?
Our generation is troubled with severe physical and political problems: is it possible, within this situation to make heard the cry of Hebrew and its pronunciation?
Every language struggle, amongst peoples, arose and succeeded according to the degree with which it was integrated within their societal struggles.  A language war is not waged on its own.  The Hebrew language rose back to life as an essential vessel for the political rebirth of Israel.  The struggle for the correct pronunciation will rise and succeed when it is seen as a vital force for the political rebirth and when it is strongly connected to Israeli society.  At the same time that hopes of peace are being felt across the sea and over the heavens, so too does the demand for a correct Hebrew pronunciation go hand in hand with the need to bring Hebrew and Arabic cultures closer together.
Like any societal question, pushing it off for another day cannot solve the problem of pronunciation.  On the contrary, every delay only makes the matter worse.  The problem of pronunciation is tied to the question of Hebrew script, for the way to effective communication is double: hearing and seeing, the ear hears and the eye sees.  It is necessary for the methods of script and writing bring about accurate reading, according to the demands of correct pronunciation.  We can find a solution to the problem of Hebrew script without vocalization (vowel marks).  Writing “kethiv maleh” (using some consonants excessively in order to compensate for the lack of vowels) is not the best way.

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19 Responses to The struggle for Hebrew

  1. Patrick says:

    You may be interested in researching the hindi language and how it as incorporated into it the use of english words and phrases. Hindi is from India.

  2. j says:

    Nonsense and defamation. A (contemporary) modern Hebrew speaker can read fluently from the Bible. Arabic is not nearer to Biblical Hebrew (BTW, Arabic is the language of our enemies). Languages evolve, amd they should evolve. The Rhine Valley Jews, from whom we descend, spoke Latin (aka French). Forget, then, Yiddisch and start learning Latin declinations. Vale.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Well… I never claimed that a modern Hebrew speaker could not read from the Bible; they are educated in that and written Hebrew is not what I was talking about – nor was it what Dr. Matalon was talking about.
      That Arabic is the “language of our enemies” is irrelevant to my claims. My statement that it is probably closer to Biblical Hebrew was something of a hyperbole – but there is some truth to it.
      Of course languages evolve; my point is that the “evolution” of modern Hebrew was not a natural one, but was rather imposed by external Eurocentric forces. Also, the whole point of restoring Hebrew was to, well… restore Hebrew.
      Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to have somebody disagree with me for a change so thanks for posting.

  3. j says:

    I could say that you are totally wrong. That would be a “hyperbole – but there is some truth to it”…
    Hebrew evolved HERE in Israel, not in Europe. People speaks it all day and makes the meanings up. Just like Yiddisch developed without rules and taking many foreign words. That is natural evolution.
    I am sorry you see no point in restoring Hebrew. Maybe you see no point in the whole Zionist enterprise.
    BTW רב כהנה was killed by an Arab, his son was killed by another one, and you know עין תחת עין

    • jewamongyou says:

      “Hebrew evolved HERE in Israel”
      If you define “Hebrew” as the language spoken by Israelis, then this would be true. Clearly, I don’t define “Hebrew” that way. My “Hebrew” evolved in the Land of Israel, not the State of Israel. The “natural evolution” of Yiddish was, indeed, an organic outgrowth of the Jewish people in Europe. But there was nothing natural or organic about the development of Israeli. It was imposed upon children by German teachers and an elitist ruling class. Any competing Oriental or Sephardic Hebrew was suppressed and practically outlawed in public discourse.
      “I am sorry you see no point in restoring Hebrew. Maybe you see no point in the whole Zionist enterprise”
      I’d be happy to have an intelligent debate with you – but, if you insist on flinging insults, then do not waste my time.
      For those who do not read Hebrew:
      “BTW, Rav Kahana was killed by an Arab… and you know an eye for an eye”

  4. j says:

    But contemporary Hebrew is spoken in the Sepharadi (Spanish) manner, as spoken by the Jews of the Turkish Empire in general and of Jerusalem in particular. The Ashkenazi manner was supressed, not the Sepharadi. These are facts.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Turkish Hebrew, based almost entirely on Spanish (Sephardic) Hebrew was roughly as Europeanized as Ashkenazic Hebrew. It is therefore as far removed from Oriental Hebrew as Ashkenazic is. Hebrew is, after all, by definition an Oriental/Mideastern language. So, even if you were correct, that Israeli is actually “Sephardic” Hebrew, this does not make it any better.
      It is a fallacy that Israeli is based on Oriental Hebrew (sometimes mistakenly called “Sephardic”). Here are some examples of Europeanisms that have been adopted in Israel:
      Ghimel – the soft (non-dagesh) form of this letter has been lost.
      Dhalet – the soft (non-dagesh) form of this letter has been lost – though it was only maintained in Yemen and certain parts of Iraq, including Baghdad. This is necessary to conform to the requirement of “lengthening the dhalet” in the word “Ehadh” while reciting the Shema’
      He – this letter is being replaced, in common speech, by the aleph. I have a treatise by a Jerusalem Ashkenazic rabbi bemoaning this fact. Very interesting but not actually a “Europeanism” still I thought I’d mention it here.
      Waw – this letter, which should be pronounced as an English “w” has been replaced by “v” as in a German trying to say “I wish to thank you” but saying “I vish to sank you”.
      Het – A guttural letter, it has been replaced by the glottal soft “khaf”. This changes the meaning of many words and even disguises the Semitic origins of Hebrew, making it sound more like German.
      Tet – this is supposed to be a nasal “t”, more blunt than the “t” we use in English. It has been replaced by the hard “Taw”.
      ‘Ayin – this has been replaced by Alef. See comments on Het.
      Sade – there are no diphthongs in Hebrew; each letter is a pure sound. But this letter has been transformed into the Germanic “ts”. Also, the name of the letter is “Sade”, not “tsadik”.
      Qof – should have a somewhat metallic sound and distinct from the hard “kaf”. It has been rendered identical to “kaf”.
      Resh – like all Semitic languages, the resh is formed in the front part of the mouth as in Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Modern Israelis, having learned from their German and Polish school teachers, got in the habit of replacing it with the glottal soft gh sound. This transformation makes the language harder to understand and, at least when I was in Israel, radio speakers took pains to pronounce the resh correctly for this reason. It is sad to see so many Russian immigrants taking pains to forget their “r” in favor of the “Israeli” r when they had it right to begin with.
      Thaw – this is the only letter where they adopted Sephardic tradition; but even so, it is incorrect. The soft thaw is English “th” as in “thirty”.
      The strong dagesh – completely ignored, it is the hallmark of a Semitic language. What a shame.
      Metheg/G’ayah – the lengthening of certain vowels is also a hallmark of Semitic languages. It has been forgotten.
      There is much more to this and I’ve only scratched the surface. My dear departed mentor, Ben Siyyon Cohen, wrote two books on the matter, “Sephath Emeth” and “Qosht Imre Emeth” where he proves what I’ve written (and more) beyond any shadow of a doubt.

  5. j says:

    So what you are saying is that we should change the dominant pronunciation of Hebrew, which is similar to most Mediterranean languages with accent on the last syllabe, to adopt the Yemeni Jewish pronunciation (which is similar to the Ashkenazi one). The reason is that it sound more Oriental and less European. I am not a purist and have nothing against the idea. I like how the Teymani speak.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Traditional Yemeni Hebrew is not that similar to Ashkenazi Hebrew. The only similarity they have (as opposed to other dialects) is the pronunciation of the Qomes. Persian Hebrew also has this trait.
      But yes, if I were King of Israel, I would re-educate everybody to speak authentic Hebrew; it is an important part of our heritage. To those who are intent on speaking it as if it is German or Dutch I say, “why don’t you return to Europe?”

  6. j says:

    BTWm about 20% of the population speaks Arabic and we are in the Middle East, so with time Hebrew may evolve into a more harmonic and natural language.

    • jewamongyou says:

      This thought has occurred to me but I don’t see this happening so long as intense hatred between Arabs and Jews remains. It bugs me that so many Israelis make the effort to speak Arabic correctly and yet, when it comes to Hebrew, they make no effort whatsoever.

  7. Abu Rashid says:

    You wrote: Arabic is not nearer to Biblical Hebrew
    Well actually Biblical Hebrew is nearer to Arabic we’d say, since the archaic Semitic features which still exist only in Arabic were being already lost in Biblical Hebrew, and in modern Hebrew are even further gone.
    It’s just a simple fact that Arabic is a much more conservative language than Hebrew is, and that features which were lost in Hebrew thousands of years ago, before it even began being written down, are still existent in Arabic. In fact when we look at the colloquial dialects of Arabic, we find they’re undergoing much the same processes that Hebrew, Aramaic etc. must’ve undergone at least 3000-4000 years ago.
    These processes include:
    Loss of the case inflection system.
    Loss of the dual marker.
    Merging of the phoneme dhal (the ‘th’ in this) into either zayin (as Hebrew did) or dalet (as Aramaic did). eg. (Sacrifice) Arabic/Sabaic dhabaH, Hebrew zavakh, Aramaic debeH.
    Merging of the phoneme tha (the ‘th’ in three) into either s1* (as Hebrew did) or taw (as Aramaic did). eg. (Three) Arabic/Ugaritic thalatha, Hebrew shalosh, Aramaic talat.
    And so on.
    It is undeniable that the further back into the history of Hebrew that we go, the more we’ll find it resembles Arabic. Whether you consider Arabs your enemy or not does not change this simple historical and linguistic fact.
    Abu Rashid.
    *s1 refers to the sibilant which in Hebrew ended up as the letter shin. In Arabic and other southern Semitic languages it ended up as sin.

    • jewamongyou says:

      Abu Rashid, I’ve read your posts on the Ancient Hebrew Yahoo group and you are a rare, enlightened individual in regards to your knowledge of Hebrew. Of course, I totally agree with your above comment and well said.
      I intend to write a post, here on this blog, about why I love Arabic (not just the language, but much of the music too). In a nutshell, it is because Arabic gives me a taste of what we, as Jews, have lost so long ago. To hear it being spoken well is almost like meeting my ancestors.
      Have you listened to my audio file of what ancient Hebrew probably sounded like? Any criticism is welcome.

      • Abu Rashid says:

        Tob todah for your praise, but your words are too kind. My knowledge of Hebrew is sadly quite lacking, but everyday is another opportunity to gain more knowledge.
        I’d be interested to read a post from you regarding Arabic language and music, please feel free to email me if you end up posting one.
        I have listened to the file you posted on the Ancient Hebrew list and I found it very interesting. My only criticism would be that the qof was perhaps a little overdone with the clicks. But this is not surprising since qof is one of the hardest letters to actually get right and keep right. Even amongst Arabic dialects it’s very rare to ever find anyone pronouncing it correctly.
        Here is a sample recording of qof as it’s supposed to be in Arabic, which is how it’s re-constructed for ancient Hebrew and proto-Semitic also:
        Another thing maybe worth considering is that at least as late as the 3rd. century B.C.E Hebrew still distinguished at least a few more letters. This is known mostly from Greek transliterations in their translation of the Tanakh and also when compared with Arabic it seems to match up. The first letter is the ghayin. Ghayin is not actually an alternate pronunciation of gimel, but is a letter much like ayin, and which merged into ayin in Hebrew sometime after the 3rd. century B.C.E. I think any movement towards restoring Biblical pronunciation of Hebrew would need to take this into account. The problem is knowing which words actually use ayin and which use ghayin, most, if not all, of them could be discovered from Arabic and Ugaritic though. The second is the distinction between Haa and Khaa (both called Het in modern Hebrew). These two letters were still separate in Biblical Hebrew.
        Of course there are many more letters that could be distilled back out to their original separate forms, but these two are well known to have been distinct to at least the very latest of Biblical times.
        Some food for thought anyway.
        Abu Rashid.

  8. j says:

    I do agree that current hostility between peoples is totally irrelevant to our discussion.
    No doubt that the “Sepharadi” Hebrew we speak here has been Europeized and sounds much like other Mediterranean languages.
    Arabic as spoken in Yemen and some parts of Saudi Arabia is much like our ancestors spoke than Palestinian Arabic or Hebrew. I do love the music of Yemeni Arabic and Yemeni Hebrew too.

  9. jewamongyou says:

    Re: Abu Rashid,
    Yes, I was aware of the ghain and khet. The reason I stopped short of including those is that it would have necessitated doing away with the seven double letters completely. I’m pretty sure that the seven doubles had replaced the double ‘Ayin and the double Het at that time; there must have been much confusion.
    I think, even in formal/classical Arabic, there is more than one way to say the qof. There is also more than one way to say the ‘ayin. Is there any way of knowing which one was the original one? More than one of them might have been original.
    I’ll let you know when I post about Arabic language/music.

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