Archive for Language

A new language is born

One of the things I find puzzling about Israel is that everybody in this country, or at least, the vast majority in this country use a language that a person practically made up about 150 years ago. This is a dazzling fact, but I think there’s something even more interesting underlying it.

It’s probably no secret that Jews have been using Hebrew for millenia, at least in prayer. We had religious commentators writing in Hebrew and Aramaic even during the middle ages, often in what appeared to be pure biblical Hebrew, although the language did not stay stagnant and apparently adapted to the times.

But still, until about 150 years ago, Jews have pretty much lost their native language and all Jews, of every part of the world, became, at least linguistically, native. Israel’s a hodgepodge of former speakers of Polish, German, French, English, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Arabic, Amharic (language spoken in Ethiopia), Persian, and more.

The interesting thing underlying this Babylon is that everyone ended up using the same language. Of course, practically every original language is still somewhat retained inside Israeli sub-cultures: Yiddish is still used within the ultra-orthodox communities, my girlfriend still uses Russian with her Moldavian parents, there’s a friend of mine who speaks fluent French and uses it to talk to both his father and his grandparents – but, and this is imporant, there was something quite unique that was born here, in this very century, that is basically a complete fabrication that I find amazing:

All Israelies, at least of former European descent, who are born in Israel, have the same accent. They sound the same when they use Hebrew, regardless to the fact that they may have retained their original language. A huge portion of the population is naturally bi-lingual, and amazingly enough, a lot of the bi-lingual individuals use a native accent in each language.

The true puzzle is, though, what exactly caused the generation of the true Israeli accent, this collective accent that was born in a country where most people didn’t understand each other until they all learnt together a language that some Jewish scholar invented 1.5 centuries ago. Was it a mainly Polish-Russian influence that caused it to be? A mixture of all languages? I vividly remember hearing tapes and radio from the 50’s and 60’s and everyone, obviously, was already mature and probably learnt Hebrew at a later stage in life – meaning that every single person had a different European accent (back in the 50’s, Jews in Israel were mostly former Europeans, the former Arabian Jews were just starting their return to Israel).

I think Israel, in this respect, is a fascinating linguistic experiment – an extremely heterogenous mixture of languages stirred in a country where the formal language is a rehash of an ancient language no one used for millenia that everyone has to study from scratch.