Tuesday, January 29, 2008

HEBREW WAS A DEAD LANGUAGE for a long time, but Slate Magazine seems to think it was considerably more dead than it actually was. In an article on dead languages and their revival ("How Do You Learn a Dead Language?"), this is what the writer, Christine Cyr, has to say:
For almost 2,000 years Hebrew was extinct, but Jews around the world continued to use it daily in a limited capacity in prayer, religious ceremonies, and writing. The rise of Jewish nationalism in the 19th century spawned the movement to revive Hebrew as a native language. Because no Hebrew dictionary or grammar books existed (the only written documentation was the Old Testament and a few other pieces of literature), people had to borrow words from other languages or create new ones to fill in gaps in the ancient Hebrew.
"The Old Testament and a few other pieces of literature." Those few other pieces of literature would include the 63 tractates of the Mishnah; the 59 tractates in the Tosefta; extensive (Hebrew and Aramaic) commentary on 37 of the Mishaic tractates in the Babylonian Talmud; the Midrashim; countless Geonic responsa; many of the works of the Rishonim (Rashi, Nahmanides, Maimonides, and many others); later responsa, law codes, and commentaries; poetry from all periods; and so on and so on, constantly expanding as we move closer to the present. (Very brief summary here and more detailed treatments [I haven't looked at these closely] here.) And there were numerous grammars and dictionaries of Hebrew going back to the Middle Ages. In short, although Hebrew was technically a dead language in the nineteenth century, a truly vast and much studied and much commented upon literature had been produced in it. It is true that Jews wrote in various other first languages (Aramaic, Arabic, etc.) in addition to in Hebrew as a literary language. It is also true that words like television and telephone had to be improvised as need for them arose in the new spoken language. Nevertheless the basis for a viable spoken Hebrew was already there in the surviving literature.

It would be refreshing if more journalists would do a little elementary research before making these uninformed generalizations.

UPDATE (30 January): Iyov comments here.