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insight by wfx

Welcome to Wordwide FX's new enterprise!

Insight by WFX is a synthesis of our passion for languages and the financial markets. Here you will find technical and fundamental analyses from our clients, media partners and contributors in different languages, as well as discussions on languages and translation. And of course we will keep you updated on what is happening inside Wordwide FX Financial Translations. Hope you enjoy it! Greetings from the Wordwide FX team!

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10/05/2018

Of ‘standard’ languages and ‘impure’ dialects

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Livemint

Why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the ‘standard’ and why its variants were demoted to ‘dialect’ status is a product of history and politics

The socio-linguist and scholar Max Weinreich once said, “A shprach eez a deealekt mit an armee un flot”, which translates to, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” The original sentence is in Yiddish and, in that fact, lies a delicious irony. 

Yiddish originated during the ninth century in central Europe, providing the Ashkenazi Jewish community with a vernacular that was largely Germanic-based and incorporated elements from Hebrew and Aramaic (incidentally, Aramaic was Jesus Christ’s mother tongue). The influence of the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian and others) and traces of the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese and others) is also discernible in this language. It also has a fairly extensive literature. 

The irony is that many remain unconvinced about the extent of the linguistic independence of Yiddish from the languages that it absorbed. It’s been said that Yiddish is actually just broken German and more of a linguistic mish-mash than a true language. In other words, according to some, Yiddish is itself a dialect…of German!

In popular telling, a dialect is viewed as something of a “lesser” language. When we speak of a dialect, we sometimes mean a mere spoken language (without a script) and sometimes, a variant of a standard language which, while resembling the standard, also has independent elements of its own that make it different from the standard language. 

In reality, language and dialect are ambiguous terms, terms that scholars have difficulty applying to specific situations. The ambiguity stems from the fact that why a certain variant of the language came to be regarded as the “standard” and why its variants were demoted to “dialect” status is a product of history and politics. It has little to do with any special features of the so-called “standard” language. 

Standardization is a process by which a language is codified and this involves the development of dictionaries, spelling forms, a grammar and possibly, a literature. It involves people reaching an agreement and developing a “model” language, a model that people aspire to achieve, even if they have not achieved it at the time of its creation. 

Standard English essentially developed from the language (actually, dialect) that was spoken in London, which is where the court moved to (from Winchester) after the Norman Conquest in 1066. This happened organically over the course of several centuries and, gradually, a standard English came to be accepted as the norm. The many variants of English like Cockney, Scots, Yorkshire English are compared to the standard and termed as dialects. 

In the case of French, the development of standard French was orchestrated by the government. In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII, established the Academie Francaise. Over the next few centuries, the Academie oversaw the creation of a standard French even as its many variants stubbornly defied the Academie’s attempts at standardization, well into the nineteenth century when centuries of language reform coupled with the iron hand of government-mandated language use rules ran the old dialects into the ground. Standard French was soon on its way. 

Among the more interesting attempts at standardization has been that of Turkish. The modern state of Turkey was formed in 1922 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as president. Atatürk then initiated a series of political, legal, religious, cultural, social, and economic policy changes to transform the new Republic of Turkey into a secular, modern nation state. The adoption of the Latin alphabet and the purging of foreign words was part of Atatürk’s programme of modernization. 

The Turkish Language Association (TDK) was established in 1932 and one of its tasks was to initiate language reform by replacing words of Arabic and Persian origin with Turkish equivalents. By banning the usage of imported words in the press, the association succeeded in removing several hundred foreign words from the language. Many words, newly derived from Turkic roots, were introduced to the language. Equally, Old Turkish words, which had not been used for centuries, were pressed back into active service. A new Turkish thus became the standard. 

Owing to this sudden change in the language, older and younger people in Turkey started to differ in their vocabularies. While the generations born before the 1940s tend to use the older terms of Arabic or Persian origin, the younger generations use new expressions. Atatürk himself, in a lengthy speech to the Parliament in 1927, used a style of Ottoman Turkish which has become unintelligible to later listeners and hence it has had to be “translated” three times into modern Turkish: first in 1963, again in 1986, and, most recently, in 1995.

In similar fashion, in the subcontinent, a Sanskritized Hindi and a Persianized Urdu were “created” from the Hindustani base that was the foundation for both languages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Hindi” was willed into existence by Hindu zealots keen on a language purged of Muslim influences. The Hindustani that was spoken in the bazaars of north India was the vehicle chosen for this dream and was purged of its Arabo-Persian words, which were replaced with Sanskrit equivalents. This new creation was held up as standard Hindi. 

Other allied languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Braj and many others, many of which were centuries old and had extensive bodies of literature, were then cast as “dialects” of Hindi. The fantastic claim that such a Sanskritized Hindi is likely to have existed in the past before the Muslim invasions was made and the language thus endowed with a history that was nothing more than a purloining of the histories of its “dialects” and more than a dollop of imagination.

Parallely, Urdu was purged of “polluting” Hindu influences. Turkic, Arabic and Persian words were preferred to words from Indian languages and an acceptable Urdu was willed into existence much in the same fashion as an acceptable Hindi was. Both languages jostled for acceptance and legitimacy among their target audience and aspired for “purity” even as the common man continued—and continues to this day—to use what in effect must be rightly termed “Hindustani” (known as Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan). In effect, Sanskritized Hindi claims a history that isn’t really its own while Persianized Urdu, on the other hand, chooses not to dwell on that history much, choosing instead to look to Persian and Arabic as its forerunners.

To return to Yiddish, its lesser status was affirmed when the state of Israel chose the classical language of Hebrew to be its state language, ignoring the claims of Yiddish. When Israel was born in 1948, Yiddish did come to possess an army and navy, but lacked the “divinity” that Hebrew—the language of the Jewish scriptures—had. Hebrew, which was effectively a dead language when this decision was made, then underwent a spectacular revival and is now a widely spoken language in Israel. It is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival.

A standard language is thus a product of many things. In the common telling, it has a hallowed status. In reality, its status is a mere accident. Armies, academies, the hand of god and other things are what take humble dialects to the dizzying heights of “standard” status.

 

Below,  Hebrew is the only instance of a dead language that has undergone a complete revival. Photo: iStock

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13/04/2018

The English language is the world’s Achilles heel

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Conversation

English has achieved prime status by becoming the most widely spoken language in the world – if one disregards proficiency – ahead of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is spoken in 101 countries, while Arabic is spoken in 60, French in 51, Chinese in 33, and Spanish in 31. From one small island, English has gone on to acquire lingua franca status in international business, worldwide diplomacy, and science.

But the success of English – or indeed any language – as a “universal” language comes with a hefty price, in terms of vulnerability. Problems arise when English is a second language to either speakers, listeners, or both. No matter how proficient they are, their own understanding of English, and their first (or “native”) language can change what they believe is being said.

When someone uses their second language, they seem to operate slightly differently than when they function in their native language. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “foreign language effect”. Research from our group has shown that native speakers of Chinese, for example, tended to take more risks in a gambling game when they received positive feedback in their native language (wins), when compared to negative feedback (losses). But this trend disappeared – that is, they became less impulsive – when the same positive feedback was given to them in English. It was as if they are more rational in their second language. 

While reduced impulsiveness when dealing in a second language can be seen as a positive thing, the picture is potentially much darker when it comes to human interactions. In a second language, research has found that speakers are also likely to be less emotional and show less empathy and consideration for the emotional state of others.

For instance, we showed that Chinese-English bilinguals exposed to negative words in English unconsciously filtered out the mental impact of these words. And Polish-English bilinguals who are normally affected by sad statements in their native Polish appeared to be much less disturbed by the same statements in English.

In another recent study by our group, we found that second language use can even affect one’s inclination to believe the truth. Especially when conversations touch on culture and intimate beliefs.

Since second language speakers of English are a huge majority in the world today, native English speakers will frequently interact with non-native speakers in English, more so than any other language. And in an exchange between a native and a foreign speaker, the research suggests that the foreign speaker is more likely to be emotionally detached and can even show different moral judgements.

And there is more. While English provides a phenomenal opportunity for global communication, its prominence means that native speakers of English have low awareness of language diversity. This is a problem because there is good evidence that differences between languages go hand-in-hand with differences in conceptualisation of the world and even perception of it. 

In 2009, we were able to show that native speakers of Greek, who have two words for dark blue and light blue in their language, see the contrast between light and dark blue as more salient than native speakers of English. This effect was not simply due to the different environment in which people are brought up in either, because the native speakers of English showed similar sensitivity to blue contrasts and green contrasts, the latter being very common in the UK. 

On the one hand, operating in a second language is not the same as operating in a native language. But, on the other, language diversity has a big impact on perception and conceptions. This is bound to have implications on how information is accessed, how it is interpreted, and how it is used by second language speakers when they interact with others.

We can come to the conclusion that a balanced exchange of ideas, as well as consideration for others’ emotional states and beliefs, requires a proficient knowledge of each other’s native language. In other words, we need truly bilingual exchanges, in which all involved know the language of the other. So, it is just as important for English native speakers to be able to converse with others in their languages.

The US and the UK could do much more to engage in rectifying the world’s language balance, and foster mass learning of foreign languages. Unfortunately, the best way to achieve near-native foreign language proficiency is through immersion, by visiting other countries and interacting with local speakers of the language. Doing so might also have the effect of bridging some current political divides.

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10/04/2018

Right and wrong ways to spread languages around the globe

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Economist

Emmanuel Macron’s plan to boost French-speaking puts means before motive

REMARKABLY, a French president had never addressed the Académie Française before. The French have a soft spot for authority, and the mighty presidency (atypical for Europe) and the academy (founded to guarantee the purity of the French language) are both symbols of that. So when Emmanuel Macron told the academicians—modestly known as les immortels—of his ambitions to revitalise French around the world, it was a very French affair indeed.

In some ways Mr Macron constitutes a break with Gallic tradition. He speaks English not only well but gladly, in contrast to his predecessors, François Hollande (whose ropy English was the butt of jokes) and Jacques Chirac (who often pointedly refused to talk in English, though he could). But in the best French tradition, Mr Macron spoke with passion about French and confidence in its future. He announced more money for the Alliance Française, for example, to teach the language, and more support for teaching French to refugees who have arrived in France. His aim is to see French go from being the world’s fifth-most-spoken language to its third.

It is very French to think that this can be accomplished by determined state action. Yet people don’t learn a language because somebody has built a fancy new school nearby. These days there are plenty of language-learning options, especially online. The cost of learning a language is mainly measured not in money but in time. You have to give someone a reason to do the work, before even bothering with the means and opportunity.

Think about the rivals to French. One is English. Americans and Britons might think foreigners learn English because their culture is appealing. But if that was ever true, it no longer is. Foreigners learn English simply because there are already a lot of people to speak it with—a majority of them, today, outside the chief Anglophone countries. A Swede learns English to do business in Brazil. This is why, despite the irony, English will probably still dominate the European Union after Brexit.

Or consider Chinese, a language of booming interest to foreign learners. It is in a way the opposite of English: the vast majority of its speakers live in just one country. But what a country. China’s economy will soon be the world’s largest, and its people still do not speak very good English. Learning Chinese is an obvious way to exploit an unrivalled economic opportunity.

Finally, take German. In the 19th century it was a posh language of science and scholarship, expected of all educated Europeans. Early Zionists pondered making it the national language of the Jewish state. But two wars, horrific atrocities and four decades of division wrecked its image. However, it has recovered. As Germany’s economy roared back from a long post-reunification slump, German-learning increased by 4% between 2010 and 2015 (a lot, in historical terms). Perhaps more surprisingly, a country once considered stolid and conservative has developed a reputation for cool. Berlin is seen as the hippest capital in Europe. German is both useful and attractive.

French could combine all these attributes. Like English, it is found around the world. Like Chinese, it is economically important: French-speaking countries account for 8.4% of global GDP. And like Germany recently, France has long had cultural cachet. How, then, to revive the optimism for the language itself?

Much of the work will be done outside France, and by growth in Africa in particular. Mr Macron knows this; after an initial announcement, in Burkina Faso, that he wanted to give new vigour to the French-speaking world, he was seen as neocolonialist. His speech at the Academy was better, conceding that French had “emancipated itself from France”. He told the Academy that it was high time French schools began teaching literature written in French outside France.

By one projection, in 2050 there will be 700m French-speakers—80% of them in Africa. To keep that forecast on track and keep Africans speaking French—not switching to English, as Rwanda did—France would be wise to continue this approach of fraternité rather than autorité with its African friends, by helping those countries develop economically. And the best thing Mr Macron could do at home is release the talents of the French people. Reforms that get the French economy growing as Germany’s has done would do more than all the shiny new French-teaching schools in the world.

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14/03/2018

The History of Appalachian English: Why We Talk Differently

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via Appalachian Magazine 

“Where are you from?”  An annoying question asked in a condescending tone I have been forced to endure nearly my entire life.  Whether I travel north into Yankeedom or south into Dixie, it seems that the way I (and everyone I grew up with) talk just seems oddly out of place.

We don’t have a Yankee accent, but we also don’t really speak with a southern drawl. Ours is an accent that is entirely unique and though it’s often the subject of scorn and ridicule, the Appalachian dialect is an ancient connection to our rich heritage and deserves to be safeguarded and honored.

The language we speak is known as Appalachian-English and actually serves as one of the oldest varieties of English spoken in this nation.

But why do we speak it and where did this dialect come from?

Like nearly all things related to Appalachia, there is no one clear answer to this question; however, extensive research has been conducted on this very topic for the better part of a century in order to determine why so many of us pronounce words such as “wire,” “fire,” “tire,” and “retired” as “war,” “far,” “tar,” and “retard” respectively.

Appalachian-English also places an “-er” sound at an end of a word with a long “o”.  For example, “hollow”— a small, sheltered valley— is pronounced like “holler”.  Other examples are “potato” (pronounced “tader”), “tomato” (pronounced “mader”), and “tobacco” (pronounced “backer”).

H retention occurs at the beginning of certain words as well. “It”, in particular, is pronounced “hit” at the beginning of a sentence and also when emphasized. The word “ain’t” is pronounced “hain’t”.

The noun “grease” is pronounced with an “s,” but this consonant turns into a “z” in the adjective and in the verb “to grease.”

And then of course there is the unending and longstanding feud regarding what is the proper way to pronounce the region itself, “Appalachia”.  People who live in the Appalachian dialect area pronounce the word with a short “a” sound (as in “latch”) in the third syllable, while those who live outside of the Appalachian dialect area or at its outer edges tend to pronounce it with a long “a” sound (as in “lay”).

Of course on this subject, we all know it’s “App-ah-latch-uh”… or I’ll throw an apple-atch’a!

But why is it that we speak so uniquely?

The predominate theory is that the existence of Appalachian-English is the result of the isolation the mountains beyond the Blue Ridge ensured — making our dialect one of the most ancient and protected dialects in the nation.

While our high-browed relatives who moved to the big city and lost their accent may frown upon our words and pronunciations, it is believed that the Appalachian dialect is a remnant of Elizabethan English.

An evidence of this is the use of words such as “afeared”, a Shakespearean word that is largely forgotten by most English speakers outside of the Appalachian region.

Other ancient phrases include the use of “might could” for “might be able to”, the use of “‘un” with pronouns and adjectives (e.g., young’un), the use of “done” as a helping verb (e.g., “we done finished it”), and the use of words such as airish, brickle, swan, and bottom land all of which were common in Southern and Central England in 17th and 18th centuries.

Interestingly, Appalachian-English has virtually no Native American influences (with the exception being place names, e.g., “Appalachia”, “Tennessee”, “Kanawha”, etc.) while so many other regional dialects in the nation do contain heavy influences from Native Americans.  This is noteworthy, as it showcases something we know and realize today — the people who settled this region are not easily influenced by the accents and languages of others, even if they become displaced, Appalachian-English is a hard dialect to lose.

Further evidence of this reality may be found in several areas in the State of Texas.

Nearly two centuries ago, the sons of Virginia’s Appalachian region (Stephen F. Austin & Sam Houston), as well as men of Tennessee (Davy Crocket) and Kentucky (James Bowie) made the decision to leave the mountains and head into the land of Tejas — eventually forming a new Republic, built by the blood and sweat of Appalachia’s sons.

Despite being some 1,200 miles apart, Appalachian-English is still alive and well in multiple Texas localities.  There, in the Lonestar State, you’ll hear phrases such as “Like’t’a”, proving that you may take the man out of Appalachia, but you won’t be able to take the Appalachia out of the man.

 

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21/02/2018

Language started 1.5m years earlier than previously thought as scientists say Homo Erectus were first to talk

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

Via The Telegraph

By Sarah Knapton

In the beginning was the word. And it was first spoken by Homo Erectus, according to a controversial new theory.

Most paleontologists believe language emerged with the evolution of Homo Sapiens around 350,000 years ago.

But Daniel Everett, Professor of Global Studies, at Bentley University, Massachusetts, author of How Language Began, claims our earlier ancestors must have been able to talk to each other.

Prof Everett, claims that Homo Erectus, who lived from 1.8 million years ago, invented language and used it to hunt and build boats to colonise remote islands such as Flores in Indonesia and Crete, where fossils have been found even though there was never a land link with Africa.

Speaking at the AAAS annual meeting in Austin, Texas, he said: “Everybody talks about Homo Erectus as a stupid ape-like creature, which of course describes us just as well, and yet what I want to emphasize is that Erectus was the smartest creature that had ever walked the Earth.

“They had planning abilities. They made tools. But the most incredible tools that Erectus made were vessels for sailing the open ocean.

“Oceans were never a barrier to the travels of Erectus. They travelled all over the world. It was intentional they needed craft and they needed to take groups of twenty or so at least to get to those places.

“Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores. They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to see when they hit the current. They needed to be able to paddle.

“And if they paddled they needed to be able to say ‘paddle there’ or ‘don’t paddle.’ You need communication with symbols not just grunts. They accomplished too much for this to simply be the sort of communication that we see in other species without symbols.”

Homo Erectus was the first member of our genus homo, and so was the first species of human.

It stood up to five feet 11 inches tall, and had the biggest brain of any land animal that had ever lived, around 950CC, roughly the size of European females today.

They had sophisticated settlements, with separate areas for processing plants and animals, as well as for living, sleeping and engaging in communal activities, Prof Everett told delegates.

There is also evidence that they had symbolic objects. A 250,000 year old carving of a woman was found in Berekhat Ram, Israel, 250,000 years ago.

“They certainly were not incapable of speech they just would have had a different speech,” said Prof Everett.

“Homo Erectus spoke and invented the Model T Ford of language. We speak the Tesla form, but their Model T form was not a proto-language it was a real language.

“Homo Erectus needs more respect, Homo Neanderthalis was born into a linguistic world. Homo Sapiens was born into a linguistic world. We just inherited what Homo Erectus had invented for us.” However Professor Chris Stringer from The Natural History Museum in London, was more skeptical about the clams.

“I don’t accept that, for example that Erectus must have had boats to get to Flores,” he said.

“Tsunamis could have moved early humans on rafts of vegetation. That said I think homo heidelbergensis (another early human who lived between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago) had a complex enough life to require speech, though not at a level of modern human language. With Erectus, I’m not so sure.”

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17/08/2017

Modern Hebrew: "To create a new language which is completely old"

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By Wordwide FX Financial Translations

By Aysa Pereltsvag

Via Languages of the World

According to the official story, Hebrew has been “revived” in the late 19th century and early 20th century until it once again became the national language of Israel. But some scholars — such as Paul Wexler and Gil’ad Zuckermann — have challenged this narrative, proposing instead that Modern Hebrew is a new language with little or no roots in a Semitic past. So which is it, old or new?

A bit of historical background first. The “old”, Biblical (or Classical) Hebrew was spoken (yes, spoken!) some 3,500-3,000 years ago. The core of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, traditionally believed to have been first recorded 3,300 years ago, is written in Biblical Hebrew (obviously, hence the name). This language is undoubtedly a member of the Semitic language family. It was a living, spoken language and it kept changing through time.

But for external reasons to do with the Bar Kohba war of 135 CE, exile and diaspora, Hebrew gradually became extinct as a spoken language around 200 CE. Yet, it continued to be used as a liturgical and written language for many centuries thereafter. It was used for prayer and to write books and documents in a variety of fields, including not just religion, but also law, business, philosophy, literature and medicine. Furthermore, it was spoken by Jewish traders as a second language, a lingua franca for communication between Jews from different lands (more on this below). But crucially, it was not spoken by anyone as a native language, a mother tongue. This is what makes us analyze it as a dead language. Whether Modern Hebrew was “revived from the dead” or “created from scratch”, it is now spoken by some 5 million people natively and serves as the national language of the State of Israel. It is now once again a living, spoken language and it keeps changing. So what exactly happened in those early “revival” years and how did Hebrew once again become a living language?

If we need to put a date on the beginning of the process of the Hebrew language “revival” (a term I will use for now), it must be October 13th 1881, when a man called Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his friends agreed to exclusively speak Hebrew in their conversations. Thus, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is usually credited with the feat of “reviving” Hebrew. Who was he and what did he do?

He was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in 1858 in that part of the Russian Empire where Russians, Belarusians, Poles and Lithuanians lived side by side with a large Jewish population. At the age of three, he started learning in a xeder, a school for young children, where he learned Biblical Hebrew. By the time he was twelve, Ben-Yehuda was familiar with large portions of Torah, Mishna and Talmud. Hoping he would become a rabbi, his parents sent him to a yeshiva where he continued studying Torah and Biblical Hebrew. In addition to Biblical Hebrew, he studied Lithuanian, Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, and in the following years, he also learned French, German and Russian (from his first wife, Deborah) and traveled to Dunaburg, Latvia and later to Paris for further education.

With the rise of Jewish nationalism in 19th century Europe, Ben-Yehuda was captivated by the innovative ideas of Zionism. While reading the Hebrew language newspaper HaShahar, he became acquainted with Zionism and other political ideas of the day. Among those ideas was the belief that one of the criteria needed to define a nation worthy of national rights was its use of a common language spoken by both the society and the individual. This made Ben-Yehuda conclude that the reviving the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel would unite all Jews worldwide. In fact, Ben-Yehuda regarded Hebrew and Zionism as one and the same, writing that

"The Hebrew langage can live only if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland".

And so, in 1881, Ben-Yehuda moved to Palestine, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire, where he settled in Jerusalem and on October 13th made that fateful decision to speak only Hebrew, both in the home, with his wife Deborah, and outside the home as well, with his like-minded Hebrew-revivalist friends. Thus, he set out to achieve his self-proclaimed goal, which he later formulated as

"to create a new language which is completely old..."

To this end, Ben-Yehuda (who by then had adopted this Hebrew name) became a major figure in the establishment of the Committee of the Hebrew Language (Va’ad HaLaschon), later the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that still exists today. It was also Ben-Yehuda who wrote the first Modern Hebrew dictionary and invented a word for it, milon (from mila ‘word’). Many of the words he coined have become part and parcel of the language but others — some 2,000 words — never caught on. His word for ‘tomato’, for instance, was badura, but Hebrew speakers today use the word agvania.

But these efforts would have had little effect if it were not for another fateful decision he and his wife have made: to speak only in Hebrew to their first-born son Ben-Zion (“the son of Zion”) Ben-Yehuda (born in 1882; later he will adopt the name Itamar Ben-Avi, “the son of my father”) and to the other four children to follow. He refused to let his son be exposed to other languages during childhood, so much so that it is said he once reprimanded his wife for singing a Russian lullaby to the child. As a result, Ben-Zion became the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. According to the story, he started speaking only at the age of 4, and his first words were Lo l’hit’lachem ‘Don’t fight’ (was it in response to his parents quarreling over language use in the home?).

Soon, Ben-Yehuda was not the only one to speak to his children in Hebrew. The idea of Hebrew “revival” caught on: the first Hebrew schools were established; Hebrew increasingly became a spoken language of daily affairs; in 1922 it became an official language of British Palestine; and in 1925 it became the first “indigenous” language to be used as the medium of university instruction with the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my alma mater.

Ben-Yehuda’s tireless work to raise awareness and to fight his opponents (and they were many) made him a symbol of the Hebrew revival and a part of the contemporary Israeli self-narrative. Here’s how Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the Hebrew language:

"Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, the did."

But as symbolic as Ben-Yehuda has become to the process of Hebrew’s return to regular usage, his role in this process of turning a dead but sacred language into a national language with millions of first language speakers should not be overestimated.

As research shows, in the fifty years preceding Ben-Yehuda’s arrival to Palestine and the start of the revival process, a version of spoken Hebrew already existed in the markets of Jerusalem. The Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino or Arabic and the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish needed a common language for commercial purposes, a lingua franca, and the most obvious choice was Hebrew. It should be noted that it was not a native tongue for anyone, but it was not a pidgin of the sort that would arise between English and Chinese traders or between Russian and Norwegian fishermen and merchants. It did not combine bits and pieces of simplified versions of two languages. Rather, it was a modified version of Hebrew that these people knew from their studies of ancient and medieval religious texts, their prayer books and other literature.

The connection to the Biblical Hebrew of yesteryear was perceived as strong enough to ruffle the feathers of the very religious Jews (the haredim): how dare these “revivalists” use a sacred language for mundane topics of everyday life?! They denounced Ben-Yehuda to the British mandate authorities. As a result, he was imprisonned, which didn’t do much good to his health or his spirit and must have precipitated his death from tuberculosis (from which he had suffered for many years) at the age of 64.

Below, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda while working on the Hebrew dictionary, 1912. The David B. Keidan Collection of Digital Images from the Central Zionist Archives (via Harvard University Library)

 

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