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How Much do Languages Change with Age?

Well, I’m back from Colorado and the enjoyment of my grandchildren crawling over my spawling body, which makes it down to the floor more easily than it comes back up from it. I arrived to find an e-mail from my good friend and editor of our daily Good Word, Paul Ogden, about Modern Hebrew which raises the point about the boundaries of language.  Paul wrote:

hebrew_language“I had the pleasure of attending two of four lectures by Ghil’ad Zuckermann [who] claims that the language spoken in Israel today should be called Israeli, rather than Modern Hebrew. This is because of a break of some two millennia in which virtually no Jews spoke Hebrew as a mother tongue, leading to a situation where the late 19th century European Jewish revivers of Hebrew could not help but project their Indo-European, and specifically Yiddish, biases into the language. He makes an interesting case, though I’m not convinced.”

My response was I am inclined to agree with Zuckermann although I cannot claim any detailed knowledge of the language(s) involved. I have received a dozen complaints from Iranians arguing that Farsi is, in fact, Modern Persian and should not be called Farsi. Persian has changed so much that even Middle Persian, spoken from the 3rd to 10th century, is generally given a distinctive name: Pahlavi. Well, Italian is just as likely Modern Latin as Farsi is Modern Persian (though in this case Spanish, Portuguese, and French have as strong a claim to that title).

In “A Language is a Dialect with an Army” I wrote about the difficulty of drawing a line between a strong dialect and a different language. This is the same problem that we face in drawing (or not drawing) a line between Old and Modern Hebrew: it is a matter of degree upon which no one agrees. If Modern Hebrew is 51% different from the Hebrew of the Bible, should we give it a different name? 75%, 99%?

No modern speaker of English can understand a word of “Old English” without taking a course in it. We are as likely to understand Dutch as Old English, yet we do not speak “American”, “Australian”, and “British” languages.

The decision to use a different name, however, is never a linguistic one. It is always a political or cultural one. Nations that like to be associated with their past tend to want to symbolize the continuity with a continuous name for the language. Most nations with ancient cultures do. Only when there is a grave conflict such as that between all the various dialects of Latin that developed into languages is the decision clear-cut. Fortunately, it is an issue that the adjectives “old” and “modern” resolve as easily as an entirely new name.

2 Responses to “How Much do Languages Change with Age?”

  1. Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog » Blog Archive » Paul Ogden on Language Names and Age Says:

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  2. Perry Dror Says:

    In truth, to the modern speaker of Hebrew, there are two names for the language. Today’s language is known as Hebrew and the language of the past is known as Biblical Hebrew עברית תנכית.

    Modern Hebrew, which owes its revival to the dedicated efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, predates the state of Israel. So giving it the moniker of Israeli would be a misnomer IMHO. It certainly would be a disservice to Ben Yehuda, whose life’s goal was the revival the Hebrew language.

    Looking at the above statement, “No modern speaker of English can understand a word of “Old English” without taking a course in it.”
    I feel constrained to point out that the opposite is true for Hebrew. Most speakers of Modern Hebrew are readily able to understand Biblical Hebrew, even with its quirky grammer (e.g. the use of the future tense, preceeded by “and”, in order to convey past tense). On the other hand, an ancient Hebrew magically transported in time would need to learn some fairly extensive new vocabulary in order to understand Modern Hebrew.

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