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Ghil’ad Zuckermann on ‘Israeli’ vs ‘Modern Hebrew’

Paul Ogden contacted Dr. Ghil’ad Zuckermann and brought our comments on the Hebrew-Israeli issue to his attention. The remainder of this blog is Dr. Zuckermann’s response.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet…?”

Some people argue that the name is not important. In fact, folk taxonomy is widespread. On the one hand, tomatos for me are vegetables (rather than fruit); on the other, I often think of potatos as starch like rice (rather than as vegetables). There are many people who believe that a koala is a bear. Who knows, perhaps even the first zoologists who saw it might have thought so too?! However, we now know that it is a marsupial. Should we continue to call it a bear?

Well, we could, why should we care? But let us say that you are a zoologist. Would you continue to employ this folk taxonomy and define a koala as a bear? You could, but if you insist that it is a bear zoologically, you might not be taken too seriously by your colleagues or by *future* generations. Similarly, I use the term Israeli for the following reasons:

(1) The term is much more accurate than Hebrew. Why not put the facts straight? If we chop off bear from koala-bear, we end up with koala. If we chop off Hebrew from hybrid Israeli Hebrew, we end up with Israeli, a lovely, elegant name.

(2) It could help to get my message across more clearly (otherwise, laymen might not realize that what I am trying to say is that Israeli is not like Modern English or Modern Greek)

(3) It is convenient to use it when discussing differences between Israeli and Hebrew, for example ‘The Israeli meaning of this Hebrew word is.’

Advantages (2) and (3) demonstrate that the term serves as a tool. However, I am also aware of the fact that the term itself might draw redundant fire from people, who might not make an effort to understand my model. I urge people not to overlook my arguments just because they want to continue to call this lovely language Hebrew. It is of great importance to keep in mind that my research is not just about terminology. It has ‘meat’ too, adding substance to our knowledge of history, sociology and language. If you are convinced by my theory but dislike the name Israeli, I would still regard my Beit Leyvik series as successful.

Terror attacks notwithstanding, I went to a Tel Aviv café the other day for a meal. Seeing Greek salad on the menu, I decided to play a small trick on the waitress. ‘Excuse me, but why is it called Greek salad?’ (slikhá, lama korím lezè salát yevaní?), I enquired. Clearly in a hurry, and impatient with such obvious questions, she answered nonchalantly, and a little arrogantly: ‘Can’t you see that it has Bulgarian cheese in it?!’ (ma z’toméret, atà lo roé sheyésh bezè gviná bulgarít?!).

It took her four seconds to realise the beautiful paradox in her explanation. Words can often bear a paradoxical relationship to their meaning. Yet, despite these obvious sense-reference, de re – de dicto contradictions, people rarely think twice about how appropriate the signifier they are using really is.

You might want to adopt the Selbstgefühl view, according to which native speakers have the right to think whatever they want about their own language. I would be the first to agree with you. However, as a linguist, I need to SEEK the truth about language. I do not by any means think that my research delivers the ultimate truth. I might well be wrong, but I am certain that my model brings us closer to the complex reality of the emergence of Israeli.

One Response to “Ghil’ad Zuckermann on ‘Israeli’ vs ‘Modern Hebrew’”

  1. Rachael Orbach Says:

    Well, your article was interesting, but everyone in Israel speaks Hebrew, not Israeli. There are ulpan classes where one learns Hebrew, and classes at universities that teach Hebrew. The word Israeli refers to a people who live in Israel, not its language. Books on Hebrew grammar, and Biblical Hebrew Grammar. Sometimes you have to take the common usage. Hebrew is what it was called 4000 years ago, and it is called it now by all users of the language.

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