Thursday, October 25, 2007

How Dynamic is Hebrew?

Yesterday evening we went to the launch of Haim Beer's new novel, Lifnei Hamakom. Like all Hebrew books, one of the title pages contains an English translation of the title, in this case "Upon a Certain Place", which of course is no good since although makom means "place", it also means God, and there's no way any reader of the English title would ever guess that. But then again, it's not clear that all, or even most of the contemporary Israeli readers will catch the allusion, either.

I expect I'll write and post here a review of the book by and by. In the meantime, it was interesting to hear some of the speakers yesterday relate to the subject of the Hebrew language - a subject that came up repeatedly since it's a novel about writing a book, and it's language is unusually rich.

Prof. Rachel Elior noted that books were written in Hebrew every single one of the past 25 centuries, and that at the very least all the educated Jewish men always knew the language and could get along in it, even when it wasn't their primary spoken language. Meir Shalev, on the other hand, remarked that our generation lives in the most exciting moment in the history of the language, when Hebrew is developing so swiftly that he sometime wishes it would slow down. A generation, he told, where "we cannot understand what our children are talking about, but together with them we can all understand most of what's written in books written 3,000 years ago." Haim Beer himself, wrapping up the evening, used less Yiddish than he often does.

Elior was of course technically right, but she wasn't fully convincing. Some of those Hebrew books of the middle ages are much harder to read than the ancient ones of the biblical or mishnaic ones. The reason, I think, is that in the earlier periods Hebrew was used in daily life, while in the middle ages it wasn't really, and thus lacked the vocabulary to deal with subjects not covered earlier. I remember once trying to decipher a philosophical text of the 13 century for some university seminar, and after weeks of labor, I gave up, still on the first page.

Meir Shalev also, however, took his case too far. He quoted three or four examples where Beer builds sentences in the book which allude to earlier layers of the language, and was proud that he (Shalev) had caught the sleights of hand... but then admitted ruefully that there must have been many other cases where he missed Beer's linguistic tricks. (It will be impossible to translate this book and do it full justice. Quite simply impossible). Shalev then postulated that in the generations of "the grandchildren of our great-grandchildren" (late 22nd century?) the speakers of Hebrew will no longer be able to understand the traditional texts that Beer weaves so masterfully into his book. He could be right, and I expect none of us will know, but I'm far from convinced. Ultimately, what will clinch the matter will be the degree to which Hebrew speakers remain tethered to the traditional literature. Western civilization has lost Greek and Latin these past 200 years. Hebrew retained the anchoring texts but lacked any form of living slang for a millennium. Now it has it all, but only time will tell if it retains its anchor, or takes off without them. I hope not.

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