Thursday, October 13, 2011

Talk about talk

Today in 1881 an ancient language was reborn. Wait, let me back up.  Did you know languages are like sharks?  No really, they are.  Keep moving or die.  & languages happen in more ways than you might think:  American Sign Language began as a way for a hearing teacher to reach a deaf student.  Noam Chomsky would say this conversation starved girl was just the right age for her language switch to be flipped on & the language exploded.  & then there is Klingon; they needed a few syllables to match up to subtitles for a television show.  A few cult member later, a movie is made & the producers decide to hire a linguist to reverse engineer into the existing noises & grow something from there.  The rest is linguistic history; last year Shakespeare was performed in Klingon & the Book of Mormon was translated.  I am not suggesting there is a huge market, but how many people have to speak a language for it to be a language?

Which brings us to today's phoenix.  In 1880 there was no such thing as conversational Hebrew.  Yiddish, yes, but outside of ceremonial uses, there was no Hebrew.  So, if no one uses it in every day living, is it still a language?  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda said yes.  & then to hedge his bet, he began speaking it.  Alright, he probably began speaking it because it mattered to him that this language come back into common usage; gambling had nothing to do with it. 

Ben-Yehuda made major changes in his & his family's life to bring back this language,.  His son was barely exposed to any other language as a child & is credited with being the first native speaker of Hebrew in a thousand years.  Today, it is the official language Israel & regardless of how you feel about whether Israel should exist there is no doubt it is the home to almost 8 million people, more than 60% of whom identify Hebrew as their primary language.

So Happy Rebirth Birthday, Hebrew Language.  Alas all I can say in conversational Hebrew is "I have a song that irritates people" over & over & over again.  Feel free to blame the counselors at Camp Ramah circa 1981.  Wow, exactly 100 years after the whole thing began again!

In a related story, Michael Chabon came to write one of my favorite books (actually he wrote several of my favorites books, but I am only referring to one of them here) because he got to wondering about Yiddish & how it is a dying language, only to learn that it isn't but by then he had started down a whole alternative history concept in which instead of the Middle East the Jewish homeland is settled in Alaska.  & all of this was before he rest of the country ever heard of Sarah Palin.  I am talking of course about The Yiddish Policeman's Union.  Do yourself a favor, get the audio version read by Peter Riegert.  It is a jewel.  & now I see the book has been optioned for a movie by the Coen Brothers...I can hardly wait.

Back to the birth of Hebrew....& ASL & Klingon & Esperanto & so on.  While waiting for that movie that now I really must see, also get a copy of In the Land of Invented Languages.  The people of language are some of the most interesting people to read about.

1 comment:

  1. The time may be right to revive conversational Latin.