Sociolinguistics: Part 10

Last week, we covered the courageous language revival undertaken by a young boy. We are going to discuss more language revival this week.

The most notable example of a language revival movement is the revival of Hebrew. When the Jewish people first arrived in Israel, Hebrew was the national language. Hebrew thrived for a millennium -- until the Bar Kohba. All too familiar, we find the violence of discrimination and prejudice, as it takes out yet another million-dollar language. Hebrew was confined and forced to be used only in prayer and literature.

For over seventeen hundred years, Hebrew was not a spoken language. It never completely died out, though; it patiently remained dormant, ready to explode with eloquence and grace when the moment was right.

On October 13, 1881, an advocate for Zionism started what would become the greatest language revival movement. A man called Eliezer Ben-Yehuda decided that to unite all Jews across the world, Hebrew must be brought back to life.

Ben-Yehuda was born in Belarus and grew up learning ancient Hebrew since the young age of three. He hoped to become a rabbi, so he became well-read in the Torah, Mishna, and Talmud. He also learned German, French, and Russian; obviously, he saw how powerful language could be. He knew of all the benefits one could reap from being multilingual.

He believed that in order for Israel to be a fully united country, it would need have its citizens speak the same language. He moved to Jerusalem and began his quest.

As it turns out, Hebrew was already spoken as a pidgin in the marketplaces of Israel. For those who do not know, a pidgin is a grammatically simplified “language” developed as a means of communication between two groups of people. Often, the two groups of people are vastly different and speak different languages. In order to live in the proximity that they do, they must be able to communicate somehow. A pidgin usually incorporates features of both parties’ languages and combines them into one. If the pidgin becomes fully developed, and a grammar evolves, the language becomes solidified as a creole.

Many pidgins were found on the border between Native American tribes and white settlers in the early 1700s. A notable creole that has fully developed is Haitian Creole, which took features from both French and the Native Haitians’ African tongues, and turned it into a full-blown grammar system.

Anyway, back to Hebrew.

The merchants and street vendors in Israel needed a middle language in which to carry out commercial procedures. Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino or Arabic, while Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish. What were they to do? They looked to a language that all Jews should be familiar with: Hebrew. It functioned as a makeshift pidgin, and it worked out conveniently in the revival movement.

Ben-Yehuda was adamant in his position to revive Hebrew. He raised his son in only Hebrew and sheltered the child from any other language while growing up. Thus, his son became the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew.

That wasn’t enough for Ben-Yehuda, as he knew that for a language to rise from the dead, it would have to be spoken by many native speakers -- not just one. He and his group of friends swore to only converse in Hebrew from then on. His efforts were monumental, and Hebrew continued to live even after he died. Communities in the First and Second Aliya established Hebrew schools where children could be exposed to the language at a young age.

Finally, Hebrew became more official, more systematic, and more legitimate. It eventually morphed into the national language.

One person commented on Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the movement, saying that “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

Hope is not lost for many of the endangered languages out there. All it takes is a wish, and a village willing to work for it.

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