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The glass of language can be replenished

May, 2009

There are approximately 50 native languages in Canada and many linguists say that only three – Inuktitut, Ojibwa and Cree – are likely to survive this century.

But language rejuvenators take heart as language prognosticators enjoy a spotty record. Referring to the improbability of being able to revive Hebrew as a vernacular in the 20th century, scholar Simon Bernfeld wrote at the turn of the century: “To make the Hebrew language a spoken tongue in the usual sense of the word is … impossible. It has never occurred in any language.… A broken glass can no longer be put back together.” May 14 marked the 61st anniversary of the State of Israel, and so far the Hebrew glass shows no signs of shattering.

Bernfield was espousing “common knowledge.” Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, and Nathan Birnbaum (coiner of “Zionism”) didn’t believe the vernacularization of Hebrew was really possible in the foreseeable future. Time has proven these men wrong. How did this happen?

With the expulsion of Jews from Israel in 70 A.D., the everyday usage of Hebrew faded and was replaced by Aramaic and Greek. Although Hebrew stopped being a vernacular, it retained its position in Jewish communities as a language of study and prayer. Jews in the diaspora commonly used Ladino, the traditional language of Jews of Spanish descent, or Yiddish, for internal communication, and a non-Jewish vernacular for external communication. There were occasions when two Jews from different areas might meet who could communicate only in Hebrew. A Jew from Morocco (who didn’t speak Yiddish) might meet a Jew from Russia (who didn’t speak Ladino). These encounters, however, were rare.

The revival of a language that has ceased being used as a vernacular is a rare event, but Hebrew was not so much revived as revitalized. Hebrew was on the threshold of speech, having only lost its position as the language of the market place. There were several factors that influenced its renaissance. The Jews of Palestine wanted to break ties to the diaspora and a distinct national language was necessary to effectuate this divorce. Although English, French and German were common languages, none of them was dominant enough to stymie Hebrew’s resurgence. Hebrew’s main rival, Yiddish, never seriously challenged the predominance of Hebrew for many of the secular Yiddishists were anti-Zionist and didn’t immigrate to Israel in large numbers. Hebrew was thus able to fill a void by serving as a common vernacular to all the Jewish communities in Palestine. The Hebrew language was also blessed with many texts with varied Hebraic styles.

The person most associated with the revitalization of Hebrew was Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who left Europe in 1881 to live in the cramped quarters of Jerusalem. Both he and his wife shared a burning enthusiasm for the promotion of Hebrew. They established a policy in their home that Hebrew was the only language one was permitted to speak. Any visitor who could not speak Hebrew was forced to resort to gestures in order to communicate. Thanks in large part to Ben Yehuda’s zealousness, writer Robert St. John says it is now possible “for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love and curse out their neighbours in Hebrew.”

Ben Yehuda coined the word et-on for newspaper by an adaptation of the phrase michtav-et, “a letter of the time.” A dictionary had previously been referred to as sefermillim, “book of words” and Ben Yehuda used the Hebrew word millah, (word) as a base and created the word millon to refer to a dictionary. The youth of ancient Judea lacked bouncing balls and when Ben Yehuda saw his son playing with a ball, the lad apparently uttered a sound like cadurr, hence a ball in Hebrew became kadur. He also coined the word dagdegan, “clitoris” from the root dagdeg,“to tickle.” Not all of Ben- Yehuda’s neologisms, however, caught on. For example, his word for tomato, badura, was rarely voiced outside the Ben-Yehuda kitchen, and Hebrew speakers’ word for tomato is agvania. Similarly, although the official Hebrew word for sandwich is karich, you’ll be probably served faster at a Tel Aviv restaurant if you ask for a “sendvich.”

Although other attempts at reviving a language, such as Maori and Irish, have been hampered by a lack of widespread knowledge of the written language, no case is hopeless. Linguist Kenneth Hale says even though there aren’t any speakers of Mohican, “you could take books and deeds published back in the 1600s, and from what we know about comparative Algonquin, you could figure out pretty closely what it sounded like. People could learn it and begin to use it and revive it.”

Israeli scholar Naftali Tur-Sinai stated, “even an artificial language which has never been alive, such as Esperanto, can be made to live, if only there is a recognized need for it and a stubborn will of people to make it come alive.”

Happy 61st birthday, Israel. Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?



At May 8, 2009 at 7:13 AM , Anonymous Brian Barker said...

It's unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

After a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

Further arguments can be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

At May 8, 2009 at 11:19 AM , Anonymous GrizaLeono said...

I read “even an artificial language which has never been alive, such as Esperanto, ...."?
Please be informed before aserting such things.
Esperanto lives and is dayly used by an increasing number of people.

At May 9, 2009 at 12:04 PM , Anonymous michjo said...

Israeli scholar Naftali Tur-Sinai stated, "even an artificial language which has never been alive, such as Esperanto, can be made to live, if only there is a recognized need for it and a stubborn will of people to make it come alive."Naftali Tur-Sinai has unwittingly proven the truthfulness of his statement, thus offering hope to other languages, albeit with some reservations.

Although the recognition of the need for Esperanto is not (yet) universal, it definitely exists among a sector of the population. And the will to make it come alive also definitely exists. The result is a language that not only lives today in its 2,000,000 or so speakers, but has been alive for over 120 years. All these points - the recognized need, the will to bring it to life and the living language community - can be confirmed through direct observation (easier said than done, I'll admit, because the Esperanto community tends to be discreet).

The implication is that if Esperanto can pull it off, so can other languages. Now for the reservations. What sets Esperanto apart from other natural languages is its ease of learning - even for non-Indo-European speakers - without sacrificing expressive power. Other languages are difficult enough that to bring them to life, one needs either to learn them from infancy, or to invest a large percentage of one's time and resources learning them later in life, on the order of years of serious study under a native instructor with a year or more of study abroad. If, in a curricular environment, another language enters the picture as a primary subject - for example, English as a second language - the demands of attaining competency in that language draw significant time and resources away from the one(s) you are trying to bring to life. Esperanto, on the other hand, is easy enough that one can achieve, not just competence, but mastery in less than a year of applied study with a non-native instructor and no study abroad. Competence is achievable even without an instructor. Esperanto is relatively easy to fit into a curriculum or a busy lifestyle; to bring to life or keep alive other languages, much more effort is required and more precautions must be taken to allow enough time and resources to actually learn them.

Much more could be said about Esperanto and language revival. For instance, this article discusses Esperanto as an aid to language learning.

At May 10, 2009 at 11:17 PM , Anonymous J. Pablo said...

What does it mean that a language is not alive? That it's not used for communication? Esperanto is used by some millions across the world. That the language does not change? Esperanto is changing and improving over time. It's very young compared to other languages. If so, Esperanto is very much alive.

Maybe being dead means that big institutions try to ignore it because they know that only people has something to gain from them and not the big institutions themselves. Well, UNESCO recommends Esperanto to be taught in primary schools across the globe, so even by this definition of dead Esperanto can be considered alive.

At May 10, 2009 at 11:18 PM , Anonymous J. Pablo said...

Oh, and for those wondering how to learn it, to go Lernu.

At May 11, 2009 at 12:07 AM , Anonymous penivos said...

Dum dek tri jaroj mi uzis Esperanton preskaux tage por komuniki kun geamikoj sur cxiuj kontinentoj, precipe pri aferoj de evoluado kaj edukado.
Mi uzas gxin tutsame ol mi uzus alian lingvon do kial iu diras ke gxi ne vivas? Nur nescio, mi supozas.
For 13 years I have used Esperanto practically every day to communicate with friends on every continent, especially about matters of development and education. I use it identically to how I would use another language so why would anyone say it doesn't live? Just ignorance I suppose.

At May 14, 2009 at 9:57 AM , Anonymous Dale said...

Malstreĉu sin. Enspiregu.

I'm not surprised to see several responses by other Esperantists and I'm very pleased to see some informative ones. Rather than retread the same ground, let's ask the legitimate question of what makes a living language.

Yes, there are homes in which Esperanto is the primary language. Some for ideological reasons, some because it is the only shared language in which both members of the couple feel sufficiently fluent. Yes, there are native speakers. I make both of those claims from personal experience, having visited an Esperanto home and spoken to a couple of denaskuloj (native Esperantists).

There is original culture, including literature, music, plays, and poetry. There is slang. There are magazines, journals, radio broadcasts and podcasts.

To most of the counterarguments that the critics can make, there are easy answers for Esperantists. We can point to the fact that Esperanto is used for spontaneous exchanges. People chat, tell jokes, and recount family news in Esperanto.

The one counterargument that we can't dispel is the one that is actually true. It comes in two parts, but it is really one issue. Esperanto is not and never has been the native language of a community. It has not produced monolingual native speakers. We can actually deal with the second part. It is not desirable to be a monoglot. Why on Earth would we want to promote that?

As for a community of speakers, I would argue that we have one. It is dispersed geographically. Thus, we do not function in our daily lives in Esperanto. But we leave work, come home, and talk to friends and family in it.

Esperanto is in that twilight of languages. It is alive. But it is endangered. Critics choose to see that twilight as dusk and discount the possibility that it is a real dawn.

The odds are long. They always were. But the odds that the invention of one individual, published in 1887, would become in a century a living language spoken around the world were longer. The odds that an artificial language would be the medium for so many books, songs, poems, letters and conversations were incredible. The odds that like so many projects before it, Esperanto would not outlive its creator were good.

Esperanto vivas.


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