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To what extent did the revival of the Hebrew language aid the formation of a Jewish national identity and

strengthen the Zionist movement in Palestine prior to 1948?

It was a revival not only of the Hebrew language, but also of Hebrew culture and a Hebrew societyit was not only that Hebrew was established by the young Yishuv, but Hebrew also 1 established the Yishuv itself.

B. Harshav and B. Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (Stanford, CA.: Stanford UP, 1999), p.92.



4 6


18 26 35


Political Zionism was an ideological movement, developed primarily by Theodor Herzl # in the late nineteenth century, which sought to re-establish the Jewish nation by reunifying the separated communities of the diaspora. It culminated in the establishment of the State of Israel on 15th May 1948.2

The actual process of reconstituting the scattered Jewish people into a contiguous nation, however, was a complex one. It involved the creation of a national identity for a people which had been living and developing at great distances from each other for almost two millennia. This identity-creation was carried out in a number of ways: through education was the national message propagated; through a common culture were the disparate people of the diaspora to be brought together; geographically their socio-cultural cohesion would be facilitated by a shared territory; politically they would manage their own affairs. The most important means by which the Jewish national identity was created, however, was through the Hebrew language. The linguistic influence cannot be underestimated, it permeating the entirety of the process of nation-

Whilst Herzl did not invent the idea of Zionism itself, he is generally credited with developing it as a political ideology. See his work Der Judenstaat (cited below). 2 A. Shlaim, Israel & Palestine : Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2009), p.xvii.

building. The adoption of a common language was crucial to kibbutz ha-galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles as promised by Moses to the people of Israel (Deut. 30:1-5).3

This common language was to be a modernised version of Hebrew, the Jewish holy tongue, and it was to be spoken in an accent which reflected the melting-pot of the community the Zionist enterprise was attempting to create the so-called AshkenizedSephardi dialect.4

This studys hypothesis is that the success of the Zionist mission to recreate a Jewish national consciousness was reliant upon the revival of the Hebrew language, and thus would not have been successful had this process not been carried out.

The argument will be split into three stages, specifically: 1) the importance of a common language to the process of creating a Jewish nation; 2) the reasons for Hebrews being the best choice of language; 3) the influence of the Ashkenized-Sephardi dialect on the groups national consciousness.

C.D. Ginsburg, Torah Neviim Ketuvim Be-`Ivrit Ve-Anglit : `Esrim Ve-Arba`Ah Sifre Ha-Kodesh Meduyakim Hetev `Al Pi Ha-Masorah Ve-`Al Pi Defusim Rishonim, `Im Hilufim Ve-Hagahot Min Kitve Yad `Atikim VeTargumim Yeshenim ([Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England]: Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures, 2005), p.380. 4 S. Morag, "The Emergence of Modern Hebrew: Some Sociolinguistic Perspectives," in Hebrew in Ashkenaz: A Language in Exile, ed. Lewis Glinert (1993), p.214.

It will conclude that the revival of the Hebrew language was equivalent to the revival of the Jewish nation itself, and that without the language the nation would not have been able to come into existence.


The process of reviving a language and modifying it in order that it may become a vernacular for a newly reformed nation is almost certainly a phenomenon unique to the Jewish nation in Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was by no means a natural occurrence on the contrary, it was an active (not to mention arduous) process, carried out with specific ideological goals. Reason would dictate, therefore, that the result of this process have some merit, justifying its struggle, and that there must be some benefit to a nations having a common language at all. This chapter will examine this premise and the influence of language upon a nation, and conclude that, for the formation and perpetuation of a Jewish national identity, a common language was crucial.

First and foremost, a shared language is an important marker of group membership, particularly within the Judeo-Christian tradition.5 In turn, group membership is one of the key elements of nationalism. One of its main precepts is that humanity divides itself into discrete groups, utilising certain factors to form these groups, and certain factors to distinguish groups from others. Of these factors, language is perhaps one of the most important, a most effective group-delineator, simultaneously marking out both who is a

J.A. Fishman, Language and Nationalism (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publ., 1975), p.44.

group-member and who is not.6 Languageis the shibboleth that differentiates friend from foe, according to Fishman.7 As Herman would have it, Language enables selfidentification as both we and not-them.8 Thus, the philosophy of nationalism is itself heavily reliant upon language. Fishman elsewhere describes language as the symbol of ethnicity, a further important national group indicator.9

During the period of the diaspora, Jews lived throughout the world in communities isolated from each other, speaking their own Jewish dialects of local languages, such as Yiddish, derived from German; Judezmo, derived from Castilian; and Judeo-Aramaic, derived from Aramaic. Whilst this situation did clearly separate each Jewish community from the country in which it was situated non-Jews speaking a different language or dialect it was not effective in connecting a Jewish community to another, particularly if they were separated by great distances; indeed, these languages were mutually unintelligible. The religious use of Hebrew was something which united them, it is true, but this was not a spoken language, nor even particularly a language which was understood, it being very commonplace for the focus of study to be the reciting of Hebrew, whilst lessons were in fact carried out in the local vernacular. A common language was therefore required to enable the transmission of culture between the disparate groups, and to ensure that, once they did all reside in one place,

H. Giles, R.Y. Bourhis, and D.M. Taylor, "Towards a Theory of Language in Ethnic Group Relations," in Language, Ethnicity and Intergroup Relations, ed. H. Giles (1977), p.325. 7 Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.53. 8 S.N. Herman, Israelis and Jews: The Continuity of an Identity, vol. 86 (Random House, 1970), p.14. 9 J.A. Fishman, "Language and Ethnicity," in Language, Ethnicity and Intergroup Relations, ed. H. Giles (1977), p.17.

communication between them would be possible.

A situation can very easily be

envisioned in which, despite there being many people in Palestine calling themselves Jews, they would live in separate communities speaking only their own languages, and socio-cultural integration into the nation proper would be impossible. As Kedourie states, in areas of mixed speech, the unity of the national state is sorely disturbed.10

A common language was, then, an important effector of group coalescence and cohesion, but the effect of language on the greater identity of the nation must be emphasised. According to many definitions of a nation, a shared language is a necessity for a group of people to consider itself a nation. Stalin, for example, in his writings on nationalism, considers it one of the four mandatory criteria of nationhood.11 For

Kedourie, Languageis the most important criterion by which a nation is recognised to exist, and to have the right to form a state on its own.12 Herder, perhaps the first philosopher to write on the subject of nationalism,13 goes even further: Without its own language, a Volk is an absurdity, a contradiction in terms.14

According to Schleiermacher, Only one language is firmly implanted in an individual. Only to one does he belong entirely, no matter how many he learns subsequently. 15 Just being able to speak a common language, therefore, was not enough the common
10 11

E. Kedourie, Nationalism (Oxford u.a.: Blackwell, 1993), p.64. J. Stalin, The Nation, in J. Hutchinson and A.D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp.18-21. 12 Kedourie, Nationalism, p.58. 13 A.D. Smith, Nationalism : Theory, Ideology, History (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity), p.5. 14 In Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.48. 15 In Kedourie, Nationalism, p.57.

language had to be the vernacular, Harshavs base language of a society.16 As Fishman puts it, without the mother tongueit is clear that neithernationality nor nation would have come into being, nor be what they are, nor what they could be. 17 The opinion that it was imperative that this mother tongue be Hebrew will be promulgated in the following chapter, but for now let us content ourselves that any common language would suffice to re-confer upon the Jews the status of nation, as long as it was a mother tongue, belonged to in Schleiermachers sense.

For Fichte, the primary boundary of a state is the mother tongue itself. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins*my emphasis+.18 It is at this level that nationalism best operates; it is one thing to reconstitute the Jewish nation by assuring Jews that they are Jews, and so members of the same people, but quite another for them to feel that they are one people. Through a common language of thought the nation is bound together, becoming a cohesive whole.

This is most clearly seen in the arena of education. Education in the vernacular leads to literacy in the vernacular, and this was the most crucial way in which the language was utilised by the budding nation-state. It was necessary that the socio-political message of the nationalism itself be perpetuated by the intellectual elite, and be spread to the

16 17

Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.89. Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.55. 18 In Kedourie, Nationalism, pp.63-64.


lower classes, through the mass media. The mass media in Palestine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was almost exclusively the written word, and therefore ideological cohesion amongst all members of the nation required at least a reasonable rate of literacy in the vernacular. As Gellner puts it, modern loyalties are centred on political units whose boundaries are defined by the languageof an educational system.19 Without a vernacular these political units could not exist, nor could a national sentiment be shown to exist. (To use an example of today, the lack of cohesion between Flemings and Waloons in Belgium can be seen at heart to be a linguistic issue, the spreading of a common socio-political message being hampered by the linguistic disparities between these two peoples.20) Fishman continues, over and over again one finds that both the context and form of vernacular oral and written literature are pointed to, by elites and laymen alike, as inspiring, unifying, and activating nationalist stimuli.21 Through national literature the national identity is impregnated with shared meaning by the commonality of culture. Over time this leads to the development of collective ideas and memory, yet other important national qualities.

Jabotinsky had different ides of the importance of education: In national education what counts is the language, and the content is only a shellThe necessary *sic+ between the individual and the nation is the language.22 For him, education serves only to enforce the adoption of the common language, and important point in itself. It
19 20

E. Gellner, Thought and Change (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p.163. J. Fitzmaurice, Politics of Belgium : Unique Federalism (C. Hurst, 1995), p.2. 21 Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.50. 22 V. Jabotinsky, speech at Conference of Zionists of Russia, Vienna 1931, in S.A. Shur, Hebrew in Zionism ([Haifa]: Herzl Institute for Research and Study of Zionism, University of Haifa, 2001), p.10.


is shown by Spolsky,23 Laoire24 and others that effective societal language-switching follows a process whereby first or second generation children learn the target language at school and in turn educate their parents in it. For the Jewish nation in Palestine this was most important, as the children would be growing up in a society where to their peers they would speak only the new vernacular, and it would be their mother tongue.

The vernacular is so important because of its elusiveness and intangibility. Fishmans analysis is that As other symbols of unity and authenticity become problematic because of their delimited and evaluable nature the vernacular remains to be reinterpreted in accord with ones own most favoured memories and longings.25 In other words, even if there is nothing else left of what once bound the nation together, a vernacular is enough to provide the seed from which it will grow again. This is most appropriate to the case of the Jewish national movement, where what was sought was a return to a situation confined to a past era, a heritage two thousand years old which had long been obscured by the mists of time. It remained codified only in the religion of that epoch, and that religions language.


B. Spolsky, "Conditions for Language Revitalization: A Comparison of the Cases of Hebrew and Maori," in Language and the State: Revitalization and Revival in Israel and Ireland, ed. Sue Wright (Clevedon; Philadelphia (Pa.); Toronto: Multilingual matters, 1996). 24 M.. Laoire, "An Historical Perspective on the Revival of Irish Outside the Gaeltacht, 1880-1930, with Reference to the Revitalization of Hebrew," in Language and the State: Revitalization and Revival in Israel and Ireland, ed. Sue Wright (Multilingual matters, 1996). 25 Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.55.


A common language is also essential for that most pragmatic of a nations structural organisations the military. A nation requires a land in order to retain its socio-cultural cohesion and, as was the goal of the Zionist movement, to establish a state. This nations land requires geographical boundaries to prevent the cultural erosion resulting from the influence of neighbouring communities. In the case of the proposed Jewish state to be created in Palestine it is a fact that its geographical borders would separate it from potentially hostile neighbours, and so these borders required protection by an armed force in order to deter encroachment from these neighbours. Whilst the forces of the British, under the terms of the Mandate, fulfilled this function for a time, the Jewish nation would eventually require its own force. Delaisi explains that a common language is an absolute necessity for the functioning of an effective military machine:

How were recruits to be instructed if they did not understand the language of their leaders? How were orders to be rapidly transmitted to these immense moving bodies of men? Above all, how was moral cohesion between them to be attained?

Without a common language the nations military would not have been able to function. Without a military the nation would eventually have perished, whether absorbed into neighbouring lands and culturally supplanted, or eradicated physically by forces which had efficient methods of communication.


F. Delaisi, Political Myths and Economic Realities (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971), p.172.


It is thus shown that a common language is integral to the formation, rebirth or continued existence of a national entity, and that in fact this language must hold the status of vernacular. This is for reasons of group identification, cohesion, cultural unity, effective socio-political endeavour and military effectiveness.



It is clear, therefore, that for a nation to thrive it is imperative that it have a common language. This chapter will examine why the choice was made that, for the Jewish nation in Palestine, this language be Hebrew. Below will be discussed the motivations behind the constitution of Hebrew as the national vernacular, and the effects that this had on the construction of a Jewish national identity in Eretz-Israel.

Whilst it is debatable whether Hebrew can be considered ever to have been truly a dead language, in the way that, for example, Ugaritic or Sumerian are, it remains the case that for around two thousand years it did not function as a vernacular or mother tongue of anyone, reserved only (to use the linguistic term) for the H-functions of prayer, legal rulings and high literature. It is true that there are documented occasions when Jews from disparate places, speakers of different mother tongues, who met might have tried to communicate with each other in the smattering of Hebrew which they

See for example Harshav (cited elsewhere): The question *of whether Hebrew was alive or dead+cannot be intelligently discussed as an either-or issueA language called English is spoken in the United States , but is Shakespeares English alive?...Isnt it the case that in any language there are layers of the language that are not alive in the sense of being used in daily speech, or even in habitual writing?...The fuzzy biological metaphor must be dropped and is used here [i.e. in his discussion] only as a convenient label. (p.115)


knew from Bible study,27 but the language lacked both the basic vocabulary and the widespread national fluency which would provide the functionality required for use as a day-to-day language.28 Even the visionary and supreme optimist Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was sceptical of even the possibility of communicating in Hebrew Wir knnen doch nicht Hebrisch miteinander reden. Wer von uns weiss genug Hebrisch, um in dieser Sprache ein Bahnbillet zu verlangen?29 Yet, from this virtual absence of vernacular Hebrew use a situation was engineered in which, today, it is the first language of 5.3 million people.30 To undergo this drastic change required a vast amount of investment in time, money, hope and effort, and so there must have been benefits to the use specifically of Hebrew, rather than the already-known mother tongue of the majority of early immigrants, Yiddish. Spolsky explains:

*The+ many different social factors involved *in language choice+may generally be grouped into two major categories, the pragmatic or instrumental on the one hand, and the ideological or integrative on the other. That is to say, one chooses to use a language because it is directly useful (economically, practically, for access to power or control) or because one values it for some social, cultural, nationalistic, or religious reason.

It is my contention that to use specifically Hebrew at the beginning of mass Jewish immigration to Palestine (i.e. in the late nineteenth century), before it was widely
27 28

Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.107. Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.83. 29 T. Herzl, Der Judenstaat (Leipzig und Wien: M. Breitenstein's Verlags-Buchhandlung, 1896), p.75. 30 Ethnologue: Statistical Summaries, http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=size, accessed 8/5/11 31 Bernard Spolsky in S. Wright, Language and the State : Revitalisation and Revival in Israel and Eire (Clevedon; Philadelphia (Pa.); Toronto: Multilingual matters), p.7.


understood or adapted to the needs of modern life, had very little directly useful benefit. Thus, for the first immigrants, the switch from their usual vernacular, be it Yiddish, Judezmo, Judeo-Arabic or any other of the myriad diasporic vernaculars, required a strong ideological commitment to the Hebrew language itself, and the ideas it represented. The reasons for this commitment will be explored here.

Yiddish was considered the natural choice for the vernacular of the (at this point still theoretical) Jewish state, by virtue of its being the spoken language of two thirds of the worlds Jews.32 It was, however, strongly associated with the diasporic Jew of Eastern Europe, reminiscent of time spent in the thrall of other nations governments. To once again take charge of their own affairs by reforming the nation of Israel in Palestine, the spiritual home of the Jew for millennia (Next year in Jerusalem! the cry every Yom Kippur), afforded the opportunity to reinvent the Jew himself. Gone the image of the malnourished, ghetto-dwelling feeble Jew of the Diaspora (according to Itamar BenAvi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) and the Fiddler on the Roof existence of small-town Eastern Europe;33 it was time to become the Hebrew - the strong, brave, worker of the land, master of his own affairs and destiny, as in days of old, through Hebrew land,


A. Neher, "The Renaissance of Hebrew in the Twentieth Century," Religion & Literature 16, no. 1 (1984): p.23. 33 L. Glinert, "The 'Back to the Future' Syndrome in Language Planning: The Case of Modern Hebrew," in Language Planning: Focusschrift in Honor of Joshua A. Fishman on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. David F. Marshall (Philadelphia: John Benjamin, 1991), p.229.


Hebrew work, and Hebrew language, the 1906 slogan of Ha-poel Ha-tzair (the Young Workers movement).34

Schleiermachers view is that Languageis an expression of a peculiar way of life.35 Enmeshed within the Yiddish language was the sociocultural reality of the East European diaspora, which the very goal of Zionism was to change. To effect this change,

therefore, Yiddish had to be left with the diaspora a new language was required. As Katznelson-Rubashow wrote: Although Yiddish was a living tongue, the tongue of the people and democracy, Hebrew was the language to express the current of thought that was revolutionary for us.36 To choose Hebrew was to choose to renounce the diaspora, to choose the ideals of Zionism to effect the national ideological revolution within the very thoughts of its proponents.

Hebrew had the advantage of not already being spoken as a mother tongue by any segments of the ethnically-diverse re-formed Jewish population of Palestine.37 As such, no section automatically had the upper hand, and so there were no ab initio outsiders within the movement, at least from a linguistic perspective. Everyone could begin from scratch on the same footing, an ethos befitting the socialist ideals of the Yishuv. As the language of the religious tradition, the one thing that united everyone (the secular nature of the Zionist enterprise notwithstanding), Hebrew was the method by which the

Spolsky, "Conditions for Language Revitalization: A Comparison of the Cases of Hebrew and Maori," p.15. 35 In Kedourie, Nationalism, p.63. 36 R. Katznelson-Rubashow, The Plough Woman, ed. M. Samuel (New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1932). 37 Shur, Hebrew in Zionism, p.43.


shared cultural backgrounds of all comers could be woven into the fabric of the new culture.

Morag refers to The Full Return to Hebrew as a process of selective continuation, a mix of perpetuation on the one hand and of rejection on the other. 38 In other words, there was an ability to pick and choose which aspects of diasporic, and indeed prediasporic, culture were relevant or desirable for the new national spirit. This is

particularly true vis--vis religion: during the period of the diaspora, in order to affirm ones identity as a member of the Jewish community one was forced actively to practise Judaism to keep the Sabbath and the holy days, to attend religious services in the synagogue, to observe specific codes of dress, etc. The Hebrew language was a large part of this religious life. Under a Jewish state the identity-preserving nature of religious practice would become redundant, instead allowing citizens to take their Jewishness for granted, as is the case with respect to Christianity in many western Christian countries. By adopting it into the everyday secular life of the Jew it was possible to juxtapose the Jewish nature of the Zionist movement with its secular nature a space was created for this secular ideology by appealing to the fundamental identity of the Jew through the use of the religious language in the secular setting. As Kedourie states, In Zionism,


Morag, "The Emergence of Modern Hebrew: Some Sociolinguistic Perspectives," p.211. See e.g. Eisenstadt (cited below): The Zionist movement aimed not just at the continuation of Jewish tradition, but at its radical reconstruction. (p.90)


Judaism ceases to be the raison dtre of the Jew, and becomes, instead, a product of Jewish national consciousness.39

Equally important is the blurred line between religion and history. By this is meant that, for example, whilst religion might say that Abraham was the father of the Jewish people, even in the secular realm this can still be held as a truth, a nation-binding common myth of creation.

The sagas of the Norsemen, the vedas of the Hindus, the Pentateuchof the Hebrews, the Homeric poemshave served to inspire linguistic groups with corporate consciousness and to render them true nationalities.

Jews in the diaspora may have been able to read the Bible, but for them to be able to pick up and read the stories in their mother tongue, without having to go through a translator, is a powerful connection to the secular-historical stories of the nations collective history. To know that one is reading the history of ones people in the language in which it was written one is to feel directly connected to that ancestor. This is particularly important with regard to Fishmans inspiring, unifying and activating nationalist stimuli.41 If a nation is indeed a group of persons united by a common

39 40

Kedourie, Nationalism, pp.70-71. C.J.H. Hayes, Essays on Nationalism (New York, The Macmillan company: 1926), p.17. 41 Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.50.


error about their ancestry, as Karl Deutsch opines, then reinforcing this error is an integral part of reuniting a divided nation.42

The fact that Hebrew was not being spoken by anyone, anywhere, meant that, culturally, the nation was only reliant upon itself it was free to carry out this selective continuation without recourse to the cultural norms of a parent society. In this way there was cultural equality both internal to the nation between its members and external to it between the nation and others. As Eisenstadt notes,

The fact that this religious and traditional language became the national vernacular and the means of communication in a modern society reducedthe possibilities, first that differences between traditionalists and modernists would centre around different linguistic identities and, at the same time, that there would develop cultural dependence on foreign centres as major and exclusive sources of broader cultural innovation and creativity.

This is important with respect to the cultural autonomy which lends a nation authenticity. Were it reliant upon, say, French literature to form its cultural milieu it would forever be subservient to French ideas and French thought. Fishman quotes Ludwig Jahn: in its mother tongue every people honours itself; in the treasury of its speech is contained the charter of its cultural history.44 This cultural history is crucial to


K.W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Its Alternatives (New York: Knopf [distributed by Random House], 1969), p.3. 43 S.N. Eisenstadt, The Transformation of Israeli Society : An Essay in Interpretation (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985), pp.89-90. 44 In Fishman, Language and Nationalism, p.45.


the fabric of the national identity. With Hebrew speech comes Hebrew culture, rooted in the words of the glory days of Jewish civilisation, and entirely rejecting the horror of ghetto existence.

Shur states, Language is not only a means to convey a message, but the message itself.45 Hebrew was this message, modernity amalgamated with the most ancient of traditions. It was an intrinsic link to the land to which the Jewish nation sought to return, the language spoken by the heroes of old Abraham, Moses and King David stood on the same soil as their descendants, and, crucially, used the same words to describe it. Harshav comments, They called Palestine by the old name Eretz-Israel (i.e. the land of the Jews); and the Hebrew language was enshrined as the language of that landThatlink to a land *was+ missing in Yiddish.46 Being Semitic, Hebrew was itself a geographical fit with the territory in which it was sought to be spoken, by its very nature authenticating the Jews presence in the land. To speak Indo-European Yiddish in the land of Israel would have served only to highlight their status as immigrants, and the artificiality of the recreation of a nation two thousand years after its rending and scattering. To speak Arabic would have been the worst choice of all a rejection of Jewish cultural and national autonomy, and a refusal to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, would have bee folly with respect to the attempt to craft a unique

45 46

Shur, Hebrew in Zionism, p.4. Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.82.


national identity.

Only Hebrew would suffice to bring the reconstructed Hebrew

identity to life, to facilitate its rebirth.


The adoption of Hebrew, then, was clearly the only way the nation could progress. However, in order fully to solidify the national glue which was the common language, to make it truly representative of the reunified nation, it required standardisation through the distillation of its plethora of accents into one, uniformly to be used by all. The determinant factors upon the choice of which specific accent was to become the normative one will be described in this chapter.

Before its adoption as a vernacular language, true Hebrew speech was almost exclusively reserved for religious uses, and its pronunciation was very variable

depending on where exactly in the world the community in question was located, or had recently moved from. It is possible broadly to place these accents into one of two


categories, based on their diasporic geographical origin: Ashkenazi or Sephardi. (The Yemenite accent was also a possibility, however its pronunciation of the harsher consonants heth, cayin, qoph was unpleasant to European ears, not to mention the difficulty non-Yemeni speakers would have trying to recreate them.47) These labels are helpful less because of their geographical nature, but because differing patterns of evolution and usage had lent these two categories certain distinguishing features. This is so much the case that it is in fact useful for our purposes merely to refer to Ashkenazi Hebrew or Sephardi Hebrew and, for the most part, not to distinguish between the various sub-accents.

Ashkenazi Hebrew was, in some ways, seen as more conservative of grammatical correctness, in that in speech were preserved the distinctions between all of the fifteen different vowels (i.e. a fixed vowel assigned to each diacritic sign), as were the distinctions between, for example, the tav with and without dagesh (t and s respectively).48 Sephardi Hebrew, on the other hand, made no distinction between, for example, the kamats and the patah (o and a respectively in Ashkenazi, both a in Sephardi), and pronounced both kinds of tav as t.

Whilst Ashkenazi Hebrew seemed therefore to be more authentic from a linguistic point of view (or at least grammatically paid more attention to detail), it was in fact the case that its preservation of the vowel-distinction was a custom introduced some time
47 48

Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.159. Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.156.


after the thirteenth century,49 and was not actually more correct than the Sephardi. It is also important to note that some Hebrew words had been adopted into the Eastern European diasporic vernacular (i.e. Yiddish), which led to certain consonantal shifts, slurring of pronunciation, gender reversal and other colloquialisms, which were then reimposed on Ashkenazi Hebrew through rabbinical exegetic texts, theological treatises, and so on. Such changes had not taken place in Sephardi Hebrew, due to its not being incorporated into the diasporic vernacular to any great extent.50 As such the Sephardi had been able to resist the changes which had been imposed on the Ashkenazi by regular usage.

To the untrained ears of the first Ashkenazi immigrants, the accent of the longestablished Sephardi communities, particularly in Jerusalem, sounded more Oriental, possessing a foreign, anti-diasporic quality congruent to its use for the Jewish nation in Palestine. It was suited to the land, as Hebrew itself was, and represented a shift away from the oys and ays, the whining singing sounds of the diaspora.51

For Morag, Ashkenazi Hebrew formed part of a semiotic system that portrayed the Old World from which *the early immigrants+ sought to escape.52 The shtetl was portrayed through the European consonants and vowels it shared with Yiddish. Harshav explains,

49 50

Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.153. Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.153. 51 V. Jabotinsky, Ha-Mivta Ha-`Ivri (Yerushalayim: ha-Mahlakah le-hinukh ule-tarbut ba-golah shel haHistadrut ha-tsiyonit ha-`olamit, 1930). 52 Morag, "The Emergence of Modern Hebrew: Some Sociolinguistic Perspectives," p.213.


The stereotype, first formulated most harshly by Moses Mendelssohn, that Yiddish was a perverted languagereflecting the perversion of the soul of the Diaspora Jew, was as relevant for Ashkenazi Hebrew. The revulsion from this dialect, therefore, is a recoil from Diaspora existence, from the Yiddish language.

Thus, to turn away from the old habits of Hebrew-speaking was an important part of the internal mental-ideological change required for the ingathering of the exiles Zionism was seeking to accomplish. As the choice of Hebrew over Yiddish represented a renunciation of European diasporic existence, the Sephardi accent and the Ashkenazi accent were an analogous pair of ideologically polar choices. Sephardi was modern, Hebrew in Saposniks sense.54 Its Oriental quality had an authenticity which was missing in the Ashkenazi system it belonged to Eretz-Israel; it represented renaissance by conjuring up the Jews Oriental linguistic past, and casting it in a new light, as something modern. Just as Hebrew itself was the new by way of the old.

Ashkenazi Hebrews multiplicity of sub-dialects Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, etc. symbolised and legitimised the interethnic tensions which existed between communities of Jews who had lived in separated territories for centuries (and hence spoke these different sub-dialects). By all beginning to speak the same accent these animosities would (at least theoretically) evaporate, or at least their linguistic garb

53 54

Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.157. A.B. Saposnik, Becoming Hebrew : The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).


would be removed.55 The differences which were perceived to be along tribal lines would no longer be problematic, as all would embrace fully their new identity as Hebrews. The clean break required from their old diasporic identities would have to reach as far inside them as their accent if this were to be accomplished.

The finalised, accepted, standard accent of Hebrew for the Zionist nation in Palestine was the product of phonetic convergence between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, the lowest common denominator between the two main dialectsthe range of Ashkenazi consonants and Sephardi vowels the minimal range in each case,56 Morags Ashkenized-Sephardi.57 From the amalgamation of these two

accents into one, one can observe a microcosmic ideological parallel to the whole of the Zionist enterprise the blurring of lines between different group identities in order that they may become one. An Ashkenazi Jew, once hostile to his foreign neighbour, would feel an affinity with him as their linguistic convergence became an ideological one.

Importantly, the adoption of the Ashkenized-Sephardi accent facilitated the secularisation of the Jews which was Zionisms aim. Morag asserts that, For traditional Ashkenazi society, the acceptance of the Sephardi pronunciation was sociolinguistically

55 56

Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, p.155. Harshav and Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution, pp.164-65. 57 Morag, "The Emergence of Modern Hebrew: Some Sociolinguistic Perspectives," p.214.


a radical about-turn.58 Their fixed, inward-looking diasporic moeurs were challenged by a dialect which did not place great emphasis on the specifics of the pronunciation of the Bible, at least to the level which pure Ashkenazi Hebrew did, and so too was challenged the religiously-influenced self-ostracisation so common in the diaspora. It encouraged the integration of all groups into the society itself, as a whole.

As Hofman puts it,

A good case could be made for the contention that language variants within a language may be more powerful reminders of who is we and who is they than the total silence between speakers of mutually incomprehensible languages.

Thus, whilst a common language is an important focal point for the unification of a group, as we saw in Chapter One, it is vital that this language be spoken in a common way. As an example, whilst the people of the USA and Great Britain both speak English, the subtle differences between their dialects would seem to preclude them from ever feeling, on the level of identity, that they are one nation. Thus, the common dialect perhaps did even more than did the Hebrew language alone to unite the Jewish people. From this perspective it could be said that the choice of this dialect was the most important linguistic decision of the Zionist enterprise.

58 59

Morag, "The Emergence of Modern Hebrew: Some Sociolinguistic Perspectives," p.214. J.E. Hofman, "The Commitment to Modern Hebrew: Value or Instrument?," Readings in the sociology of Jewish languages (1985): p.54.


It must also be noted that, on a class level, the Ashkenazis were the intellectual elite, and as such it could be argued that their choice to approach the Sephardi accent was a way of bridging the gap between them and the Sephardis. Whilst the Ashkenazis were the more powerful, the Sephardis were more native to the land, and the trade-off therefore had bidirectional benefit, providing authenticity to the Ashkenazis and seeming to seek to incorporate the Sephardis into the higher social strata.

Thus, the choice to utilise the Ashkenized-Sephardi pronunciation was as important as, if not more important than, the selection of Hebrew as the common language of the Yishuv, as it removed the socio-cultural barriers which existed between the speakers of different dialects.



This study has made three main contentions. In Chapter One several arguments were made with respect to the premise that the Jewish nation required a common language: that it is an indicator of group membership and non-membership; that it is an important effector of group cohesion; that it is, in many definitions, a mandatory criterion of nationhood; that it was imperative that this common language operate on the level of the mother tongue; that it is crucial for the perpetuation of the socio-political message of nationalism; and that it is necessary for the functioning of an effective military.

In Chapter Two the importance that this language be Hebrew was argued: it represented a rejection of diasporic existence; it was not spoken by anyone, hence the linguistic equality it conferred upon all; it allowed the secularisation of the Jewish nation; it was a link to the nations historic past; it promoted cultural autonomy; and it was geographically suited to Palestine.


The case was made in Chapter Three for the imperativeness that Hebrew be spoken with the Ashkenized-Sephardi accent: it was more progressive than the default Ashkenazi dialect; it was Oriental and therefore seen as native to the land; it was itself a rejection of Yiddish and the experience of the diaspora; it was a link to the pre-exilic condition of the Jews; it facilitated the erosion of the tribal differences between the disparate Ashkenazi sects; finally, it allowed the ideological convergence between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi members of the new nation.

It has been shown, therefore, that, for the Jewish nation in Palestine prior to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, a common language was necessary; that this language needed to be Hebrew; and that it must be spoken in the Ashkenized-Sephardi accent. Without these three aspects it is probable that the Zionist mission would have been a failure.


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