Tongue tied

This month marked the convening of the 99th World Esperanto Congress in Buenos Aires. At this global event, Esperanto speakers from all over the world come together to sing songs, read poetry, and produce plays entirely in Esperanto, an artificially constructed language based on various Slavic, Romance, and Germanic dialects. With only 2 million speakers worldwide, and without an official country to call home, Esperantists often joke that the World Congress is the closest they get to feeling like part of a community. In this vein, they lovingly refer to the convention as Esperantoland.

If the idea of a Diasporic people uniting over a shared language strikes you as familiar, you're not alone. In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, linguist Arika Okrent makes the case that the creation and continued practice of Esperanto bares a strong resemblance to the revival of Modern Hebrew in Israel. Both languages, she says, were formed in part to unite people around a common culture. And in doing so, both lent a voice to a people who only wanted a land to call their own.

Esperanto was invented in 1887 by Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, a Jewish optometrist from Poland. A staunch pacifist, Dr. Zamenhof believed that most of the world's conflicts stemmed from misunderstandings between cultures, and felt a universal language had the power to put an end to all world wars. Esperanto came about through his desire to create the simplest, most comprehensible language possible. Though its early speakers were limited primarily to the Russian Empire and Central Europe, it took less than a decade for the language to spread to the Americas, China, and Japan. For a time, there were even plans to establish Neutral Moresnet, a small territory in Belgian-Prussia, as the world's first Esperanto state. But the plan never materialized, and to this day Esperanto remains a language without a country.

Unlike Esperanto, Modern Hebrew had no L.L. Zamenhof, an inventor to create its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax from scratch. But it did have an Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian-born lexicographer widely credited for instituting Hebrew as the national language of Israel.   

Though it has long been the language of Jewish liturgy and prayer, Hebrew had died as a spoken language by 200 BCE. It wasn't until the early 1880s, when Ben-Yehuda immigrated to Palestine with his family, that Hebrew received a second chance at life. "Hebrew…served as a sort of lingua franca of the marketplace for Jews from various language backgrounds, but it was nobody's mother tongue," writes Okrent. Most Jews at the time could read and understand Hebrew, but being a dead language, it lacked a vocabulary expansive enough to describe objects in the contemporary world. Think what it would be like to describe how to start your car in Old English, and you'd get an idea of how difficult the early Jewish settlers had it.

In the mid-1880s, just as talk about the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine began to percolate, so too did the debate over what its national language should be. "Yiddish was the language of the European Ashkenazi Jews," writes Okrent, "and many of them argued that Yiddish should be the language of Jewish nationhood." But at that time, Palestine was populated by speakers of many different languages, including Arabic-speaking African Jews and Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, and German-speaking Western Jews. 

It wasn't just linguistic differences that divided these groups. They also ate different foods, recited different prayers, and followed different kosher laws. It was here that Ben-Yehuda felt that Hebrew could do the most good. Like Zamenhof, he believed that a shared language had the power to make people put aside their differences - linguistic and otherwise - in the name of something bigger. And for Ben-Yehuda, there was nothing bigger than a national Jewish homeland.

Putting his ideals into practice, Ben-Yehuda declared that he would make his home to be a Hebrew-only household. A prominent journalist, he frequently published articles about his family's efforts to learn the new language, and in turn inspired families across the region to adopt Hebrew as their language for daily interaction. Hebrew speakers remained sparse at first, but that all changed during the First Aliya, when over 20,000 Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated to the Land of Israel. "Many of them were receptive to new language habits," writes Okrent. "Some teachers began to teach Hebrew…through the direct method-just jumping in and speaking the language, without commentary or explanation in Yiddish, Russian, or any other better-known language."

The Second Aliya in 1904 brought thousands more Jews to Palestine, many of them from Russia, which was then on the verge of another violent pogrom. With their socialistic zeal and optimistic energy, these new immigrants were inspired to change their lives in dramatic ways. "Office clerks and doctors learned to plow soil and shovel manure on the newly established collective farms," writes Okrent. "Teachers and accountants built roads and laid foundations for new Jewish towns." Many of them were willing to change their language, too. As Hebrew grew in popularity, speakers began to add newer words, and the language's vocabulary grew in accordance.

1914 marked another major milestone for Hebrew. That was the year teachers at Technion University, a major science and engineering school, went on strike in protest of the university's decision to adopt German as the language of instruction. Eventually, the decision was overturned, and today Hebrew remains the official language of the university, as well as of the State of Israel. But how, you ask, did Hebrew spread from the university classroom to the farms, fields, and households of daily life? The answer is simple: the kids started playing with it.

"As modern studies…have shown," writes Okrent, "a generation of children can turn the effortfully produced, inconsistent input of the adults around them into a fully-fledged, effortless native vernacular." Put another way, because children of the Second Aliya were exposed to Hebrew early on, they were better able to do adopt it as their native language. This, in the end, is the true beauty of Ben-Yehuda's push to make Hebrew the national language of Israel. What he knew deep down was that he wasn't just creating a language for a limited people in a specific period of time, but rather, a medium through which generations of Jews could express their hopes, fears, aspirations, and dreams for a better future.

If the story of Modern Hebrew has anything to teach us, it's that all languages - no matter how antiquated or seemingly out of date - have the power to evolve. So, too, do the people who speak them.

I hope you enjoyed reading my article. Thank you, Dankon, and Toda Rabah.

Reviews, recommendations, and other reasons to read. By Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg.... Read More

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