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How To Revive A Dead Language

Prof. Ghil’ad Zuckermann is a renowned linguist and scholar originally from Israel and currently based in Australia. He talked to Babbel about strategies for linguistic revitalization and the political issues surrounding linguistic change and preservation.
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The disappearance of languages continues to interest the scientific community and motivate linguists to devote their efforts to rescuing them from extinction. Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Professor of Linguistics and Endangered Languages and Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow at the University of Adelaide, Australia, has spent a large part of his academic career doing precisely that. Born in Israel, he has developed his research and teaching all over the globe, with published material in English, Hebrew, Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. In this interview, he talks about the revival of Hebrew, the revitalization of Aboriginal languages and the politics of keeping cultures and languages alive.

Nuno Marques: How did you become involved in reviving dying languages?

Ghil’ad Zuckermann: My answer is indelibly linked with Australia! I fell in love at first sight with the country in 2001, when I was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Sydney. At the time, I was a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore while on sabbatical from the University of Cambridge in England. I returned to Singapore and then to Cambridge, but decided to look for an academic position down under. When I arrived in Melbourne in 2004, I asked myself how I might contribute to the Australian society that was hosting me so graciously.

I identified two pressing issues facing Australian society: the exasperating bureaucracy and the injustice done to the Aboriginal people. I had no power to effect a reduction of the country’s bureaucracy, so I decided to invest my efforts in the Aboriginal issue.

As you know, the situation of the Australian Aboriginal tongues is dismal. I know of at least 330 different Aboriginal languages, but only 4 percent (13 languages) are “healthy,” i.e. spoken natively by the children. The remaining 96 percent have either by now become what I call “sleeping beauty” tongues or are on the verge of falling dormant. Nevertheless, the reclamation of languages in Australia began only in recent years.

I believe in Native Tongue Title, which would be an extension of “Native Title” (the recognition in Australian law that indigenous people have rights to and interests in their land that derive from their traditional laws and customs). Being a linguist specializing in the revival of Hebrew and the emergence of the Israeli language, I decided to apply lessons from the revival of Hebrew to the revitalization of Aboriginal languages.

My strategy was threefold:

1. Establish a new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry. Establishing it in Australia has the potential of turning some Indigenous Australians into experts of language revival, making language revival part of their cultural identity. They will then be able to assist others all over the globe in language revival. Language revival has the potential to become an important part of indigenous initiatives, bringing many benefits to the wider community. Language revival can aid in “closing the gap” and encourages cultural tourism while enriching Australia’s multicultural society.

2. Find a specific Aboriginal community that lost its language due to linguicide (language killing) and would like to reclaim that language. How does a Jewish Israeli help Aboriginal Australians undo the injustice done by English colonizers and reclaim the Barngarla language? By means of a dictionary written in 1844 by a Lutheran German! (This is, then, a patently cosmopolitan enterprise.)

3. Create a course on language revival to secure the future of endangered languages. My course has already attracted approximately 10,000 people from more than 160 countries.

“I believe that every world citizen should be a native or at least a fluent speaker of at least four languages.” — Ghil’ad Zuckermann

NM: Your native language, Hebrew, has one of the most amazing success stories of a revived language. However, some theorists believe Modern Hebrew cannot be considered a revived language at all, since it differs so much from Ancient Hebrew. How do you position yourself in this academic debate?

GZ: That’s a lovely question. The genetic classification of what I call “Israeli,” a.k.a. “Modern Hebrew,” has indeed preoccupied scholars since the beginning of the 20th century. The traditional view suggests that Israeli is Semitic, i.e. (Biblical/Mishnaic) Hebrew revived. The revisionist position defines Israeli as Indo-European: Yiddish is the substrate, while Hebrew is the superstrate (providing lexicon and frozen, fossilized, lexicalized morphology).

From time to time it is alleged that Hebrew never died. It is true that, throughout its literary history, Hebrew was used as an occasional lingua franca. However, between the second and nineteenth centuries it was no one’s mother tongue, and I believe that the development of a literary language is very different from that of a fully-fledged native language.

Unlike the traditionalist and revisionist views, my own hybrid model acknowledges the historical and linguistic continuity of both Semitic and Indo-European languages within Israeli. Hybridic Israeli is based simultaneously on Hebrew and Yiddish (both being primary contributors), accompanied by a plethora of other contributors such as Russian, Polish, German, Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino), Arabic and English.

Therefore, the term “Israeli” is far more appropriate than “Israeli Hebrew,” let alone “Modern Hebrew” or simply “Hebrew,” since any signifier including the term Hebrew gives the linguistically and historically wrong impression that Israeli is an organic evolution of Hebrew, whereas it has actually always been a hybrid language.

NM: How can revived languages deal with the demands of contemporary culture? Should they adopt new words from other languages or should they coin words by decree like Icelandic does — such as “sími,” an old Icelandic word revived to avoid the use of “telefon“?

Icelandic is a wonderful example because it is one of the most puristically-oriented languages in the world. The reason, as I see it, is Danish. Due to centuries of Danish rule, Icelandic has not only become highly influenced by the Danish language, but according to reports from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, the language in the harbors and in the capital Reykjavik, was a mixed Dano-Icelandic variety.

So Icelandic would do anything to camouflage foreign influence, these days usually from American English. One of the techniques they use is phono-semantic matching, in which an external word is matched with phonetically and semantically similar pre-existing internal Icelandic elements, or morphemes. For example, the English word AIDS entered Icelandic as eyðni, a phono-semantic matching using the Icelandic verb eyða (to destroy) and Icelandic nominal suffix -ni.

It is for the native speakers themselves — rather than for any academy — to decide whether or not they would like to neologize at all. For example, I know Aboriginal Australians who do not want to coin new words in their language.

When native speakers do want to coin new words, there are three strategies:

  1. importation: likes the Israeli word אינטואיציה intuítsya for “intuition”
  2. substitution: like the Israeli word מחשב makhshév for “computer”
  3. phono-semantic matching: (mentioned above) like the Israeli word דיבוב dibúv for “dubbing” (film dubbing), using the pre-existent dibúv “speech,” phonetically similar to the English word dubbing.

When it comes to taste and elegance, I personally like phono-semantic matches because I like both multiple causation and phonetic harmony. But this is a personal taste.

NM: Do all languages require a nation-state or a system with considerable political/territorial/economic/financial autonomy in order to thrive?

GZ: Only endangered languages and revived languages require such a system.

I like the New Zealand case in which only Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) and New Zealand Sign Language are official, with English being de facto but not de jure.

With regard to language academies: I only like them in the case of endangered languages (e.g. Māori) and revived languages (e.g. Israeli until the mid-twentieth century). I do not see the point in the august, sometimes racist (against Occitan, for example) l’académie française, or in the outdated האקדמיה ללשון העברית hakadémya lalashón haivrít (The Academy of the Hebrew Language). Both French and Israeli are by now fully fledged languages and their native speakers do not need policing. The academies can invest their time and money in historical, etymological dictionaries but not in chutzpadikally — telling native speakers how to speak their own mother tongues.

NM: Some communities gradually abandon their language because they no longer deem it to be of value. Should linguists respect such choices or intervene to create conditions that could help their language survive?

GZ: It is the communities’ decision, not linguists’. That said, I would do two things:

  1. Inspire communities, demonstrating to them that linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority, cultural autonomy, spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, well-being and mental health. As Russell Hoban once said, “Language is an archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts, lost and buried civilizations and technologies. The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.”
  2. Inform: ensure that the communities understand the various cognitive, cultural and health benefits to multilingualism. Unfortunately, many people wrongly believe that speaking a heritage language might compromise their children’s command of the prestigious, economically-superior language.

NM: Some cultures possess social dynamics and worldviews incompatible with Western culture, and their ways of life are on the brink of extinction. Should these communities embrace policies of “soft assimilation,” keeping their languages but embracing a Western lifestyle, or should they reject all forms of assimilation? From your point of view, what would give their languages the best chance of survival?

GZ: I do not think it is ethical to urge someone to reject all forms of assimilation. For example, no one should expect cannibalism to take place in the 21st century. Similarly, nobody has the moral right to recommend someone not to use available electricity or not to watch available films.

That is obviously not to say that one ought to become Coca-Colonized and corporatized, discarding their beautiful heritage languages. Languages are beautiful when they are spoken by real people. For example: I love Yiddish for its funny psycho-ostensive expressions. I love Welsh, Icelandic, Faroese and Greenlandic for the sound of the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative as in Welsh Lloyd. I love Hungarian for its word for scissors, which serendipitously looks like scissors: olló. I love Israeli, my mother tongue, for its Arabic curses.

I believe that every world citizen should be a native or at least a fluent speaker of at least four languages:

  • his/her heritage language, say the Barngarla Aboriginal language
  • his her national language, say Strine (Australian English)
  • an international language, say American English or Mandarin or Esperanto
  • an extra language, say Italian, to enjoy even more bel canto opera

So I believe in soft assimilation — just as I believe in soft law, and soft tissues…

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