[B-Greek] Chomsky and Hebrew

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Fri Jun 19 01:05:46 EDT 2009

>I do not accept the basic premise that modern Hebrew several generations
ago has more in common with European than with Semitic languages, at
least not until those terms are properly defined and explained.  That is, how
do you quantify ("more" vs "less") Europeanness vs Semiticness, how do
you decide whether something is Semitic or European?  Without these
defined, the statement cannot be substantiated, nor can we compare
modern Hebrew today vs modern Hebrew several generations ago.
Compare the issue of the Imperial Aramaic with its Old Persian influence
on the verbal system.  Does that mean that Imperial Aramaic is more
European than it is Semitic?>
>Yitzhak Sapir

This finally puts the thread in a better perspective for comment, since
it started by quoting Chomsky's undefined impression. When I listen
to old recordings from the 40's and 50's one hears frequent 'immigrant'
accent, and listening to some leadership 'ashkenazi' accents (which
are not traditional ashkenazi but actually sfardi-mizraHi accents with
the `ayin and Het dropped out and a uvular trill added for a resh) one
might 'feel' the 'less Semiticness' of the language whatever that may
or may not mean. And pronunciation is very prominent, but only
"window-dressing" on the language. Even loan-words and loan-calque
are window dressing of the basic structure of the language. The
onslaught of neologisms and international/English loanwords
in Hebrew today is no different than the thousands of Greek and
Latin loanwords that were adopted by mishnaic Hebrew. The language
was fully "Semitic" and the core remained an anchor, like the unseen
view of an iceberg, but the language grew, and developed like all
Somewhere in the 1960's I believe, the language became
majority mother-tongue speakers, and that would also account for
someone 'feeling' more Semitic today, though the Het and `ayin is
even less frequent. Eyal Golan sings with beautiful Het and `Ayin,
but many mizraHi youth prefer to not use their parent's Het and Ayin.
It's a status thing.

In syntax, the big shift came in the late Second Temple Period,
somewhat parallel and following the Imperial Aramaic mentioned by
YitzHak. Yes, Persian influenced Aramaic in the wider middle East but
there was an even more direct European influence. Much of populace
in Yehud became trilingual after Alexander the Great. Note, e.g., the
Greek cultural movement at the beginning of 1Maccabees. In Roman
Ioudaia you have noted trilinguals like Josephus and Gamaliel and
his 1000 students, all fluent in Greek to a high level, (including one
Shaul of Tarsus who would have been fluent in Hebrew and Greek).
The result of large segments of the populaton fluent in Greek is that
the Semitic language use became much more sensitive to
ASPECT. For example, one notices a significant increase in the
'compound imperative' in the mishnaic Hebrew of Tannaim. This is
congruent with Greek that has two imperatives, a perfective 'do it' and
an imperfective 'be doing it', within the verb morphology.
It's not that Hebrew didn't have aspect before, it's that it became more
sensitive to BOTH time AND aspect, and the language became more
demanding in distinguishing both of these. So if one wants to point a
finger at 'Indo-European influence', the watershed period is the
Late Second Temple, when you had trilingual speakers of GREEK.
But both Hebrew and Aramaic of period remained 'Semitic', even if
occasional speakers used 's' for 'shin'. (Talk about an 'in-your-face'
foreign accent!).
And after the Second Temple, the high register of Literary Hebrew
(aka 'Late Biblical Hebrew) was dropped, or at least its writings do
not survive, relating to a parallel thread.

Randall Buth

Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easily - Progress Further - Remember for Life

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