[b-hebrew] hebrew is dead?

Will Parsons wbparsons at alum.mit.edu
Tue Dec 28 17:33:56 EST 2010

On Tue, 28 Dec 2010 12:23:30 -0800, K Randolph <kwrandolph at gmail.com> wrote:
> Nir:
> On Tue, Dec 28, 2010 at 8:28 AM, Nir cohen - Prof. Mat. <nir at ccet.ufrn.br>wrote:
> > dear colleagues,
> >
> > i avoided anexing the extensive debate over the burial of the
> > hebrew language during the last few days, due to its length.
> > …
> > best
> > nir cohen
> >
> > Much of this depends on how one defines a “dead language”.
> If a living language is one that is spoken and written, where there develop
> dialectal differences, in which there is continuous change and development,
> then Hebrew never ceased to be a living language.
> In that same way, Latin is still a living language.
> If the definition is of a language where there are no native speakers of the
> language, rather it is a second language of all who use it, then Latin is a
> dead language, and Hebrew died and was resurrected. And in its resurrection,
> it is not the same language as what the prophets spoke.
> Other living/dead languages include Esperanto and Klingon (a language made
> up for a dumb TV show).

These are better classified as artificial languages, since they were never
living languages in the first place.

> If we are talking about a specific dialect of Hebrew, namely that found in
> Tanakh, then that dialect “died” during and shortly after the Babylonian
> Exile. The language that developed from it has a different grammar,
> different spelling, and many words have different meanings as well as many
> neologisms not found in Tanakh. There are more differences between Biblical
> and modern Hebrews than between Norwegian and Swedish, which are recognized
> as separate languages.
> I think we need to define terms before confidently announcing the “death” of
> Hebrew.

Quite right.  The usual definition of a "dead" language is one that has no
native speakers, and that would apply to both Hebrew and Latin in Mediaeval
times.  Nevertheless, there are important differences between languages that
are used (as Hebrew and Latin were) and languages that have completely gone
out of use (such as ancient Egyption).  Furthermore, different levels of use
can be recognized between languages whose use is purely liturgical (I think
Coptic may fall into this category) and languages in which people create new
works (e.g., Hebrew and Latin), or even use it for oral communication.  (The
latter applies to Latin, which was used as a language of instruction long
after it had ceased to be actually spoken as a native language.  I don't know
if it would apply to Mediaeval Hebrew or not.)

Will Parsons

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