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Re: The Language Question

On Thu, 25 Jan 1996, Richard L. Goerwitz III wrote:

> I really like Saenz-Badillos myself.  But on the issue of the life/death
> of Hebrew, SB equivocates, mixing together the somewhat romantic ideas of

"We have already said that RH stopped being used as a living vernacular 
around the end of the second century CE, surviving for several centuries, 
however, alongside Aramaic, as a literary language." -Saenz-Badillos, 202.

I'm not sure I see the equivocation here. On this point he cites Rabin, as
you do. Anyone who reads the Mishnah, the Copper Scroll or the Bar-Kokhva
letters will surely come to the conclusion that it was alive at the dawn
of the Common Era; on this we agree.

The problem of its death is, as you say, exceedingly complicated. This is
not, however, due to any sentimental notions of Hebrew's "liveliness" but
the facts of gravestones, letters and merchant's accounts, not to speak of
much liturgical material (what is the linguistic status of the Four
Questions of the Haggadah, for example?), continuing to be composed in
this type of Hebrew (on this one could consult Saenz-Badillos,203 inter
alia). Too, there are the travellers' accounts of Jews speaking Hebrew to
each other. The technical definition of "language death"  involves, I
believe, the inability of children to produce new utterances in the
language (unless H. H. Hock, Principles of Historical Linguistics, is far
off the mark).  Although Hebrew probably died out as a main language, it
is a fact that it continued as an interlanguage, a high literary langauge,
and a liturgical language. Children probably didn't learn it at home, but
some certainly could speak it. Perhaps we continue to have a somewhat
rigid conception of "natural language;" in this we may indeed be following
the wrong Chomsky. 

> What convinces me that Hebrew was alive into Mishnaic times is that the
> form of the language used there isn't a direct lineal descendent of
> classical Hebrew - or even an Aramaized version of it.  But this is old
> news.  Segal argued this case sixty years ago, and won.

Again, this is what convinces Saenz-Badillos, too (p. 163), citing Segal 
as you do. If you wish to take issue with him it would help to say 
something different than he does. Really, it's a good book and it's 
already been written, so let's not reinvent the wheel here...

Seth Sanders
Johns Hopkins University