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Re: The Language Question

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> > 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.

Look at the next page, where he cites Chomsky w/ regard to the language's
continued use as a vernacular.  All the above quote says is that Rabbinic
Hebrew gave way to Medieval Hebrew.  Unfortunately, this is not what SB's
sources are all saying.  Nor is it what we should be inferring from the
laments of the medieval grammarians that he himself later cites - which
tell us that Hebrew, as a whole, had fallen out of use.

> The problem of its death is, as you say, exceedingly complicated. This is
> not, however, due to any sentimental notions of Hebrew's "liveliness"

It is for many people.  Many see Hebrew as a kind of eternally burning

> gravestones, letters and merchant's accounts...liturgical material

Nothing that couldn't be said of Christians using Syriac in the Islamic
era, or people in W. Europe using various forms of Latin, or Ethiopians
using Geez.  Latin is the best parallel here.

> Too, there are the travellers' accounts of Jews speaking Hebrew to
> each other.

Yes, yes.

> The technical definition of "language death"  involves, I believe,
> the inability of children to produce new utterances in the language

Not necessarily.  There is no clear dividing line.  But compare Hebrew
with modern Aramaic dialects, and you'll understand that Hebrew is no-
where near the category of vernaculars with a continuous history and
a continuous evolution.

Compare and contrast:  By all standards, classical Latin was dead by
the Middle Ages.  Yet whole new books continued to be written in it.
Dissertations continued to be defended in it.  Diplomacy continued to
be conducted in it until just two centuries ago.

But if Latin had undergone a continuous development as a vernacular,
then it would have ended up as, gee whiz, Italian, French, Spanish,
or the like.  The parallel here with Hebrew is clear.  Hebrew behaves
much more like Latin.  Compare (I again emphasize) modern Aramaic,
which goes the way of Italian, French, and Spanish in the sense that
it is very much unlike its ancient countepart.  This is not how things
work with Hebrew.

Ergo, Hebrew died as a first language.  It was no longer a vernacular.
The dating of this event is probably after 200.  So this takes us well
out of the period with which this list is concerned, in my opinion.


   -Richard L. Goerwitz          ***  ***         r-goerwitz@uchicago.edu