Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Israeli Language

Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann believes that Modern Hebrew should be referred to as "Israeli". While I do think that Modern Hebrew raises some difficult questions about genetic relationships in linguistics, I think his renaming is probably motivated by its shock factor and not out of true necessity. There is no good definition for what distinguishes a language from a dialect (as per the obligatory aphorism). Besides, it's not clear how renaming the language will combat prescriptivism. Still, interesting to see him interviewed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

ברברים ושליו ודגים

I find the Berber languages fascinating, and would love to learn more about them. One unfortunate semi-coincidence is that the Hebrew word for 'Berber', בֶּרְבֶּרִי, is spelled exactly the same as the word for 'barbarian', בַּרְבָּרִי.

I say 'semi-coincidence' because in fact the words are likely etymologically related. Many Berbers prefer to use the native term Amazigh (pl Imazighen) for the people and Tamazight for the language, to avoid any pejorative connotation. However this has its own problems, as there is also a dialect of the Berber language which itself is called Tamazight and whose speakers are Imazighen, to the exclusion of other Berber dialects.

To be precise, words like ברברי/ברברי with different pronunciations and meanings are called heteronyms. Here is a nice Venn diagram illustrating the differences between synonyms, homonyms, homographs, homophones, heteronyms, and heterographs.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Recently I was reminded of a case study I saw in the book Language Contact, by Yaron Matras. The first chapter describes the language acquisition of a child growing up trilingual in Hebrew, German, and English. There's a lot of interesting analysis of how he juggles the languages at different points of development and in different settings.

On page 18 Matras brings a particularly interesting example. The child, two years old at this point, is playing in the back garden with his father, to whom he normally speaks in Hebrew. The boy remarks:
  • mistakel ob xilazon da ist
  • look.SG.M whether snail there is
  • 'I am looking to see whether [a] snail is there'
where he italicized words are from German. Matras argues that this case of code-switching is motivated by the child trying to express himself most effectively. He has just learned the 'ob' optional clause construction in German, a construction which he does not possess in Hebrew (and in fact is lumped together with conditionals, cf. אם). Then German grammar dictates that an 'ob' clause requires the verb to be postponed, but Hebrew does not possess an explicit present tense copula, so the German expression 'da ist' is selected.

Although superficially one might try to compare this case to the development of Yiddish, really the situation is in many ways the opposite. With Yiddish a widely-used language (a German variety) was influenced by a prestige language (Hebrew) which the average person did not command as well. In this case the native language is being influenced by another language precisely because it is spoken better. It's telling that in this case the inserted words were function words (e.g. ob 'whether') while Yiddish loanwords tend to be content words (e.g. חתונה 'wedding').

In any case, I'm curious about how bilingual native English/Hebrew speakers code-switch when speaking in Hebrew. In general it seems that Modern Hebrew is more amenable to accepting foreign nouns than verbs. Looking at loan words, which I presume develop from code-switching, Hebrew has got plenty of English nouns (do I really need to give you an example?) but few verbs (cf. the clumsy examples לטלפן, לטרפד). Open question: What does one do to insert an English verb into Hebrew conversation? Is it possible?

On that note, I recommend reading the short article Creative Uses of English Words in Hebrew, by Liora Machauf, available here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'yk 'pšr lqr' dbr kzh?

I highly recommend Emuanuel Tov's Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. It's thorough and well-written. Unfortunately Tov's citations rub me the wrong way. Let me give an example:

  • S. Goren, "htpylyn mmdbr yhwdh l'wr hhlkh," Mḥnym 62 (1962) 5-14.
I understand the idea. Hebrew has never acquired a standard romanization scheme, its potential pinyin confounded by conflict between the historical and modern, the written and the spoken. It seems logical to avoid the issue by mapping graphemes one-to-one, with few diacritics needed (only for ח,ט,ש, and some sort of chupchik for ע)...

...however, this borders on insanity. Who is helped by the omission of vowels? Excluding the typist (laziness is no excuse), no reader could be facilitated by this wholesale omission. No one has practice reading sans vowel in Latin script besides Egyptologists, and anyone who knows enough Hebrew to actually check out an article in the language would be able to read any other sort of transcription and infer how to write it in its original script. For that matter, what's wrong with just writing the title in Hebrew script?

Unfortunately, I find that it's rare to read anything that's been transliterated without feeling some sort of disdain towards someone. And I admit to the crime myself: I code-switch between Israeli, Ashkenazi, and Academic. There's lots more I could say about this matzav but I think I'll save myself some material for another post...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liturgical Phonology

There's a lot of talk that gets tossed around about protecting our mesorah, but <ר> still gets pronounced as /ɹ/. I think this is in many ways an inevitable thing. As much as people might have you believe that proper pronunciation is a halachic issue, it seems that communities have adapted their havarah to their linguistic framework — consider the Ashkenazic loss of pharyngeals.

In some ways the evolution of liturgical pronuciation seems to parallel language loss over generations. With language loss in the US, a common situation is that the first generation speaks the language fluently, the second passively and with somewhat sub-par pronunciation, and the third in a rudimentary fashion, if at all. Similarly it seems that Hebrew pronunciation has gradually shifted in the US to accommodate English phonology, both in consonants (/r/ in particular) and in vowel quality (note especially the fronting and dipthongization of /o/).

What has puzzled me is that this does not seem to be absolute. Jews are known for being able to pronounce /x/, and among religious (or at least somewhat motivated) Jews this does not seem to be disappearing. I can see a few possible explanations:

(1) This sound is used in a few English words ("Bach", "loch", "ugh", "Hannukah"), although this seems tenuous.

(2) Unlike /r/ or /o/, /x/ must be preserved to avoid collapsing minimal pairs (e.g. כל/חול, לכם/להם). This seems more likely, although the historical loss of pharyngeals precisely lead to such a collapse. (By the way, I am curious about how successful the younger generation of sfaradim in America is at pronouncing such phonemes. Feel free to let me know.)

(3) Perhaps /x/ sounds different enough from whatever sound Americans might collapse it into (/h/ or /k/) that this process is blocked.

I also wonder if there are other examples, in Hebrew or in other liturgical languages, of phonemes being preserved that are not present in the local spoken language. The only other possible example I can think of off the top of my head is the /œ/ of Temani Hebrew (although maybe some spoken Arabic dialect had that sound; again, let me know if I am wrong).

At some point in time I might research this topic and write a more conclusive post.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dror Yikra

The zemer Dror Yikra (דרור יקרא), one of my personal favorites, is attributed to Dunash ben Labrat of the 10th century. I've noticed a number of minor textual variations of differing significance (e.g. לבן ולבת vs. לבן עם בת). In fact it is possible in many cases to judge which are preferable.

Dunash apparently innovated the Sephardic use of meter in Hebrew poetry. A typical stanza is as follows:
אלקים תן במדבר הר \ הדס שטה ברוש תדהר \ ולמזהיר ולנזהר \ שלומים תן כמי נהר
Examining the vowels of each verse, we see that they adhere to the pattern "sLLLsLLL" where "s" stands for a "short" vowel, meaning a shva or hataf, and "L" a "long" vowel, in this case anything else.1

Knowing this, some textual variations are preferable to others. For example, שמור שבת קדושך has two short vowels, while שמור שבת קדשך only has one, so the former is more likely to be the original wording.2

The following is my reconstruction of the original text of the zemer, with variants noted:
דרור יקרא לבן *עם ־בת
וינצרכם כמו בבת
נעים שמכם ולא ישבת
שבו **נוחו ביום שבת


דרוש נוי ואולמי
ואות ישע עשה עמי
נטע שורק בתוך כרמי
שעה שועת בני עמי

דרוך פורה בתוך בצרה
וגם *בבל אשר **גברה
נתוץ צרי באף ***עברה
שמע קולי ביום אקרא

**see below

אלקים תן *בְמדבר הר
הדס שטה ברוש תדהר
ולמזהיר ולנזהר
שלומים תן כמי נהר


הדוך קמי *[חי] קל קנא
**במוג לבב ***ובִמגינה
ונרחיב פה ****נמלאנה
לשוננו לך רנה

*see below
**see below

דעה חכמה לנפשך
והיא כתר לראשך
נצור מצות *קדושך
שמור שבת **לקדשך

**קדשך, קדושך

A few comments:

It first must be noted that must be noted that initial ו counts as short even when it is a shuruq, e.g. in the ובמגינה. This ו cannot possibly be removed as with (ו)נמלאנה, since במגינה would then begin with hiriq rather than shva.

Now I am not sure whether such ו may ever count as a long vowel. I suspect not, given that I have heard initial וּ pronounced as [wə] in Iraqi Hebrew, suggesting that perhaps this was the pronunciation Dunash used. If this hypothesis is true, then ולבת is certainly dispreferred.

The בבל/אדום alternation is interesting. Not only is בבל preferable metrically, but also it seems more apropos thematically. Botzra is traditionally identified with Edom, so the Christianity-Islam parallel of בצרה-בבל seems more appropriate than the redundant בצרה-אדום.

The immediately following word גברה is problematic, as it contains a vocal shva. However I have not seen any textual variations of this word, so for now it must stay as is.

The fifth stanza contains two difficult elements. First, the word חי is omitted in many editions. Barring the existence of other versions the question here is whether it is preferable to use a long vowel where there should be a short vowel, or to omit the syllable all together. I cannot judge in this case.

In the following verse, I found one instance of מוּג (rather than מוֹג). I am not sure whether this is hypercorrection towards the text of Ezekiel 21:20 or in fact a traditional variant. Regardless, the meter does not prefer one over the other.

Regarding נמלאנה and ונמלאנה, both are equally good metrically. I have chosen נמלאנה as more likely only because it fits less well grammatically and shows less parallel phonetically with the preceding ובמגנה, making it more likely to have been corrected after the zemer was composed. However it is possible that ו was original and at some point elided by analogy with other phrases like "באף עברה" and "שבו נוחו".

The situation in the last stanza is particularly complicated. In my experience the most common combination is קדושך-קדשך. The other combinations I have found are: קדושך-לקדשך and אלקיך-קדושך. The latter seems preferable poetically as well as metrically, avoiding root duplication. However it breaks the rhyme scheme of the zemer, whereby the last syllable of each verse in a stanza matches. קדושך-קדשך lacks a syllable, while קדושך-לקדשך contains an extra vocal shva. Also notable is the phonetic similarity of קדשך and לקדשך, especially given that Dunash himself may not have distinguished between patah and qamatz (see next paragraph). I am weakly inclined to chose קדושך-לקדשך, especially given that we see one other possible instance of an extra short syllable (גברה, see above). However this leaves open the question of how the jump from קדושך-לקדשך to the moderately different אלקיך-קדושך could have occurred. Additionally if the phrase הדוך קמי קל קנא did not contain the word "חי in the zemer originally then there is also precedent for dropping a long syllable, making קדושך-קדשך more likely.

Finally, I would like to point out one other interesting, if tangential, detail in this zemer. The syllables בַת-בָת, רה-רא, נה-נא are all rhymed with each other. I will leave the potential significance of this to another post.

1Caveat one: I do not know whether hatafs were pronounced distinctly in Dunash's time, or whether the meter was solely orthographic.
2Caveat two: It is possible that the original text was problematic metrically and then "fixed" later on in some editions. This is conceivable given that the correct variants tend to be less grammatical, e.g. נוחו, עברה, בְמדבר. However it is also possible that the original version was metrically correct, and was later adjusted to be more euphonic. I think the latter is more likely, given that Dunash was criticized for letting meter take precedence over grammar.