Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Amos Oz

NPR just broadcast a sparkling interview with the celebrated Israeli author  Amos Oz.
There is nothing I can contribute here except to impart the useful information that his name is not pronounced like that of the equally celebrated Wizard, but is rather:  AH-moss OHZ.
Anyhow -- what struck me linguistically was his comparison of modern Hebrew to... Elizabethan English.
I had always thought rather slightingly of the Hebrew revival -- several cuts above Esperanto, to be sure,

("Toute langue artificielle, d'inspiration  soit mathématique,  soit logique,  est une langue mort-née. “  -- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p. 84 -- who, pourtant, actually went to the trouble of learning Esperanto, until he heard that it had been superseded by Ido;  at which point he wrote it all off  as a bad bargain.)

but still... you can no more invent your own mother tongue, than you can invent your own mother.
And yet... once invented... The astonishing practical success of this quixotic project was first brought home to me, many decades ago, when I met some Israelis monolingual in modern Hebrew, speaking very halting English.  And such is the Zeitgeist   that any language may become a cauldron, brewing and birthing forth --  lo!  bright new things ...

[Update]  A bonus, courtesy of Martin Gardner -- again a monosyllabic surname, with an unexpectedly long rounded vowel:   that of cosmic-inflation-maven Alan Guth,  with (delightfully) rhymes with truth.  (Unfortunately this chime -- this resonance! -- cannot be adduced as evidence for the validity of his theory, which Penrose now is calling "not just falsifiable, but falsified".  -- Oh well.  Still.  Nice name.)


  1. In the case of Hebrew, an argument can be made that it never completely died out, but was, in a sense, being kept barely alive as the language of seminary instruction. And this rather small group of speakers really had perpetuated it all the way back to a time when the language had a population base. It is astonishing that they succeeded in then reviving it as the sole language of a population. A certain degree of language engineering was done in that process. Where new words were needed they were frequently cast from the presumed Hebrew form of a theoretical proto-Semitic word on the basis of the word in question in Arabic. Not a terrible methodology. And they've fought the same losing battle against borrowings that gives France Le Weekend.

  2. Why the negative comment about Esperanto? It's quite a remarkable success story, I think.