The milayomit vision
Published at 23/03/09
Hebrew is unique among the languages of the world not only in its having been dormant for hundreds of years - not quite dead but not quite alive either - before being reanimated and made once again the language of a nation. Hebrew is also unique in that, today, it is spoken as part of a legacy that harks back to some of the remotest reaches of recorded history. In addition to the ancient stories and ethics preserved in the cultural heritage of the Jewish people, many of the expressions and figures of speech that were in use more than three thousand years ago are still, or again, in use today. And Hebrew is unique in other, if less profound, ways. Certain features of Hebrew syntax, for example, are without parallel in any other living language, and so is Hebrew's elaborate phonological system - which, however, is degrading in colloquial use.
Aside from Hebrew being unique, Hebrew speakers are also a peculiar breed. The relationship many of them carry on with their language resembles the way a bird guards her young from potential predators. In the years leading up to Jewish independence in the 1900s, an organization calling itself the League of Language Defenders (Gedud Meghinnei Hassafa) would go around chiding bus drivers and passers-by for speaking German and Yiddish or for speaking broken Hebrew, and to this day it is considered within the scope of Israeli etiquette to interrupt one's interlocutor if he or she should slip and, say, use a feminine number before a masculine noun or wrongly inflect an irregular verb. In short, speakers of Hebrew do not take their language for granted.
The abovementioned degradation of Hebrew's phonological system, however, is one aspect of a more encompassing trend of Hebrew language erosion, itself an aspect of a more encompassing phenomenon of Hebrew cultural erosion. Despite efforts to counteract the tectonic drift of Israeli society westward, the forces of globalization are accelerating the movement. As Israeli society absorbs elements of American culture, it inevitably assimilates features of American language as well. These include not only words and idioms but also grammatical conventions and sound patterns. Thus where a Hebrew speaker a generation ago would ride a bus (to the shuk), today he may take one (to the mall). And where once the words for happiness and wealth were distinguishable in sound - as they still are in orthography - they have, in the speech of many modern Israelis, become homophones.
In a manner similar, though not identical, to how a species' biology adapts and evolves over generations in order to function in a changing environment, human languages undergo modifications induced by emerging trends. When, in the biological case, the change in environment is so sudden as to threaten the extinction of all but a select few of the species, it is called a cataclysm and subsequent generations of offspring may begin to qualify as a new species. In language, when changes happen with such celerity as to retire over a short period many indigenous linguistic features and import others in their stead, it is as well a momentous turning point.
One of the significant differences between language and biology is that, while the latter still extends beyond the sphere of what our geneticists can manipulate in a carefully controlled fashion, language interacts with our consciousness in ways that render it amenable to what demands we make of it. A germane example is the notion that certain topics belong in a category labeled "taboo," the black hole of language. Nothing internal to language dictates what is and is not an acceptable topic of parlance; rather, society elites impose their restrictions on language, and the general public follows suit.
Taboo operates at the discourse level, at the stratosphere of linguistic communication. Can what goes on lower down - at the level of register, lexis, phonology, even syntax - also be influenced? The answer is yes, when talking on a small scale - an individual, a family, a classroom, a closely-knit community. In John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993), the character portrayed by Will Smith is taught in three months not only to eliminate certain words considered crass in aristocratic circles and replace them with refined ones but also to cultivate an altogether different accent in order to earn the trust of his target audience. In an earlier film, My Fair Lady (1963), Professor Higgins endeavors to turn Eliza the ill-mannered street-corner flower vendress into a specimen of high society. There the process is fraught with complications, but Eliza's transformation is so convincing that even on the purely theatrical level Audrey Hepburn's performance is remarkable. These films, and the successes they depict, are fictitious, but they do capture the reality that, through instruction, and provided the learner is committed, a person can reinvent his or her linguistic identity.
And on a large scale? Can a focused effort to introduce changes in a language have an impact on the way a region, even an entire country, communicates? Here a third example from the canon of Western fiction is apt. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the language of the people of Oceania undergoes systematic constriction as part of a program to phase out words, ideas and memories conducive to diversity and dissent. The goal is to shrink Oceanic English to the bare minimum of what is necessary in order to maintain an efficient, submissive working class. Redundant and ambiguous expressions are purged, morphological processes such as derivation and inflection are simplified, and euphony is given top priority.
The aims of Big Brother are sinister, and its methods brutal, but there is a kernel of the plausible in Orwell's conceit of a centralized authority wielding such power over its subjects as to determine the course of language evolution. In totalitarian states the likes of Syria and North Korea, where surveillance networks and a monopoly over the press are means on the part of the ruling party for intimidating the population and quelling oppositionist impulses, the notion of an agency for language reform of the kind suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four would dovetail naturally with the state's repressive domestic agenda.
In democratic societies, on the other hand, where personal liberty and media pluralism are sacrosanct, the extent to which information can be monitored and regulated is exceedingly limited. The internet boom of the last fifteen years, moreover, has made information more accessible and dynamic a commodity than in any other time. It is no coincidence that internet censorship is a staple of totalitarian regimes. The World Wide Web is said to be one of the principal platforms for the exchange of ideas in our time.
What if it were possible to subpoena the internet to the task of reforming language not in the Orwellian vein of a higher authority dictating prescriptions from above but in a collective, interactive spirit encompassing all levels of society? The goal of milayomit.co.il is to do just that: to harness the vast capacity of the internet with a mind to make Hebrew a richer language, to allow Hebrew speakers to contribute and share innovations relating to their language, and in so doing to make communication between Hebrew speakers both more intelligible and more intelligent. It is a more ambitious goal than that of word-of-the-day websites in other languages in that milayomit endeavors to serve as a communal, collaborative nexus, an organic, user-driven interface between language and the people using it.
Milayomit encourages speakers of Hebrew to become involved, proactive, bold. If a neologism should tickle the lobes of one's Wernicke's area; if a person should think, Were there only a way for me to convey this experience or that idea in words; if a foreign expression should invade Hebrew discourse but feel like a thorn in its side, milayomit will function as an agent of change in the spirit of personal empowerment, an echo of Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl's vision and charge––
If you will it....