World Philologies Seminar
Thu 31 Jan 2013 | 16:00–19:00

Is Modern Hebrew a Semitic Language? A Political-Linguistic Debate

Ya'ar Hever (Zukunftsphilologie Fellow 2012-2013) and Yair Adiel (Hebrew University Jerusalem); Chair: Ronny Vollandt (Zukunftsphilologie Fellow 2012-2013)

Freie Universität Berlin, Raum J24/122d, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

Over the last century and up until these days, the origin, nature and character of Modern Hebrew have been put to question. Linguists have argued over whether Modern Hebrew should be described as a Semitic, an Indo-European, a Slavic or a hybrid language. At the same time, the proper term for this language has also debated, and different suggestions such as "Hebrew", "New Hebrew", "Contemporary Hebrew", "Modern Hebrew”, “Israeli-Hebrew", and "Israeli" have been put forward, each carrying a different set of connotations and implications. What is the political and ideological subtext of these debates? What is the methodology for studying its history and discourse, which are at the same time linguistic and political? What made Hebrew in particular the centre of such a heated debate over the question of linguistic classification, which may seem on the face of it technical and trivial? These are some of the questions that will be discussed in this presentation.

Seminar Text:

Ya’ar Hever received his BA (2005), MA (2007) and PhD (2012) in Linguistics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He studied structural linguistics and all branches of the Semitic languages, focusing on the Ethiopian Semitic languages. His MA thesis and PhD dissertation analyze various aspects of the syntax of Chaha, an Ethiopian Semitic language that belongs to the Gurage language cluster, using as a corpus the first texts printed in this language (dating from 1933 onward), which include translations of Christian texts as well as original literary works (most notably by Gäbrä-Iyäsus Hailä-Mariam). 
Currently he is a Zukunftsphilologie Fellow in Berlin and working on a metadiscursive analysis and evaluation of the philological construct of the 'Semitic' and the 'Semite' from its origin in linguistics, as it is used for the classification of languages into families, to its development in other fields of knowledge as a politically loaded term. The linguistic debate over the Semitic character of Modern Hebrew serves as a case study of the elusive and intricate meaning of this term in philological practice and outside of it.

Yair Adiel is a PhD candidate in the Department of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the editorial secretary of Peamim – Studies of Jewish Communities in the East, at the Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem. His work integrates post-structural and postcolonial theory with linguistics and sociolinguistic methodologies. His PhD thesis explores the role of critiques on metalanguage and metalinguistic approaches in literary works in the establishment of political and cultural positions. His Article "Political Grammar: The Name Palestine as Discussed at the Academy of the Hebrew Language" was published in the Journal of Language and Politics (2010). His article "On Language and the Possibility of Change: Sayed Kashua and 'The Stand-Tall Generation'" is to be published in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

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