Friday, June 18, 2004

Don't take our vowels!

Ma'ariv language columnist Rubik Rosental writes this week in praise of Hebrew's classical system of vowels.

He's responding to a recent proposal by the Academy of the Hebrew Language which would "simplify" the vowel system by bringing it in line with modern Israeli pronunciation. (See report in Ha'aretz)

I'm on Rubik's side here. The fact that modern Hebrew has jettisoned most of the distinctions classical Hebrew made between similar consonants and vowels is no reason to surrender to populism. The correct response is to improve language teaching in the schools.

Granted, not everyone needs to be an expert on nikkud. But most Israelis - including the university-educated - barely know how to speak correct Hebrew as it is. Once we allow the street to determine correctness, there's no end to reform.

Granted, too, that languages change over time, and Hebrew has clearly done so. But modern Hebrew is remarkably similar to rabbinic Hebrew, and, for that matter (though less so) to Biblical Hebrew. What value is gained from officially endorsing changes which are taking place anyway?

Most people use vowels so infrequently anyway that changing the system to suit them seems superfluous.

(What can I say? I'm a ba'al koreh... and the more I lein, the more I appreciate the fineries of classical Hebrew. We've lost enough to modernity already.)

1 comment:

Avi said...

I thought Biblical Hebrew was closer to Modern Hebrew.

This is another argument, btw, for increased Jewish education in Israeli schools because exposure to rabbinic texts and the Tanakh improve Hebrew skills.