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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XII—
The Hebrew Awakening—Truly Unique?

For new readers: These submissions aim to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood. They deconstruct elements of Jewishness into national characteristics that Jewry sustained en bloc until its Western branch, and it alone, abandoned them. By seeing it this way, many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense become clear.

I’ve contended for several weeks now that the Hebrew language is a Jewish national thing and not “merely” a religious or cultural one. This is so no matter what the language is used for: prayer, conversation, dreaming, or soliloquy. As circumstantial evidence, I stressed its modern awakening and the speed with which it took place. To make the case stick, I have much additional work to do. I begin that work by asking whether the Jewish case is unique, as is often claimed, or whether it belongs to a class of national language revivals.

By “national,” I exclude the sort of thing that supposedly occurred in 1886, when a forensic psychiatrist in Vienna did a pioneering study on “deviant” sexual behavior. To avoid sensationalism, he wrote it in Latin. When the public discovered this, a run on Latin dictionaries ensued and the book became a best-seller … (J. Sydney Jones, The Empty Mirror: A Viennese Mystery, St. Martin’s Press, pp. 80-81).

Instead, I mean something like what has happened in Iceland with the Icelandic language. Icelandic began the modern era in a state of retreat. It then changed direction and enjoyed generations of dramatic ascendancy -- which may be ending today.

How close is this to the story of the Hebrew awakening?

Below is some grist that might help the comparison along. I gathered the text in the left-hand column (relating to Icelandic) from sundry on-line sources, and the text in the right-hand column mostly from my forty years of experience in Israel and the sources that inform my previous submissions in this project.


(1) Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland, has embarked on the largest inquiry ever into the use of Icelandic: a three-year study of 5,000 participants. “Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years,” he said (The New York Times, April 22, 2017). I know of no parallel tendency among Hebrew speakers.

(2) AI / platforms / apps: Siri, Alexa, Apple, and do not support Icelandic. An Icelandic engineer at Google convinced the company to add Icelandic speech recognition to Android smartphones, an immense undertaking. Google made this data freely available to others. Microsoft Windows added Icelandic early on but in such a bad translation, in its first version, that many users stuck with English. To the best of my knowledge, all the aforementioned support Hebrew.

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