According to this Wikipedia page

Zuckermann argues that Israeli Hebrew, which he calls "Israeli", is genetically both Indo-European (Germanic, Slavic and Romance) and Afro-Asiatic (Semitic). He suggests that Israeli Hebrew is the continuation not only of literary Hebrew but also of Yiddish, as well as Polish, Russian, German, English, Ladino, Arabic and other languages spoken by Hebrew revivalists.

How common is this opinion among scholars? What parts or aspects of the Modern Hebrew have significant Indo-European characteristics, and what part Semitic?

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    I might have worded this as "Which linguists consider XYZ Hebrew to be an Indo-European language?" (using either "Modern" or "Israeli" for "XYZ") because with the current wording it's subjective and invites argumentative answers, even if the view is radical and not widely held. – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 9:03
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    @hippie: How about "What characteristics of Modern Hebrew can be considered Indo-European as opposed to Semitic?" I think it is more objective because it asks for specific characteristics instead of the classification of the whole language – Louis Rhys Sep 14 '11 at 9:24
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    For that would be a different question and also a good one! (I keep wondering since this came up if there are also Hungarian influences in Israeli Hebrew) – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 9:30
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    It depends on what is meant be 'is' and 'genetically', how much of the grammar, vocabulary, phonology come from which supposed parent. Modern Hebrew has lots of influences from those other families, but the primary part for all is Semitic. – Mitch Sep 14 '11 at 13:16

As a linguist whose native language is Hebrew, I am somewhat qualified to answer this question.

The fact that Modern Hebrew has heavy influences from both Semitic and European sources is pretty much universally accepted. That said, Zuckermann, who is a brilliant scholar otherwise, is also a known provocateur who tends to overstate his ideas when writing for a non-academic audience. Hence his constant nagging about changing the language's name and the talk about mixed language genetics. There are even more extreme opinions around, such that Modern Hebrew is a fully Slavic language with a relexified Semitic vocabulary, but they are not taken seriously by most.

Ignoring the extremist opinions, though - generally speaking, Modern Hebrew's is a complex beast with a syntax that is heavily Slavic/Germanic, but morphology that is distinctly Semitic. The standard phonology used by most speakers also has its roots in Germanic languages, but there are still groups of speakers (whose families are non-European immigrants) who retain other Hebrew phonology traditions. The vocabulary is mostly based on old Hebrew (though a lot of words were given new, modern meanings in a conscious effort), with the usual large set of loan words found in languages spoken by a population consisting of a lot of immigrants.

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    This is the best answer so far. Can you provide any information on how many followers Zuckermann has, if any; or who hold these even more extreme views, for instance are they linguists or merely people pushing some viewpoint trying to bend linguistics to support their argument? – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 11:22
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    I know you say you're qualified to answer, but if you can, please cite some reference.. for example, you said that syntax is slavic/germanic, morphology is semitic, etc. – Louis Rhys Sep 14 '11 at 11:37
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    @hippietrail: Most of Zuckermann's supporters are laymen who've been convinced by his book and many media apperances (I think you can safely count him as the linguist with the most prominent media profile in Israel today). Most professional linguists in Israel range from being scornful to Zuckermann to respecting the man himself but viewing his theories as needless provocations. That's not to say they all think Hebrew is a typical Semitic language in the way Arabic or Aramaic are, but Zuckermann's theory is just too simplistic to explain anything. – Boaz Yaniv Sep 23 '11 at 7:33
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    @Louis Rhys: I don't know if I should speak for Oren here, but even if he does bring references it would still be unhelpful for most, since most research on this subject is written in Hebrew. Or did you mean examples? – Boaz Yaniv Sep 23 '11 at 7:36
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    I think we should be open to research written in any language in our references even if we aren't all fluent in them. – hippietrail Sep 23 '11 at 12:32

The take of an Israeli linguist:

There must be a consensus among scholars about one thing: Modern Israeli Hebrew emerged as a result of language revival, and as such its development from its so-called origins is different from the development of nearly all other living languages today (and all fully-fledged languages spoken by a monolingual community). At the absence of documented precedents of language revival, there can't be any research-based 'developmental model' relevant for Modern Hebrew, so any 'scholarly' opinion, even by the most learned and experienced historical linguists, would be of limited value. It is not proper to compare contact influences of Norman French on English or Slavonic on Romanian etc., because English/Romanian/etc. were living mother tongues at the time they were influenced, while Modern Israeli Hebrew, at its very beginning, was not.

I think most scholars think that Zuckermann claims the obvious: Hebrew was revived by speakers of other languages (mostly Indo-European), albeit with profound knowledge of Classical Hebrew (a semitic language) as a second language. It is thus inevitable that the revived language would bear grammar components of both Classical Hebrew and the revivers' native language(s). Very few linguists would be concerned with this question further, because linguists are language analysts - they analyze language components, which are uncountable and unweightable - one can't really say 'there are N,M,O Classical Hebrew components with the respective weights 1/2/3, P,Q Yiddish components with weights 1,2, X independently-innovated components with weight 1, therefore Modern Hebrew is Semitic/Indo-European/What-have-you'. Once we agree that Modern Hebrew emerged based on substantial contributions of two or more sources, it makes little scientific sense characterize the language 'as a whole'. Zuckermann's insistence on discussing the holistic nature of Modern Hebrew as 'mixed', and his dedication of time and effort to this discussion, is simply considered as non-scientific. This is further exacerbated by his insistence on the label, i.e. the use of 'Israeli' instead of 'Hebrew'. Thus, it is most likely that scholars would merely dismiss Zuckermann's strong claims about the nature and origin of Modern Hebrew, but at the same time agree with some/most of his specific claims about the origin of specific components of Modern Hebrew grammar.

The second part of the original question is particularly problematic: Is a grammatical component retained from Classical Hebrew essentially 'Semitic'? What if it had been borrowed into Classical Hebrew from Classical Egyptian or from Philistine? Is a component retained from Yiddish necessarily 'Indo-European'? What if it was a Yiddish innovation not shared with any Indo-European language? What if it was borrowed into Yiddish from Liturgical Hebrew, and it's retention in Modern Hebrew is faithful to its use in Yiddish, not in Liturgical Hebrew? What about Modern Hebrew grammatical innovations, which are plenty (e.g. the stress system)? Can they be assigned any genetic label other than 'Modern Hebrew'?

  • I think you are saying linguistics is in large parts not scientific (the whole X, Y, PQ tirade; also note the maintained contrast "scholar" vs. scientist) and that Zuckermann's can therefore not be scientific either, but you try sell it as ad hominem. It might still be scholarly in a philosophical sense following a Cynic school of thought or the Socratic method. – vectory Mar 13 at 19:34

If Hebrew is really an Indo-European language due to contact with Indo-European then English is a Romance language due to Norman French and a ton of loans from Latin. What nonsense. Languages don't go about changing what family they descend from. English certainly is not a continuation of Norman French!

You can make a new language through creolization, is this Zuckermann claiming that Hebrew is a creole? Dixon's punctuated equilibrium model (see "The Rise and Fall of Languages") doesn't explain Hebrew either as it needs more time and several languages to work with.

Then there are some that consider Modern Hebrew to be a naturalized conlang (constructed language that has become a natural language through use). If that is the case it doesn't really descend from anything.

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    I think the argument is that Hebrew ceased to evolve naturally and that later a new language called Hebrew was artificially created intending to be the same language but that as it turned out in practice instead a new language was born of two parents instead. English never spent time as a dead/purely religious language in need of revival. It was always spoken by the people but had no status in comparison to Norman French. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 10:32
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    I think that (as hippietrail hints) there is a valid argument to say that Modern Hebrew is a mixed language. 'Mixed language' is a technical term for a (rare) language that originates out of a combination of elements from two different parent languages. The notion of mixed languages is still somewhat controversial. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 3 '11 at 13:14
  • On this account, English is not Germanic either except for historic models; the few bits of the eroded syntax and morphosyntax simply borrowed from a substrate, and learned Old English. How about that? It's quite derisive, poor answer. – vectory Mar 13 at 19:38

I don't think this is a common opinion. The fact that one language has been significantly influenced by other languages from other families does not change its origin. It may change some core aspects of the language, but it remains Semitic.

The same thing could apply to Gypsy language - it has many forms in different countries that are heavily influenced - both lexically and grammatically - by the "host" country languages, however the gypsy language remains of Indic origin.

Another interesting, related case is the Balkan language area. Romanian, for example, has taken a lot of features from Slavic languages, but it is still Romance language.

To conclude - In my opinion changes in the language should not be taken into account when genealogy is concerned.

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    In that case it depends how you define origin. Consider creole languages which have their origins in both parents. Choosing just English or just PNG languages as the origin would be disingenious. Perhaps the proponents of Israeli Hebrew take this view of the language being a new one with two parents. This is why answers with references and quotes are better than ones based on assumptions, even in cases where most or all of us disagree with a hypothesis. – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 11:17
  • well, then the question might be "can we consider Hebrew a creole". I agree about referencing, but in cases of unpopular opinions there might not be an article "debunking the claim", simply because the claim is not so popular in the first place. – Bozho Sep 14 '11 at 11:22
  • Yes I was just about to comment using the word "debunking" myself. I think we could either find a good debunking article of the view or do a good job of debunking it ourselves, if we do we must do it in a scientific way. This I think involves establishing just how popular/unpopular the view is, and among whom. I would treat any questions on proto-word etc the same way. – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 11:26

Actually, Zuckermanns hybridisation hypothesis is not as extreme as the relexification approach suggested by Horvath & Wexler (1997: Relexification in Creole and Non-Creole Languages). Zuckermann rejects the notion of Modern Hebrew (or, as he likes to call it, 'Israeli') being a Slavic language with a Hebrew lexicon, but he also rejects the traditional revivalist approach, according to which Modern Hebrew is a genetic successor of Ancient Hebrew. This is, as mentioned in a post above, stating the obvious, and there is nothing disquieting about it. However, the notion of Modern Hebrew being a hybrid and not 'purely' Semitic can be viewed as a threat to the idea of a linguistic return to one's Semitic roots, hence the 'shock' Zuckermann's theories have caused.


Is Modern Hebrew an Indo-European Language? First, I'm looking at this question as someone who got his Master's in Arabic Linguistics, and read the Pentateuch in Classical Hebrew, and read some Syriac and Talmud. I also have read some Middle Egyptian. So, very strong Classical Arabic, decent Biblical Hebrew, and working knowledge of Aramaic, Egyptian, and Arabic dialects.

In terms of phonology, yes. Modern Hebrew is a cross between European and Sephardic. The Ashkenazic pronunciation (which seems to be the upper register) has the uvular 'r', does not distinguish between pharyngeal and velar voiceless fricatives, and has no voiced pharyngeal fricative (the 'ayin). But the Sephardic influence comes through in pronouncing syllable-final dental stops as stops rather than fricatives (Ashkenazi "shabos" vs. Sephardic "shabat"), and through the stress on the final syllable. Although I have no idea about Mizrahi pronunciation.

But what about syntax and grammar?

My pet theory - never propagated - was that the Semitic Sprachbund went through three phases, and that recognizable characteristics propagated across language barriers.

Representatives of the first phase would be Akkadian and Babylonian, which is characterized by a stative ("sharaa-ku","I am the king"), a prefix-verb form "iparras", a nominal the case system, and no direct articles. The verbal system is very close to the Middle Egyptian verbal system, although the latter is a bit messier. This could mean that the Semitic system is a normalization of the Afro-Asiatic system, or that the Egyptian system is an irregularization of it.

The second phase is the one we are familiar with in Classical Arabic, Classical Hebrew, and perhaps older versions of Aramaic. Direct articles appear from the pronoun "hallaa", in Arabic "al-?aalim", Hebrew "ha-?olam", and Aramaic "?alm-aa". The stative suffices became possessive suffices for nouns. A suffix-prefix distinction for imperfect and perfect verbal aspect - Arabic "katab-tu", "I wrote", "ya-ktub-u" "he writes". Genitive forms are expressed using the iDaafah - a noun with no direct article followed by a noun with an optional direct article - Arabic "sayf-u d-diin", "sword of the faith", Hebrew "bnei yisra'el" "the children of Israel", or Aramaic "bar naashaa", "the son of man". This phase tends to have an VSO word order, consistent verbal templating, and some remnants of the nominal case system.

Then, the third phase seems to have happened sometime between 500 BCE-1000 ACE. What is interesting is that these changes were seen in Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic, the sort of Aramaic-Hebrew mix of the Gemara, and the Arabic dialects. Direct articles stoped being productive in Aramaic, but survived in Arabic dialects and Hebrew. The word order tended towards SVO. The iDaafah was less productive and replaced with an analytic genitive - Hebrew "shel", Aramaic "d-", and Egyptian Arabic "bita?". The verbal system relied more heavily on a participial present ("ana raayiH", "ani holekh"), making the perfect serve for past tense and the imperfect serve for other functions (Egyptian Arabic "ana bi-fakkir" "I am thinking", "ana Ha-fakkir" "I will think"). Finally, subordinate verbal clauses tended to be nominalized when possible ("ani rotzeh midaber"). Interestingly, in Syriac the present participle became its own verbal category, taking on suffixes.

From what I can tell (and my knowledge of Modern Hebrew doesn't go much beyond watching Netflix with subtitles), Modern Hebrew has an SVO word order, an analytic genitive, a participial present, use of prefix-verb forms for future tense, and suffix-verb forms for past tense. In this sense, it looks a lot like Mishnaic Hebrew, and thus falls into the third phase. If a traditional Jewish upbringing emphasized mastery of the Talmud, and if there is a lot more Talmud to study than there is Tanakh, then the first Modern Hebrew speakers would probably fall back on Mishnaic Hebrew as a reference. This would be reinforced by the fact that Jewish communities often used this form of Hebrew to write books or letters, with the exception of Andalucian writers, who seemed to have tried to adhere to the Classical language. The only explicitly European feature of Modern Hebrew grammar seems to be the apparent lack of tense/aspect ambiguity in verbs that you see in other Semitic languages - the prefix verbal form means the future, the suffix verbal form means the past, the participial form means the present. Compare this with Deuteronomy's "va-baHar-ta et-ha-Hayyim", "and [you chose/will choose/should choose/choose it or you'll be sorry] life".

However, if we really wanted to see if Modern Hebrew is influenced by European languages, we could do a small experiment.

First, we would see if it has Germanic-style noun compounding. I assume we can say "mayed shel ha-oTo" ("the carborator of the car"), and presumably we could say the more Classical "mayed ha-oTo", but can we say "oTo mayed"? If this is the case, then this would be a direct effect of German and/or Yiddish on Modern Hebrew.

Secondly, Yiddish is known for topicalizing subordinate clauses. Some think this is from Slavic influence, although I have no idea. "kumst du azoy veyt fir dos?" ("You come so far for this") can be turned into "fir dos kumst du azoy veyt?" ("For this you come so far?"). Does this happen in Modern Hebrew? "ata holekh la-ir" -> "you're going to the city", "la-ir ata holekh" -> "to the city you're going"

Apologies offered for incorrect renderings and corrections appreciated.

  • Modern Hebrew does not have Germanic-style compounding; it does have Yiddish-style topicalization. But of course these are just two of many "European" features that could be considered in this regard. There is definitely a massive amount of European influence on syntax and idiom, as the other answers point out. – TKR Apr 15 at 18:51

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