My attention was riveted by a story in The Jerusalem Report of September 10, 2012, because it dealt with a topic that has fascinated me since my childhood (for a reason I will briefly mention momentarily). The story reports on a move to revive the Aramaic language in a Christian Arab village in Israel. Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, has a very long history, during which it was for a while the official language of the Persian empire and then the spoken vernacular throughout much of the Middle East, also by most Jews after Hebrew had become a “dead language” used only for religious purposes. It was of course the language of Jesus. Aramaic itself became mainly a “dead language” after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, spoken by a few scattered minorities but, like Hebrew for Jews, continuing as the language of worship for Orthodox Christian churches in the region.
The Jerusalem Report story occurred in the village of Jish in the Galilee, sixty-five percent of whose inhabitants are Maronites (Orthodox in communion with Rome), the rest mostly Melkites (Orthodox in communion with Constantinople), with a sprinkling of Muslims. Both Maronites and Melkites speak Arabic in their daily lives, but use Syriac, a version of Aramaic, in worship. The leader of the Aramaic movement in the village is a young man, Shadi Khalloul, who has been pushing for the teaching of spoken Aramaic in the village school. His advocacy finally succeeded after it was supported by a new principal, who is himself a Muslim. The Aramaic instruction has now been approved by the Israeli ministry of education. The story in an Israeli publication naturally emphasized the similarity with the rebirth of Biblical Hebrew by modern Zionism. Khalloul only speaks Aramaic with his two-year old son—just as Eliezer Ben Yehudah, who led the Hebrew revival in the late 1800s, only spoke Hebrew with his son. There is a story about an elderly Hebraist who came from Europe to the then brand-new town of Tel Aviv. He was jostled and obscenely insulted by a young boy, and afterward turned to his companion with sheer delight—“how wonderful – he can swear in Hebrew!”
Khalloul has an openly stated political purpose in mind: to unite all the Christians in the Middle East as “one strong nation”. A nation, it is supposed, needs a unifying language. Aramaic is a plausible candidate. This is understandable in the contemporary context—Christians threatened by militant Islam in all the Middle East, and as a double minority in Israel, Christians among the Muslims and non-Jews in the Jewish state. But the politics of language has a very old history all over the world, though it flared up virulently with the emergence of modern nationalism. Very often conflicts over language have had a religious dimension.
My own fascination with the topic comes from the fact that I grew up bilingually. Every summer as a child my mother took me from Vienna to visit her family in Italy. The seasons meant an alternation between German and Italian, and I was aware from early on that reality looks very different as filtered through the two languages. I also became aware of the political dimension. The Italy of my childhood was ruled by Mussolini. We went on vacation either to the seashore or the mountains, the latter in the South Tirol that had been annexed by Italy after World War I. The Fascist regime imposed a policy of coercive “Italianization” on the German-speaking population. I remember one summer, we rented a house from a Tirolean farmer. As an only child I was impressed by the large number of children in our landlord’s family. They all had common Austrian names, like Alois or Franz or Johanna—until the last one, a boy who had just been born. He was named Italo. His father had given in.
Language has always been linked to power, from Mandarin in China to Greek and Latin in classical antiquity. But through much of history official languages co-existed with numerous dialects which marked people’s personal identities. The aim to make language the principal unifying factor for national identity is largely a modern phenomenon, perhaps dramatized when Napoleon crowned himself, not as “emperor of France”, but as “emperor of the French”. I seem to remember a nineteenth-century British wit who defined a nation as “a language with an army”, but I surfed the Internet unsuccessfully for the reference. Instead I discovered that a phrase much like it is often attributed to Max Weinreich, a linguist of modern Yiddish, which had to struggle for recognition as a language rather than a low-status dialect. In a lecture in 1945, at the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in New York, Weinreich said that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Yiddish, alas, never had either. It is only natural that Israel, once it has both army and navy, discarded Yiddish for renascent Hebrew.
The Austro-Hungarian empire (described by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus as a “dress rehearsal for the apocalypse”) pioneered the language wars of recent history. At least the Austrian half made serious efforts to institute a multilingual modern state (Hungary pursued a policy of Magyarization). The enterprise, as did the empire, came to a violent end in 1918. The successor states struggled with the same issue, and Yugoslavia collapsed in a series of bloody civil wars. The linguistic aspect of this is clear: The largest group of people in multilingual Yugoslavia spoke a language known as “Serbo-Croat”; they now speak Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak. The religious aspect is also clear: Serbian-speakers are Orthodox, Croatian-speakers Catholic, Bosniak-speakers Muslim. The most visible European case of a successful multilingual state is Switzerland, with its four official languages: German, French and Italian, with Romansch as a quaint fourth language spoken by a handful of people in Alpine cantons. Some might argue that there is actually a fifth language, Swiss-German, or Schwytzerdytsch, which is the vernacular for most people who use High German for public purposes. Swiss-German hovers somewhat awkwardly between being an official language and a dialect, its feisty gutturality (hostile outsiders have called it a throat disease) a marker of genuine Swiss identity.
Given my obsession with language, I have played with the idea of writing a historical treatise on the interplay of language, politics and religion. This is not the place for it. I can only give a few examples of the diversity and the curiosities of the phenomenon in our own time. Papua New Guinea is the country with the largest number of languages in the world (I have heard an anthropologist give the figure of 800, which seems a little improbable); every year some of them die out, yielding to the dominance of official English and vernacular Pidgin. The most famous case of successful resurrection of a “dead language” is of course modern Hebrew. Ireland has not been quite as successful with Gaelic. Modern Greek was deliberately concocted by nationalist intellectuals in the nineteenth century, who “purified” the spoken dialects of its foreign (especially Turkish) elements, so as to create a national language as close as possible to the glory of classical Greek. Politically or culturally repressed languages, like Catalan or Slovak, have been mobilized for the purpose of nation-building. Regional dialects become the official language for an entire country; much earlier in history the dialect of the Ile de France became modern French, a feat facilitated by the brutal repression of the Langue d’Oc in what is now southern France (more or less the same language now resurrected as Catalan). A very successful twentieth-century case is Bahasa Indonesia, which after that country became independent was made the official language, but now has become the vernacular for many people who could not communicate in their native languages. Whether this happened by chance or by deliberate planning, Bahasa was the dialect of a politically unimportant region of Sumatra—not of Java, the center of political power—and this fact made Bahasa acceptable over the vast territory of the Indonesian archipelago. Other newly independent countries tried to nationalize the language spoken at the political center, only to meet up with successful resistance in other regions. Thus Hindi, the language of the north, was resisted in the south of India, and Tagalog, originally spoken around the capital Manila, was not successfully nationalized in other parts of the Philippines. Language politics has been a major factor in Indian politics since independence. It also has a religious dimension: Urdu is the language associated with Islam in India (the fact that it has also become the national language of Pakistan has not enhanced its popularity in the other part of the subcontinent).
Language has often been a symbol of resistance of repressed populations, such as Czech against Habsburg Austria or Polish against imperial Russia. In the latter case, not in the former, there was a religious element: Poland is Catholic, Russia is Orthodox. Closer to home, Quebec has gone to much trouble to preserve itself as an island of French in the ocean of English-speaking North America (its language laws had the unintended consequence of driving out many anglophone businesses from Montreal to Toronto). Language continues to be a political issue in the United States, mainly as a defense against the perceived challenge from Spanish. Belgium is in danger of splitting apart in the battle between French and Flemish (ironically Brussels, a hotpoint of this battle is the capital of the multilingual European Union, whose transactions are laboriously translated, at enormous expense, into all its twenty-some languages). There are semi-political movements to enhance the status of indigenous languages, such as Quechua in Peru, or to prevent their extinction, as with Hawaiian and Welsh.
Yiddish is a very interesting case of the overlap of religion and politics. For most of its history, Yiddish was the profane language representing Judaism, while Biblical Hebrew was the latter’s sacred language. There was an interesting case in Austria-Hungary in the early years of the twentieth century. Bukowina, a multilingual and multireligious province of the Austrian part of the dual monarchy, was a showcase of enlightened language policy. If I remember correctly, the official languages were, in addition to German: Polish, Ukrainian and Romanian. There was a large Yiddish-speaking Jewish population, whose religion was protected by law. A Jewish group demanded that Yiddish be added to the list of official languages. The demand was rejected by an administrative court, on the ground that it would violate the religious freedom of Jews by forcing an ethnic (or, in the term used then, a national) designation on them. In a curious way this Habsburg court anticipated and rejected the Nazi policy of forcing Jews into the designation of a race rather than a religion. When the Zionist movement transformed Hebrew from a sacred to a profane language, it concomitantly secularized it. Yiddish was widely looked down upon. Significant numbers of Orthodox Jews continue to resent this, in Israel and in the diaspora. This fact is beautifully and economically reflected in an Israeli joke: A woman on a bus in Tel Aviv is speaking to her son in Yiddish. A fellow passenger, a staunch Zionist, rebukes her: “You should speak to your son in Hebrew. Why do you speak to him in Yiddish?” She replies: “Because I don’t want him to forget that he is a Jew”.
This blog is supposed to deal with religion and other curiosities. A very curious case of the politics of language (religion was not involved) occurred in South Africa soon after the establishment of post-apartheid democracy. Every modern nation is supposed to have a flag, an anthem, and a coat of arms preferably inscribed in the national language. A new flag was designed very creatively and has been generally welcomed. The anthem issue was avoided by adopting two anthems, the old Afrikaans one and in addition the hymn “God bless Africa” of the anti-apartheid movement. The coat of arms presented a more difficult problem. The old official languages were English and Afrikaans, and the inscription on the coat of arms was in Latin – “Ex Unitate Vires” (“Strength from Unity “). This clearly would not do. The New South Africa now has 11 official languages: the old two, plus nine African ones. (This means that English is actually the national language—as, incidentally, it is in India.) They could not be squeezed onto the new coat of arms (which displays a diversity of pictorial symbols). It was decided that none of the official languages were to be used. Instead the coat of arms now sports an indigenous language that is virtually extinct in South Africa (it survives, precariously, in Botswana): Koisan, the language of the Koi, the so-called Bushmen who inhabited this part of the continent before the invasion by Bantu-speaking Africans. It is full of click sounds and glottal stops almost impossible for an outsider to pronounce (The Star, Johannesburg’s major newspaper, published a pronunciation guide, which I, for one, could not understand let alone follow). It appears on the coat of arms as follows: !KE E:/XARRA//KE. Thabo Mbeki, the successor of Nelson Mandela as president, explained that the motto means “Let diverse people unite”. As I recall, there were two linguistic experts on Koisan in South Africa. One had advised the government on the new motto. The other stated publicly that this was a mistranslation. The correct translation should say “Let us urinate together”. I don’t suppose that this rendering would negate the intended noble purpose. I don’t know whether there was a genuine scientific disagreement between the two linguists, or whether number two was a politically subversive jokester.
How one views these very different cases will obviously depend on one’s own political positions. (And I have not even mentioned the language rules propagated by feminists in both politics and religion.) But I think I can say one thing quite beyond any particular partisanship: Every language opens up a distinctive window on the world. It is a distinctive world. The loss of a language means the loss of a world. Perhaps some worlds deserve extinction. Most do not. Their extinction is an impoverishment in our capacity to appreciate and to wonder at the many different human attempts to come to terms with reality. Of course the study of a “dead language” can mediate this wonder (which is why the study of Latin and Greek was for a long time an integral part of school curricula). But there is nothing like hearing contemporary people actually speaking a language. This is why keeping a language alive, or restoring it to living speech, is a truly humane value of civilization.