Friday, July 17, 2015

Middle Eastern Languages

National languages seem like inevitable facts. The language of your country is like your dominant hand. You don’t choose it.  However, the modern Middle East shows how that seeming passiveness is an illusion.  Due to the area serving as a corridor between Asia, Europe and Africa, the Middle East has been host to countless empires, each imposing its own language.  To choose to speak a language different from your occupiers is a political statement.

Egypt, for example, was technically part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries until World War I.  Its administrators were Turkish, often Kurds.  Thus, Turkish was the official language of communication in Egypt.  It was only in the 19th century that a few intrepid Egyptians starting publishing newspapers in Arabic.  The Turks gave Arabic the same status as the French have given French Creole, a bastard language at best.  As part of the nationalist movement in Egypt, Arabic was used as a way of expressing Egyptian pride. So, the fact that Arabic is the official language of Egypt is an act of will.

That will is even more evident in the status of Hebrew in Israel.  Hebrew was a hibernating language for 2000 years, maintained only as in its written form.  Variants of Yiddish and Ladino were the lingua franca of Diaspora Jews in addition to the official language of the land.  The revival of Hebrew as an active language was an explicitly political act to create a Jewish identity and part of the overall program to create a Jewish state, a wild dream in the 19th and early 20th century.  The Turks, followed by the Brits, ruled this area until 1948, imposing their language for administrative purposes.  To learn and speak Hebrew in the 1920 and 1930’s was a statement of identity.  Later, the imposition of Hebrew became part of the plan of creation of the New Israeli (as compared to the Diaspora Jew),  a Jew whose cultural and linguistic past was cut off.  For practical purposes, to be Israeli meant and means that you try to speak Hebrew.  Accent and accuracy are irrelevant – listen how many of the Israeli’s early leaders spoke – as long as a person showed the intention to “fit in.” Still, the reality for the early generations of Israelis was quite different.  To demonstrate, in the Technion, there was a serious proposal to make German the language of instruction as most of the professors were German. Today, even Moslem, Christian and Druze Israeli, who daily language is Arabic, all speak Hebrew to the point that their Arabic has many Hebrew words inserted into it. The choice to make Hebrew the daily language was a conscious use of a language to establish identity, which was successful.

So, as people shape the physical world around them, they also influence their linguistic space.  There is nothing inevitable about it, especially in the Middle East.

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