Language, change in preserving the past

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2008

During this summer, if you were visiting Jerusalem, you would be able to go to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum to view the Great Isaiah scroll. It is the most complete text from the Dead Sea discoveries.

One can see and read the Hebrew words written 2,100 years ago:

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

It is remarkable that an Israeli citizen can read the words in language familiar to him or her. For 1,700 years, Hebrew was a dormant language, used by only scholars and religious leaders. The Jewish people had been dispersed from their ancestral home by war and calamity and had to adopt new languages to survive.

In the late 1800s, Zionism fostered a movement to restore a Jewish homeland and recreate a language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was born in Lithuania and immigrated to Palestine in 1881, was a leader in this effort.

The Scriptures provided many words such as justice, mercy and love, but not for mundane things. Ben-Yehuda started by inventing new words drawn from ancient biblical patterns and roots to fill in the needs of a modern world.

By 1914, a decision was made to teach only Hebrew in the Jewish schools in Palestine, and by the time the state of Israel was founded in 1948, a generation of Israeli's spoke Hebrew as their native tongue.

The revival of the language is hailed as one of the greatest feats of Zionist enterprise. Millions of people speak Hebrew and about 5,500 books a year are published in Israel.

But language is constantly in a state of change, reflecting new ideas and words. As stated in an article in the New York Times on Aug. 8, there is a current debate in Israel about how to encompass change with the desire to preserve the past.

We can use our own language of English as an example of the challenge. Although we can read and understand writing from 400 years ago, for instance the words of William Shakespeare, it would be much more difficult to clearly navigate the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written more than 600 years ago. We would need some tutoring to understand the unfamiliar words and sentence structure.

Perhaps two things might create some constancy in the future for English and Hebrew.

One is the example of great literature. The other is the handy dictionary, close by on arm chair or bed stand. Then one might still be able to decipher the words of Isaiah that they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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