There is much to say about the sorry state of “Hebrew” in Israel. What now passes for “Hebrew” is naught but a garbled pigeon-English that is an insult to the ears, sounds like a comatose Frenchman choking on a (still living) frog and shouldn’t even be called a “language” at all. Of course there are individuals, in Israel, who are better than that but practically all Israelis under the age of 40 or so, who have been processed by the education system there, speak in the laziest manner possible. Israeli “Hebrew” as used on radio is certainly better but still a far cry from what it should be. All said, if every Israeli would just give up “Hebrew” and speak Arabic instead, they’d probably be closer to real Hebrew than what they have now. Apparently back in 1979 there was still hope and a man by the name of Dr. Abraham Matalon wrote a book about it. Dr. Matalon was born in Egypt and moved to Israel in 1949, where he was active in promoting the Hebrew language. I do not know if he is still alive. As far as I know, this book has never been translated into English. I’ve translated only the forward (minus the last couple of paragraphs) and here it is:
“The Hebrew Pronunciation in its struggle” by Dr. Abraham Matalon. Tel Aviv 1979
This book is an expanded version of a pamphlet that was published in 1965: “The Degeneration of Hebrew in Israel”. Many were shocked that we chose such a title for the pamphlet. For those who considered this to be a testimony of contempt for our language, in fact we come to redeem the disgrace of our beloved (language), to demand the return of its crown to its head and the restoration of its lost honor.
Everybody agrees that the situation of our language is steadily deteriorating, in vocabulary and the wonton intrusion of foreign words, and syntax – which is vulnerable to foreign influences without end, and in the realm of pronunciation. This is all because of a lack of coordination and rules.
Prior to the foundation of the State of Israel, it was common opinion that a struggle for the restoration of the language is a worthy cause, just like activism for the independence of Israel in its land. From the time that the State of Israel was announced, people became complacent for we had “achieved our goal”. A few demanded that the Zionist movement be disbanded, for its goal had been met according to them. Others sought to sever the historic ties between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, claiming that there is now an “Israeli identity” which is distinct from the dispersed Jewish people. Others even lost interest in fighting for the continuation of revitalization of Hebrew, since it was announced to be the national language of Israel. Voices were heard claiming that Hebrew need not be preserved in our mouths for we can expect, and make possible, the emergence of a new language that would replace “traditional” Hebrew. In order to facilitate the morphological, grammatical and phonetic replacements of Hebrew, they sought to free the people from “outdated” conventions.
Thirty years after the establishment of the State of Israel, there is still difficulty in defining three primary concepts in the life of our people and we ask: Who is a Jew? What are the boundaries of the State of Israel? What is the preferable pronunciation of Hebrew? The lack of historical, and linguistic, norms against these questions brings deep and great confusion to our society and even blemishes the faith of many in (the concepts of our) people, nation and language.
Even though the correct pronunciation was fixed at the beginning of the century, some educators rose up against rules that were contrary to what they were used to and they cast doubt upon the authority of those who had defined the correct pronunciation. New rules were not set and they argued that a solution not be reached until a later time. However, since the language was a living one, it required immediate solutions to unprecedented problems that arose. When people are appointed to teach the rules of a language and to publicize them, we would get expected answers – or, at least, close to those that would be expected. But when there are no rules, we get answers that are shocking and undesirable, that cripple the language’s ability to develop in ways that are faithful to its past and its foundations. Without fixed rules, behold “each man does what is right in his own eyes.” Each teacher teaches as he sees fit… and they all serve as a bad example for the ears of the people. Hebrew pronunciation is divided by the tribes of Israel and its statuses, according to societal dynamics. The mix of pronunciations in Israel might bring about a situation where “one man cannot understand the speech of his fellow” as was said about the people of Babylon in ancient times.
Hebrew, in our days, is like a maiden by a fork in the road under a flourishing tree: anybody who wishes has his way with her; but the city leaders see and say nothing. Verily it is so with Hebrew these days, our age can be called “the generation of chaos.”
Within the thirty years of statehood that have elapsed, groups of Jews have migrated here who have packed, within their baggage, the trappings of non-Western culture. From the beginning people arrived from different cultural backgrounds. Since solutions were not found to generally accommodate the social habits of these people, many problems developed and even worsened.
There were educators and public servants, in Israel, who believed that anything that had any hint of non-Western culture – must be considered “primitive”, and anybody who wished to be considered “modern” would hasten to distance himself from those things. There came to be a negative connotation and wholesale rejection of the family structure, of tradition and religion, of mannerisms, of traditional garb and cuisine. The fire of criticism spread to the Hebrew pronunciation of these Jews who had come from the lands of Islam. Their sons were handed over to educators who flooded their ears, as if it were some kind of wonder, a pronunciation that was different from that of their forefathers and that was contrary to the correct pronunciation. In the hearts of the students was solidified the conviction that they must abandon the pronunciation of their ancestors as if it were a despicable thing, that they must join the procession to become “modern” toward the “new” Hebrew. Just as they were taught to disdain the traditions of their fathers, so too were they taught to hold the correct pronunciation in contempt, since it was represented as primitive.
We should feel fortunate and say that, within the last few years, there has been a change for the good in Israeli society. They no longer put off societal problems until “time does what it will”. Many community leaders are prepared to admit that the path we took in the past, the wholesale throwing into the sea of all aspects of Oriental Jewish culture, is not acceptable. The drunkenness with “Western” culture is gradually subsiding with the revelation that some evils were gotten from there: drugs, abandonment of moral principles, spiritual destruction and a lack of faith in values. Will this wave of sobriety reach also to the realm of language, so that we may continue in our efforts to restore Hebrew to its correct pronunciation?
Our generation is troubled with severe physical and political problems: is it possible, within this situation to make heard the cry of Hebrew and its pronunciation?
Every language struggle, amongst peoples, arose and succeeded according to the degree with which it was integrated within their societal struggles. A language war is not waged on its own. The Hebrew language rose back to life as an essential vessel for the political rebirth of Israel. The struggle for the correct pronunciation will rise and succeed when it is seen as a vital force for the political rebirth and when it is strongly connected to Israeli society. At the same time that hopes of peace are being felt across the sea and over the heavens, so too does the demand for a correct Hebrew pronunciation go hand in hand with the need to bring Hebrew and Arabic cultures closer together.
Like any societal question, pushing it off for another day cannot solve the problem of pronunciation. On the contrary, every delay only makes the matter worse. The problem of pronunciation is tied to the question of Hebrew script, for the way to effective communication is double: hearing and seeing, the ear hears and the eye sees. It is necessary for the methods of script and writing bring about accurate reading, according to the demands of correct pronunciation. We can find a solution to the problem of Hebrew script without vocalization (vowel marks). Writing “kethiv maleh” (using some consonants excessively in order to compensate for the lack of vowels) is not the best way.