A recent article sent around on the ANE listserv got me thinking once again about the links between language, identity, and self-communication. The article describes the controversy which has been caused in Israel by a “translation” of the Hebrew Bible into modern Hebrew (a transition which might compare to a version of Chaucer or Shakespeare in modern English). The Hebrew Bible is an important touchstone for the modern state of Israel, even for secular Jews. What interested me was not the “translation” itself, but the emotive nature of the controversy.

A culturally-defining role for language is common and well known; the reviving of Hebrew itself played a role in the creation of Israel from the British Mandate. In Ireland, Irish (Gaelic) plays a similar role for certain forms of Irish identity; Friel has explored how the English had previously used their language as a cultural weapon; Welsh is being used to demarcate a separate identity in Wales; the various regions in Spain are proud and defensive of their languages (Catalan, Galician, Basque, etc).

Language is important; it shapes (albeit doesn’t determine) our thinking, it enables us to communicate. I can understand people being interested in particular language(s), and of advocating a language they speak or enjoy. What I find mystifying is the from-the-hip responses languages often evoke. I am a native English speaker; I feel strongly about the quality of English used, but beyond that, it does not define me; I quite appreciate other languages (even if I have to struggle to learn them).

In certain situations it is obvious that language functions as a surrogate for self-determination; this is certainly the case with Ireland in the past and Wales today. But what of a case like the one with which the essay started? Israelis do not speak Biblical Hebrew; it is a dead language. I wonder whether the “translation” of Homer into Modern Greek would cause a similar controversy. Translation between similar languages already has a precedence in Ezra-Nehemiah (where it is presumably from Hebrew to Aramaic, closely related languages). Perhaps the uncertainty under which Israel lives is related to the strength of the controversy; were they at peace (with their neighbors and between themselves), perhaps it would not be so threatening.