Methods and costs of language revitalization: Data from Hebrew in the 30's

Elana Shohamy

Tel Aviv University, Israel


The need to prevent languages from 'dying' or 'sleeping' and take steps to maintain, sustain revive and re-vitalize languages following a plan for 'reversing language shifts' (RLS) (Fishman, 1991, 2000) is embedded nowadays in arguments surrounding 'the ecological debate' (Romaine/Nettle, 2000; Pennycook, 2005). Within this debate the phenomenon of the vernaculization of spoken Hebrew is viewed as a successful case of RLS, demonstrating that language re-vitalization is possible, feasible and successful. This paper will focus on the methods and mechanisms used, and the costs paid for reviving the spoken variety of Hebrew and to constructing it as a symbolic and hegemonic language for Jews migrating to Palestine in the period of 1930-40. It contextualizes the phenomenon within a framework of language policy consisting of ideology, policy and practice (Spolsky 2004) but emphasizing the expansion of this framework to include the very mechanisms used and the costs and consequences involved in carrying out such language policy (Shohamy, 2006).

Two sets of data were collected for providing insight into this complex phenomenon: a. archival materials located in one town in Israel where newly arrived immigrants spoke a variety of languages but were forced into Hebrew at home and in the public space. The data consisted of public documents, municipal correspondence acting as mediators between key political figures in Palestine, members of activist organization, public organizations and individual 'citizens' stipulating codes and rules of language behaviors. Methods included, among others, language proficiency tests, sanctions about employment, limiting publication of 'foreign' newspapers, threat letters, violent public activities in the public domain, language monitoring activities, directed especially against the two widely spoken languages of Jews in Palestine at the time: Yiddish and German; b. interviews conducted with people, now in their 80's, reporting on their own language biographies with a special focus on coping strategies and accommodations and effects on their identities while responding to demands for language shifts. The results of the analyses will be contextualized within the need to gain deeper understanding of the processes and costs of perpetuating national language ideologies, the strategies of responding and the personal costs paid of the individuals at whom the policies are directed, especially in the situations of the impossibilities of reaching ideal norms. A major point raised will be the extent to which Hebrew represents a unique case or is rather similar to other contexts where language ideologies are imposed on immigrants and indigenous groups; also of interest will be the ways in which these type of data can be incorporated into a broader theory of language policy.

Session: Paper session
Planning/policy 8 (Ideology)
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 14