The enduring bond between nationhood and language

For Jews, the ability to read and converse in Hebrew allows us to understand cultural texts and the language of our ceremonies and practices, writes Dafna Strauss WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
For Jews, the ability to read and converse in Hebrew allows us to understand cultural texts and the language of our ceremonies and practices, writes Dafna Strauss WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

One of the most spoken languages in Canada today is Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibwe people and other indigenous people in Ontario and Manitoba. Currently, there are about 25,000 Anishinaabemowin speakers, though that number has declined drastically in the past few generations, a result of the suppression of indigenous language and culture in residential schools.

Of course, the Anishinaabemowin-speaking nations are interested in the language’s revival, but there is another surprising source of interest in the language. Quantum physicists frustrated with the limitations of the English language – which tends to isolate, predict and categorize, and uses black-and-white statements – have developed an affinity for indigenous languages. They appreciate the way Anishinaabemowin describes the world – in flux, energy-based, with more verbs than nouns, relational, transformational, and without inherent characteristics – which is more in line with the way quantum physics explains our universe.

Conversations about nationhood and language come up frequently with First Nation chiefs and administrators in Ontario. Their communities see, directly, how language binds, provides access to culture, and informs mental health, and they see the consequences when that is absent. Their language revival work is a conscious nation-building effort to unify around a shared history, cultural competency and a return to an indigenous worldview.

The re-invention of modern Hebrew offers a similar narrative. In the 1880s, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, (born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in Lithuania in 1858), left his yeshiva, inspired by Enlightenment ideas and Zionism. He moved to Jerusalem to research and develop modern Hebrew, and, with his wife, Hemda, he wrote a dictionary, created a newspaper to disseminate the new language, founded the Vaad Halashon (Committee of the Hebrew Language) and raised his son in immersion/isolation to become the first native speaker of modern Hebrew.

For many years, ancient Hebrew had acted as the liturgical language of Judaism, while other languages were spoken on a day-to-day basis. The Ben Yehudas changed that. In fact, there was a stigma in the founding years of Israel against Yiddish language and culture, which were understood to be oppositional and subversive – the language of an underdog. The revival of Hebrew was a vital part of the Zionist project. Hebrew would be the language of self-determination, a straightforward language, not given to flourishes. Many Zionists even replaced their Diaspora surnames with Hebrew words, to affirm a new identity and adherence to the nationalist project.

The Ben Yehudas were clear about the link between language and nationhood. “The Hebrew language can live only if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland,” Eliezer once said. Hemda perhaps saw it the other way around: “If we have a language,” she argued, “we shall become a nation.”

Of course, not everyone agreed with this way of thinking. The Ben Yehudas came into conflict with the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem over religion and their handling of funds from Diaspora supporters. Ben Yehuda was excommunicated, and his works were banned. This disagreement was a factor in the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem’s decision not to adopt modern Hebrew as a day-to-day language. In modern Israel, this community persists in speaking Yiddish, which to some degree puts them at odds with the rest of the Jews in the country.

Meanwhile, in 1913, the school that would later became the Technion was founded by German donors. Hebrew then lacked many technical words for scientific instruction, so it was proposed that teaching at the new institution would be conducted in German. But demonstrations, town halls and a postering campaign changed the tide, and the precedent was set for schools of higher education to instruct primarily in Hebrew. Perhaps the leaders on the pro-Hebrew side remembered the biblical story of the Tower of Babel – a great communal project that fell apart when people no longer had the binding force of language.

Back in Canada, my clients and colleagues use multiple tactics to re-learn their traditional languages. Apps have been developed; communities offer formal classes and language immersion camps; and some have organized “language tables,” where people sit together for an hour conversing only in the language. I’ve also heard of a young man in British Columbia who has branded his apartment “Language House,” a place where he, his roommates and their visitors speak only in the traditional language.

The Jewish experience with language and nationhood is similar in many ways. For Jews, the ability to read and converse in Hebrew allows us to understand cultural texts and the language of our ceremonies and practices. Kabbalah, gematria, word-based exegetics, and traditions based on word-relationships are some of the garnishes on the Jewish experience.

I recall many years back hearing a chief say that, given the choice between investing in clean water or investing in language programs, the community would choose the latter. I didn’t understand then, but over the years I’ve come to know that language, just as much as water, can be an issue of sustenance and national survival.

Dafna Strauss is a government relations consultant working with First Nations in Ontario, and a Hebrew speaker.