Lewis Glinert: Language dreams – An ancient tongue awakens in a Jewish baby

GlinertIn a Jewish section of Jerusalem, in 1885, a young couple, Eliezer and Devora Ben-Yehuda, were fearful for their child: they were rearing him in Hebrew, an unheard-of idea. They had taken in a wet-nurse, a dog and a cat; the nurse agreed to coo in Hebrew, while the dog and the cat – one male, the other female – would give the infant Itamar an opportunity to hear Hebrew adjectives and verbs inflected for gender. All other languages were to be silenced.

When Itamar turned three, however, he had still not uttered a word. Family friends protested. Surely this mother-tongue experiment would produce an imbecile. And then, the story goes, Itamar’s father marched in and upon finding the boy’s mother singing him a lullaby in Russian, flew into a rage. But then he fell silent, as the child was screaming: ‘Abba, Abba!’ (Daddy, Daddy!) Frightened little Itamar had just begun the reawakening of Hebrew as a mother tongue.

This is how I heard the story (embroidered, no doubt, by time) when I interviewed Itamar’s last living sister, Dola, for my BBC documentary ‘Tongue of Tongues’ in 1989.

As a young man in Russia, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born Perlman) had a far more modest dream: Jewish cultural rebirth. Groups of eastern European Jews, intensively schooled in the Bible and the Talmud in the traditional religious way, were beginning to explore a new, secular Jewish identity, built on reimagining their past and at the same time forging a ‘modernised’ Hebrew to acquaint fellow Jews with contemporary arts and sciences. Hebrew novels started appearing in Warsaw and Odessa, along with periodicals, newspapers, textbooks and encyclopaedias. They variously called their project haskalah (‘enlightenment’) or tehiyah (‘reawakening’).

Cultural renaissance, of course, was a rallying cry across 19th-century Europe, driven by a romantic reverence for a simpler or more glorious national past and, especially after 1848, by tumultuous struggles for ethnic and linguistic self-determination. The driving forces and goals were various and complex. Some, such as ennui in the soulless big city or the mobilisation of the masses through literacy, were modern; others were rooted in old ethnic identities or a respect for the vernacular in the arts and religion. The words and ways of the peasantry had a particular ring of authenticity for many nationalistic intellectuals, often neurotically out of touch (as Elie Kedourie and Joshua Fishman have documented) with the masses they aspired to lead. These sophisticated intellectuals were equally enchanted by childhood and the child’s access to truth and simplicity, as celebrated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake and William Wordsworth.

To the vast majority of Jews, Hebrew language and Hebrew culture felt passé – pious, outmoded, arcane. The future, as they saw it, lay with English, German and Russian, and with the education, earning power and passport to assimilation that these languages promised. Migration to the West was on many minds. The young Ben-Yehuda was well aware of this. If current trends continued, he believed that his generation might well be the last erudite enough to understand its Jewish literary heritage.

But what kind of cultural ‘liberation’ could Jewish nationalists hope for? The Jews had no territory of their own, and a Jewish state, even Jewish autonomy, seemed a fantasy. (Zionism as a mass movement was still a generation in the future.) Nor was there a Hebrew-speaking peasantry or a Hebrew folk heritage to turn to for authenticity, or so it seemed. Hebrew was incorrigibly adult, stuffy. There was Yiddish, of course, the vernacular of most European Jews in the 19th century, but they generally considered it undignified, comic, a language without a grammar, a mishmash.

Then, in 1878, as Europe was toasting Bulgaria’s triumph against the Ottomans, the 19-year-old Ben-Yehuda had his epiphany. As he recalled years later in his memoirs: ‘The heavens opened … and I heard a mighty voice within me calling: “The rebirth of the Jews and their language on ancestral soil!”’ What if Jews could build a modern way of life in the Holy Land – raising their children to speak the old language?

Ben-Yehuda wanted great literature to be preserved down the generations. But to speak in order to read? Today, it sounds back-to-front, but in the 19th century it would have seemed quite reasonable. The trouble was that no child had used Hebrew as a mother tongue in close to 2,000 years. Thinking logically, Ben-Yehuda reasoned that a new mother tongue would need a willing mother: and so he found one, in an intellectual young woman named Devora Jonas, raised like him in Yiddish and Russian, and with only the barest knowledge of Hebrew. (Intensive textual study was traditionally reserved for young men.) No matter – they would marry and she would learn. In 1881, the young couple set sail for the Holy Land, pledging to set up the first secular, ‘progressive’ household in the pious city of Jerusalem, and to communicate with each other (and eventually, their children) only in Hebrew.

Speaking Hebrew was actually nothing new in itself; it had long been a lingua franca between Yiddish-, Ladino- and Arabic-speaking Jewish traders (and refugees). The markets of the Holy Land had resonated with Hebrew for hundreds of years. But a pidgin is not a mother tongue. Ben-Yehuda was a born philologist; he plucked words from ancient texts and coined his own, hoping one day to launch Hebrew’s answer to the Oxford English Dictionary. The birth of Itamar gave him an opportunity to put his experiment with Hebrew to the test. Could they rear the boy in Hebrew? Could they shield him from hearing other tongues? And, just as critical, could the family be a model for others?

Devora’s limited Hebrew was presumably sufficient for a three-year-old, but, like immigrant mothers everywhere, she eventually learned fluent Hebrew from her children, thereby demonstrating the two-way validity of the model. Ben-Yehuda, however, won the acclaim. ‘Why does everyone call him the Father of Modern Hebrew?’ sniffed the author S Y Agnon. ‘The people needed a hero,’ a politician wryly quipped, ‘so we gave them one.’ Ben-Yehuda’s political vision and scholarly toil complemented the physical toil by which the Zionist pioneers made their return to the Holy Land sacred.

Many more pieces had to fall into place in subsequent years to turn a language of books into a stable mother tongue for an entire society – some carefully laid, others dropping from heaven. But amid the waves of revolutionary-minded migrants deeply schooled in traditional texts, the developing demographics, economics and institutions of a new nation, the nationalistic fervour, and a lot of sheer desperation, we should not forget Hebrew’s very special version of the romance of a child’s talk.

The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert is out now with Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Margaret Peters: Trump wants to restrict trade and immigration. Here’s why he can’t do both.

Why have countries increasingly restricted immigration even when they have opened their markets to foreign competition through trade or allowed their firms to move jobs overseas? In Trading Barriers, Margaret Peters argues that the increased ability of firms to produce anywhere in the world combined with growing international competition due to lowered trade barriers has led to greater limits on immigration. She explores the ideas in her book within the context of the current administration in a new post on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog.

Immigration and free trade are connected—but they point in opposite directions

Immigration policy often seems a long way off from trade policy, but the two are intimately connected through their impact on U.S. businesses. When trade is restricted, which is what Trump is proposing to do by renegotiating NAFTA and ending KORUS, businesses that rely on a lot of labor will produce more of their goods—and employ more people—here in the United States.

So far, so good for Trump’s promise to bring back manufacturing jobs.

Here’s the big catch: Native labor in the United States is expensive

Increasing the number of jobs for U.S. workers will lead (eventually) to higher wages across the U.S. economy. Businesses may then find that the protection they get from these trade barriers is wiped away by the increase in wages they have to pay — they can’t produce goods at a low-enough price to be competitive.

Read the full article on the Washington Post’s website.

Margaret E. Peters is assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Peters

Inside the pages of Mariposas Nocturnas by Emmet Gowin

GowinAmerican photographer Emmet Gowin is best known for his portraits of his wife, Edith, and their family, as well as for his images documenting the impact of human activity upon landscapes around the world. For the past fifteen years, he has been engaged in an equally profound project on a different scale, capturing the exquisite beauty of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. Essential reading for audiences both in photography and natural history, Mariposas Nocturnas reminds readers that, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.”

Emmet Gowin is emeritus professor of photography at Princeton University. His many books include Emmet Gowin and Changing the Earth. His photographs are in collections around the world, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Art. Terry Tempest Williams is an author, conservationist, and activist. Her books include The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

The ampersand: everyone’s favorite glyph

September 8th is national ampersand day. That’s right, the ampersand, a quirky little character that’s practical, pretty and beloved by typographers and book-nerds alike, has a day of its own. Technically a ligature of “e” & “t” (et in Latin, meaning and), the ampersand is a visual stunner that certainly deserves the shout-out. We asked our own designers and creative director to comment on their favorite ampersand fonts, and they were all too eager to oblige.

“Poetica, by Adobe type designer Robert Slimbach, is a typophile’s dream. Based on chancery script handwriting of the Italian Renaissance, this gorgeous typeface has a profusion of ampersands: an extremely impressive 59 variations! Check out those swash-y ones in the bottom row!” – Chris Ferrante, designer and ampersand aficionado

“My favorite kinds of ampersands tend to be the ones that have a really high contrast between the thick and thin strokes. My current favorite would have to be Bauer Bodoni Std 2.” – Jess Massabrook, designer

“I love ampersands. They remind me of treble clefs and Dali’s mustache—playful and lyrical. My favorite is Caslon 540 Italic because its curves and tentacle-like squiggles are simultaneously elegant and fun.” – Maria Lindenfeldar, Creative Director

Want more ampersands? Check out our “PUP ampersands in the wild” post on Instagram from earlier today and this great article on Spoon Graphics on the sexiest ampersands.

Bird Fact Friday – The Red Faced Warbler

From pages 422-424 of The Warbler Guide:

The Red Faced Warbler can be easily identified by its red face, throat and upper breast. It also has a black cap that extends down the sides of its head to create “earflaps”, a white belly, and a long gray tail that is often flipped or wagged. It also has a short, thick bill and a single white wing bar with a blackish edge. The Red Faced Warbler is the only U.S. warbler with a bright red face.

The Red Faced Warbler

The Red Faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons) perched on a branch. Photo Credit: Michael H. Bruce

While feeding, the Red Faced Warbler tends to be acrobatic and hang from branches. It has a long, slender shape, and its pale white rump is clearly visible during flight. This warbler has a limited range and altitude but, in Arizona and New Mexico, it tends to prefer mixed forests and steep terrain, typically above 2000m.

warblerThe Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton

Warblers are among the most challenging birds to identify. They exhibit an array of seasonal plumages and have distinctive yet oft-confused calls and songs. The Warbler Guide enables you to quickly identify any of the 56 species of warblers in the United States and Canada. This groundbreaking guide features more than 1,000 stunning color photos, extensive species accounts with multiple viewing angles, and an entirely new system of vocalization analysis that helps you distinguish songs and calls.

The Warbler Guide revolutionizes birdwatching, making warbler identification easier than ever before. For more information, please see the author videos on the Princeton University Press website.

Welcome to our new director, Christie Henry

Just before Labor Day, we warmly welcomed Christie Henry, formerly of University of Chicago Press, as she began her tenure as the new director of Princeton University Press. Her distinguished list at Chicago and extensive knowledge of the landscape of university press publishing are incredible assets as she leads the PUP team into the next era. We’re thrilled to have her on board.

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Rachel Toor interviewed Christie as part of their Scholars Talk Writing series. In it she discusses the relationships that drive success in the world of books, the job of an editorial director, the financial landscape of academic publishing, how to bring scholarship to a general audience, publishing challenges, and more:

That Christie Henry has left the University of Chicago Press after 24 years to take over as director of Princeton University Press is a boon for her and her new colleagues. For the staff at Chicago — and its authors, including me — well, it’s been bittersweet.

As editorial director for the sciences, social sciences, and reference at Chicago, Christie was involved with my book project from its inception, providing enthusiastic support and smart suggestions. My editor, Mary Laur, credits her former boss with teaching her how not to be a “crappy editor.” (Mary is, in fact, anything but.) At Chicago, Christie published a distinguished list that included The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, The Oldest Living Things In the World, How Animals Grieve, and Relentless Evolution.

When I got the advance copy of my new book, it came gift-wrapped in University of Chicago Press paper. Then Mary emailed asking me for the name of an administrator at my university so she could send a copy of my book announcing its publication. Mary credits Christie Henry with those nice touches. That made Christie a good candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series, for both personal and professional reasons.

Let’s talk about some of these publishing lagniappes.

Henry: Truly, I can take no credit for the gift wrap. I think it came with the founding of the press in 1891! The experience of wrapping a book to me is a moment of reflection — a poignant reminder that we occasionally do need to pause, to celebrate what we have accomplished, and to then regift. The return of a published book to an author is a gift of collaboration. That final published form needs to be celebrated by all of those who touched its pages, its endpapers, and I think the wrapping paper symbolizes that celebration.

And for the additional copies we gift, this ensures that the celebration is not too localized. It takes more than a proverbial village to make books, including the support of administrators and peers. We all know of the disruption books can cause in an author’s life. In the sciences, I found that, because journal articles are the tools of professional evolution and credentialing, department chairs and deans were often unaware of book-length authorial endeavors. I felt it necessary to share the successes on behalf of the authors, and ensure their administrators were aware of their accomplishments.

Read the full piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education here. You can find another great interview with Christie in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

A peek inside Designing San Francisco by Alison Isenberg

IsenbergDesigning San Francisco is the untold story of the formative postwar decades when U.S. cities took their modern shape amid clashing visions of the future. In this pathbreaking and richly illustrated book, Alison Isenberg shifts the focus from architects and city planners—those most often hailed in histories of urban development and design—to the unsung artists, activists, and others who played pivotal roles in rebuilding San Francisco between the 1940s and the 1970s. An evocative portrait of one of the world’s great cities, Designing San Francisco provides a new paradigm for understanding past and present struggles to define the urban future. Check out our trailer below:

 

 

 

Alison Isenberg is professor of history at Princeton University, where she codirects the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. She is the author of Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It.

Jean Tirole on Economics for the Common Good

When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

What inspired you to write this book, and what did you learn in the process?

I wanted to show how economics can open a window to the world. I have long taken part in policymaking, conversing with private and public decision-makers, but as yet I had never engaged with the wider public.  After receiving the Nobel Prize I was regularly asked by people I met in the street or as I gave talks to explain to a broader audience the nature of economic research and what it contributes to our well-being. Not as a commentator on each and every topic, but simply to share with the public how scientific knowledge can guide economic policies and help us understand the world we (will) live in. I tried to write a book that is intelligible for any intellectually curious reader even with no or slight knowledge of economics. The book is divided into 17 stand-alone chapters so the reader can pick and choose.

Can you talk a bit about the value of making economic ideas comprehensible to a general audience?

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like us all, they respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being (re)elected. Very rarely do they go against majoritarian public opinion. So we, citizens, get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although it of course has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is “the common good?”

Economics for the Common Good is an ambition: to help our institutions serve general interest by studying those situations in which individual motives conflict with the interests of society, in order to suggest policies that align social and private interests. The invisible and the visible hands—the market and the State—are mutually complementary; to function well a market economy needs an efficient State to correct its failures. But sometimes the State does not work for the Common Good; for example, many countries are leaving their children substantial levels of unfunded public debt, unemployment, a degraded educational system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for the digital upheaval that our societies are on the brink of encountering. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the Common Good.

Why do economists have a reputation as “scaremongers?”

I have already mentioned our cognitive biases. Economics is accessible, but can be counterintuitive if one stops at first impressions. Accordingly, and as I illustrate in the book though housing, labor market, climate and other public policies, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions. Public policies—the reflection of the electorate’s beliefs—too often ignore side effects. Contrary to general opinion, these side effects are usually borne by third parties rather than the beneficiaries of the policies. Economists, when pointing to the indirect harm on mostly invisible victims (e.g. those who don’t find a job or decent housing, or the taxpayers), are often accused of lacking empathy for the intended and very visible beneficiaries.

Economists may also be the bearers of bad news; while the classical economics representation of a society of purely self-interested individuals is a mediocre description of reality (the book details how morality is privately and socially constructed), when economists mention the need for incentives they trigger anxiety and resistance; we would all rather live in a world of honest, hardworking and empathic citizens. To my mind, the whole point of economics is to design policies and institutions that work towards reaching this different world, where individuals spontaneously operate for the Common Good.

Economics has come under sharp attack, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Is it a science?

Economists’ judgment may be impaired by financial conflicts of interest, political friendships, or ambitions to be a publicly recognized intellectual. But we must also be humble and accept that as a science, economics is an inexact one. Like any science, it is built on to-and-fro between theory, which provides a lens to the world and allows us to understand observations and describe their implications, and empirical work, which measures the importance of effects and helps question the theory: lab experiments need fieldwork, econometrics, big data. But our knowledge is imperfect; good data may be unavailable, theories may oversimplify, and behavioral patterns and self-fulfilling phenomena (such as bank runs or bubbles) may complicate the analysis. Overall, an economist will generally feel more comfortable analyzing past events and proposing future policies rather than forecasting. A characteristic that is incidentally shared by doctors and seismologists, who detect environments that are conducive to a heart attack or an earthquake and provide useful recommendations, and at the same time may be hard-pressed to predict the exact timing of the event or even whether the latter will occur at all.

TiroleJean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, has been described as one of the most influential economists of our time. He is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Theory of Corporate Finance and Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System.

A peek inside Mariposas Nocturnas by Emmet Gowin

American photographer Emmet Gowin is best known for his portraits of his wife, Edith, and their family, as well as for his images documenting the impact of human activity upon landscapes around the world. For the past fifteen years, he has been engaged in an equally profound project on a different scale, capturing the exquisite beauty of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, French Guiana, and Panama. Throughout Gowin’s distinguished career, his work has addressed urgent concerns. The arresting images of Mariposas Nocturnas extend this reach, as Gowin fosters awareness for a part of nature that is generally left unobserved. Essential reading for audiences both in photography and natural history, this lavishly illustrated volume reminds readers that, as Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.”

 

 

Emmet Gowin is emeritus professor of photography at Princeton University. His many books include Emmet Gowin and Changing the Earth. His photographs are in collections around the world, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Art. Terry Tempest Williams is an author, conservationist, and activist. Her books include The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

Bird Fact Friday – Virginia’s Warbler

From pages 446-448 of The Warbler Guide:

Virginia’s warbler is recognizable from its grayish back and head, the variable yellow patch on its breast, and the chestnut crown patch which is often hidden on the top of its head. This type of warbler also has a long, thin, gray tail, along with grayish wings, without any brighter edging. This warbler has a limited range and habitat and can be found in brushy areas during migrations.

Virginia’s Warbler (Oreothlypis virginae) perched on a branch. Photo credit: Jim Burns

There is some variance between these warblers. For example, their chestnut crown is sometimes more easily seen. Additionally, the yellow on their breast can vary from almost none to extending from their throat to mid breast. Some of these patches are bright and stand out, while others have been patchy with gray on their sides.

warblerThe Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle
Drawings by Catherine Hamilton

Warblers are among the most challenging birds to identify. They exhibit an array of seasonal plumages and have distinctive yet oft-confused calls and songs. The Warbler Guide enables you to quickly identify any of the 56 species of warblers in the United States and Canada. This groundbreaking guide features more than 1,000 stunning color photos, extensive species accounts with multiple viewing angles, and an entirely new system of vocalization analysis that helps you distinguish songs and calls.

The Warbler Guide revolutionizes birdwatching, making warbler identification easier than ever before. For more information, please see the author videos on the Princeton University Press website.