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Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

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Dissertation Information

Title: Camoflaged Borrowing: 'FOLK-etymological nativization' in the service of PURISTIC language engineering Add Dissertation
Author: Ghil'ad Zuckermann Update Dissertation
Email: click here to access email
Institution: University of Oxford, Modern and Medieval Languages
Completed in: 2000
Linguistic Subfield(s): Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics;
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Greek, Ancient
Hebrew, Ancient
Yiddish, Eastern
Director(s): Suzanne Romaine
Dov-Ber Kerler

Abstract: Hebrew was comatose, one might even say clinically dead, for more than 1,700 years, going unspoken from the second century AD to the beginning of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century an attempt was launched to revive Hebrew, resulting in the formation of the language referred to in this thesis as Ivrit (=Israeli). The 'revivalists' sought to fill lexical voids arising from the paucity of texts in various disciplines. However, they ensured that this was not achieved by the direct transfer of loanwords. One of their most prevalent methods of lexical enrichment has been what I call 'folk-etymological nativization'. The latter is a technique by which a foreign word is reproduced in the target language, using pre-existing native elements that are similar to the foreign word both in meaning and in sound. Thus, the English word dummy was transformed into Israeli as דמה déme (cf. tank déme 'dummy tank'), making use of the Hebrew root d.m.h. 'seem alike' (cf. Biblical Hebrew d.m.y.), which is etymologically unrelated to dummy. Such multisourced neologization is an ideal means of lexical enrichment because it conceals foreign influence from future native speakers, recycles obsolete roots and words (a delight for purists) and facilitates initial learning among contemporary learners and speakers.

Linguists have not studied such camouflaged borrowing systematically but rather given it dismissive treatment. The traditional classifications of borrowing ignore this phenomenon (e.g. Einar Haugen's 'The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing', Language 26: 210-31, 1950). Furthermore, these classifications categorize borrowing into either substitution or importation, whereas folk-etymological nativization involves simultaneous substitution and importation. This oversight may have been excusable had folk-etymological nativization existed only in Israeli. However, as demonstrated in this thesis, the phenomenon is widespread in three key categories of language: (i) languages using 'phono-logographic' script, e.g. Chinese and Japanese, (ii) 'reinvented' languages, in which language-planners attempt to replace undesirable loan-words, e.g. Israeli and Revolutionized Turkish, and (iii) minority languages, e.g. Yiddish and languages spoken by Gypsies.

One of the conclusions of this thesis is that foreign languages can affect not only the lexicon of a language but also, often through the back door (e.g. via the lexicon itself), the morphology, the heart of the language. This thesis offers a new avenue of linguistic research which focuses on camouflaged interactions between languages.

In some cases, considered from a psycholinguistic perspective, the cultural stakes in such neologisms are extremely high. One can find examples even in ancient texts. In Rabbinic Hebrew, און גליון ’åwen gilyon, which literally means 'evil revelation-book', refers to the gospel (cf. Talmud: Sabbath 116a). This is a folk-etymological nativization of Greek ευαγγέλιον (cf. Latin euangelium) and can be interpreted as legitimizing contempt for Christianity. Obviously, the neologizers themselves were aware of their ingenious manipulation, and knew that Greek euangélion originally meant 'glad tidings, good news'. However, later generations of Hebrew users who encountered these terms might not have been so well-informed. This is a rejective 'lexical engineering': the folk-etymological nativization was produced in support of a xenophobic position. There is not only translation, but also 'correction', which brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges's remark, made in 1943: El original es infiel a la traducción (cf. 'Sobre el 'Vathek' de William Beckford' in 'Otras Inquisiciones' in Obras Completas, p. 732, 1974).