Emory Report
March 27, 2006
Volume 58, Number 24


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March 27 , 2006
Divisions of language

BY Rachel Robertson

“I am creating a novel sentence right now that I’ve never uttered before but I know exactly how to do it. You have never heard it before and yet you understand exactly what
I am saying.”

This is the way Benjamin Hary begins his classes to demonstrate what he calls the “fantastic phenomenon” of language.

Much of Hary’s research is on Hebrew and Arabic, so he makes his academic home as associate professor in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies, although his interest in Jewish languages has also earned him an appointment in Jewish studies. In 1995 he helped found Emory’s linguistics program and served as the first director for several years.

Growing up during the 1960s in Israel, Hary witnessed a divided society. Being Ashkenazi (a Jew of European background), he was a part of the dominant culture but, from a young age, felt drawn to the language and culture of Arabs, and in school Hary chose to study Arabic.

“I remember walking on the street in Haifa when I was 16 or 17 and seeing a piece of paper that was in Arabic, and I would pick it up and figure it out,” he said. “I was really obsessed with understanding the language and culture.”

So began his fascination with what he calls “the other:” any group outside of one’s own culture. Although a well-behaved and studious child, Hary expressed his rebellion intellectually. “Growing up in a society that did not accept Arabs,” he said, “I heard many negative things about Arabs, which made me even more interested in them.”

He didn’t believe the things he heard, unwilling to accept that Arabs were “bad” people, and instead was intrigued by how the division in the cultures was expressed through language. This early desire to reach beyond what is known and accepted, to be inclusive, continues to influence Hary’s scholarship. “I have this agenda in me,” he said. “We, in academia, really pride ourselves that we are totally objective and we say we don’t have an agenda. I think we do. We just need to be clean about it and say what it is.”

As an undergraduate at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University studying Arabic and Hebrew, Hary first learned of Judeo-Arabic—a blending of the two languages into a “religiolect” that is primarily Arabic with characteristics such as Hebrew script. It is a language that dates back to the 8th century and offers a window into spoken Arabic of the past.

Because Arabic was the language of God for Muslims, their documents adhered strictly to the standard language and could hardly reflect the spoken variety, which was very different. But Jews (and Christians) were not constrained in this way, so a study of old Judeo-Arabic texts can reveal much about spoken Arabic in earlier times.

Chance—and some alert observation—brought an important finding early in Hary’s career. As a graduate student at the University of California–Berkeley in the 1980s, he once took a lunchtime trip with one of his advisers to a Jewish museum, the Judah L. Magnes Museum, and noticed an uncataloged manuscript set aside from the displays.

“It caught my eye because it was in neat handwriting and it had colors, some red writing in it,” Hary said. Probably destined for the trash, the document was written in Judeo-Arabic, so Hary made photocopies of it and suggested the museum hang onto it while he researched what it was.

Examining the copies, Hary and his adviser, William Brinner, discovered it was a copy of the 16th century “Purim Scroll” of the Cariene Jewish community that “celebrated the disappearance of Ahmad Pasha, a self-appointed Ottoman governor of Egypt who oppressed the Jews,” Hary said. The manuscript became the topic of his first book, Multiglossia in Judeo-Arabic, a comprehensive study that situated the document historically as well as characterized and explained features of its language.

Hary’s interest in Jewish languages does not end at Judeo-Arabic; he is interested in all of them (Yiddish, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Greek and Judeo-Spanish, are other examples). Indeed, he believes researchers should look beyond the 20 or so currently documented. All the languages vary, although many adopt Hebrew and Aramaic elements and are written with Hebrew characters. In Judeo-Italian, for instance, Hary said Italian morphemes (the smallest meaningful unit of language, such as “s” to denote plural in English) are added to Hebrew words: The Hebrew word paxad (“afraid”), with the addition of the Italian ending oso, becomes paxadoso, or “timid.”

“If I say this to Italian speakers, they will say, ‘This sounds Italian, but I don’t understand it,’” Hary said. “Wherever people want to distinguish themselves, they will also do it with the language.”

And so he is also interested in the more subtle differences in language, such as when young people want to create a culture distinct from that of their elders, or when women wish to forge their own identity. “Women,” Hary said, “use many more adjectives than men.”

In pursuit of this topic, and with a grant from the Center for Teaching and Curriculum in 1997, Hary developed the class, “History of American Languages,” which surveyed American languages and sociolinguistic behavior of the 20th century, focusing on the migratory aspects of language.

A more recent undertaking (one actually still in progress) has been the construction of the Corpus of Spoken Israeli Hebrew with Hary’s colleague, Shlomo Izre’el of Tel Aviv University. A valuable tool for linguists, the corpus is an electronic database of language (in this case, naturally spoken language) that can be used to understand how words function in context. Even in this endeavor, Hary sought to be inclusive by recording non-native speakers—a criterion not used in other corpora. In the case of Hebrew, he explained, where the ratio of native to non-native speakers is 1:1, it only makes sense.

“Shimon Peres, who was prime minister [of Israel], is not a native speaker of Hebrew,” Hary said. “Does that mean we can’t record him? Of course we should, because his influence on the language is huge.”

Hary is also committed to bringing “the other” to his students, not only through his classes, but even more directly by encouraging and assisting with several study abroad programs. As the director of Jewish studies’

summer abroad program, he introduces students to the history of the Sephardi Jews (originally from Spain). Students in the program first travel to Spain, studying life and culture before 1492 (when Jews were expelled from the country). During the second part, the group travels through France, Holland, Italy and Greece as they trace the path that Sephardi Jews took after being driven from Spain.

Thinking back on the role that multicultural understanding has played in his life, Hary wonders if his motivation for getting involved with the summer program was personal.

“My father is half-Mizrahi [a Jew of Sephardi and Arab descent], but we never acknowledged it because it was not good to be part of that; it was good to emphasize our German background,” he said. “So, now that I think about it, maybe I wasn’t just interested in ‘the other.’ Maybe I was trying to reclaim what was taken away in my own family history.”