One of the most important - and natural - elements of any national collective is language. People - and peoples - have deep attachments to language, which forms one of the most central components of the identity of any individual and any collective. The English speak English; the French speak French; any threat or insult to someone’s national language can lead to tension because people are immensely proud of their language. One of the interesting aspects of the tension about globalization is that some countries feel that the integrity of their language is threatened by the influence of the English language and American culture. There is no question that one of the basic elements in any collective is the feeling that people can speak to each other in the same language.
The Jewish nation has spoken many different languages during its long history. We tend to think that - at least in the Land of Israel - the Jews always spoke Hebrew; as so often, however, the reality was rather more complex. Even when Israel was in its native land, at the time of the Second Temple period, many spoke Aramaic and, in the latter part of the period, many among the upper classes spoke Greek.
As the Jews increasingly spread out into the wider world towards the end of the Second Temple period and in subsequent centuries, the diversity of the languages they spoke multiplied accordingly. Over the centuries, Hebrew gradually became more the property of the scholarly class. In many places it ceased completely to be spoken, becoming a language purely of prayer and study.
Several Jewish dialects developed in different regions that consisted of Hebrew grafted onto a framework of local languages. In addition to the most prominent examples - Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic - there are many lesser known ones, including Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Provencal and Judeo-Persian, to name but some of the more prominent. Many of these languages were customarily written in Hebrew letters but they are really separate, if related, languages.
Then there were the outside languages of the countries in which the Jews lived. Contrary to common belief, the Jews often spoke these languages well in the pre-modern period. The best example of this is Arabic, a language that Jews spoke and wrote for many centuries, elevating it at times to the status of a scholarly language for the examination of Jewish issues (especially in the field of philosophy).
When modernity arrived in Europe, the Haskalah (Enlightenment) promoted the speaking of vernacular European languages to the status of an ideology. Pushing a program of integration with the surrounding world, it became clear that one of the essential keys to entrance into the new and attractive world outside the Jewish community was language. Without the language of the non-Jewish world that lay beckoning, it would be impossible to mix with the local population.
In Jewish Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, a struggle broke out among committed modern Jews as to which language the Jews should consider as their own, legitimate, internal cultural language. Some saw Hebrew as the only internal language that Jews should learn and others swore by Yiddish. Ultimately a fully-fledged language war broke out, with the two sides increasingly lining up according to their political ideology: the Zionists spoke up for (and in) Hebrew while the socialists supported Yiddish.
The establishment of the State of Israel and the destruction of East European Jewry essentially decided the debate in favor of Hebrew. To all intents and purposes, in the contemporary Jewish world, Hebrew is unchallenged in its claim to being the Jewish language. Outside of Israel today, it is relatively rare for Jews from the same region to communicate with each other through the medium of any kind of Jewish dialect or language. Outside of formal learning situations, most Jews tend to speak Hebrew together in Israel, and in the Diaspora, non-Jewish languages.
Only a minority of the Jewish people today can actually speak Hebrew. In order for a Jew from one country to talk to another who speaks a different language, it is more common to use English than Hebrew. This raises a question: can a people that cannot speak one language be considered a people in any meaningful sense? It is to this question that we now turn.