The University of Texas at Austin
  • Professor Aaron Bar-Adon created Hebrew linguistics field

    By Jessica Steinberg
    Published: Dec. 21, 2011

    JERUSALEM, Israel — “Beresheet bara elohim et hashamayim veet haaretz (In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth),” read aloud Professor Aaron Bar-Adon in his rich, careful Hebrew, reminding the audience of possibly the most famous text from Genesis in the Old Testament.

    Aaron Bar-Adon
    Professor Aaron Bar-Adon was elected to the Academy of the Hebrew Language in November for his contributions to the field of Hebrew studies.

    “This is the drama of the creation of the world,” he told the room of eminent Hebrew language scholars. “There is a certain anticipation about what is next. What is the next secret to be revealed?”

    He continued, drawing out the guttural sounds from the words in the following verses.

    “You must read it the way it was intended to gain a sense of the historical drama,” proposed Bar-Adon, professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. “Everyone reads ru-ach (wind), but it should be read as it sounds, like the wind and the spirit. We can almost hear the wind on the face of the water,” he added.

    Outside the lecture hall, the cold November rains of a typical Jerusalem winter day blew against the windows, bringing some chuckles and knowing smiles to the Hebrew linguists in a moment of linguistic onomatopoeia.

    It was the start of Bar-Adon’s November address to Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Academy of the Hebrew Language. The speech followed his recent appointment to the academy, which oversees the development of modern Hebrew and prescribes standards for the language.

    Bar-Adon has spent decades studying and teaching Hebrew linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin, and, in visiting stints, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the seat of the academy. He helped create the field of study that seeks to understand a language that helped shape civilization and was uniquely resurrected in a modern form during the past 125 years. Bar-Adon also contributed to the growth of the linguistics and Hebrew programs that have taught thousands of Texas students.

    In this particular lecture, Bar-Adon wanted to emphasize that until the time of the Masoretes, during the sixth to ninth centuries, the Hebrew Bible was transmitted without vowel marks, making it difficult for the average reader and even scholars to know how to read the text.

    “They ‘vowelized’ the Torah and therefore reduced the possibility of ambiguity,” he said. “But ambiguity is a great asset, because you can then interpret the text in different ways. The question is, what do you do with it?”

    The key, Bar-Adon told the audience, is to penetrate the inner music of the text, thereby showing the greatness of the biblical text.

    “It’s a little like coming to the lion’s den,” he commented, speaking afterward about the lecture. “Here’s this room full of Hebrew linguistic experts, and I was apprehensive, because it’s a tall order. But they told me, you are one of the Hebrew linguist experts.”

    So he is. Beginning with his doctoral dissertation on the formation of Hebrew language of children, published in the early 1960s, Bar-Adon was one of the first Hebrew linguists to study the rise of children’s Hebrew.

    At the time, he pointed out adults’ purist attitude toward the revived language and the continuous losing battle that teachers and educators fought against the use of slang by school-age children. He later moved on to the subject of Galilean Hebrew, studying the continued use of an ancient dialect in the towns and cities of the northern Galilee in Israel.

    “With Dr. Bar-Adon’s work, [Hebrew] linguistics began to flourish,” commented Reuven Merkin, a fellow linguist and retired professor of linguistics at Hebrew University. “He taped children speaking Hebrew, he taped Galilean Hebrew, and he has a treasure trove of tapes. With his Ph.D, Hebrew linguistics started flourishing. He sanctified the subject.”

    Merkin met Bar-Adon at Hebrew University in 1957, when he was studying for his bachelor’s degree and Bar-Adon was completing his doctorate in linguistics. It was the beginning of the era of Hebrew studies, and Bar-Adon was breaking ground examining Hebrew spoken by children.

    “He was the first person who thought of it as a subject,” Merkin said.

    By 1962, Bar-Adon was living and working in Austin after having spent nearly 20 years at Hebrew University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. At the time, Israel was small and somewhat provincial, and working abroad in the United States allowed him and his family to “expand their horizons,” Bar-Adon said.

    There wasn’t yet a linguistics department at The University of Texas at Austin, just a program, but the early stages of the department allowed Bar-Adon to expose himself and his students to a range of Middle Eastern linguistic studies, including Hebrew and Arabic, Chinese and some less common European languages.

    “Professor Bar-Adon’s teaching and research has attracted a loyal and enthusiastic following in and beyond the Department of Middle Eastern Studies for half a century,” said department chair Kristen Brustad.

    “We are extremely proud of his election to the Academy of the Hebrew Language,” she added. “Professor Bar-Adon was a major figure in building the strong Hebrew Studies program at UT Austin, and we hope to carry his legacy forward for many years to come.”

    As for Bar-Adon, he said he hasn’t yet fully retired.

    “I’ll always be a scholar and a teacher,” he said. “That’s just who I am.”

    • Quote 2
      lynn levit said on Jan. 21, 2012 at 10:27 a.m.
      Mazel Tov on your well deserved accalades. Your efforts have made us all proud. Also wish your son, Eshel, all the best in his endeavors as well. All the best for a healthy, productive, and peaceful 2012. Most sincerely, Lynn Levit
    • Quote 2
      Dr. Rene Cisneros, Ph.D. said on Jan. 20, 2012 at 1:58 a.m.
      Congratulations Professor Bar-Adon on a well-deserved honor. Your silver streams of hair, black suits, child language research experiences, concise theoretical remarks, together with accounts of the rebirth of Hebrew in Israel made afternoon grad seminars in Calhoun Hall at UT in the 1970’s guiding landmarks in my linguistics formation that I still savor and use today. Rene’ Cisneros, Ph.D., 1978, UT Applied Linguistics and Foreign Language Education; Proteus, Inc., Fresno, CA 93705; email: renebeti@comcast.net
    • Quote 2
      Raymond Edge, PhD-UT said on Jan. 13, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.
      Congratulations to Professor Bar-Adon on such a great honor. He guided my PhD work at UT in 1995, and I still remember his Genesis 1:1 reading. In fact in my Hebrew teaching today, I do the same. G-d's Blessings on you Prof. Bar Adon.
    • Quote 2
      Zelda Austen said on Jan. 12, 2012 at 7:49 p.m.
      Dear Professor, It was such a great pleasure to read about your recent and past honors in the UTexas Newsletter today - from your admiring neighbors around the corner, Zelda Austen and Arthur Gubernick.
    • Quote 2
      Nihat Polat said on Jan. 12, 2012 at 7:07 p.m.
      I took a class from Dr. Bar-Adon and it was truly inspiring...he is like a walking library...
    • Quote 2
      Helen C. Spear said on Jan. 12, 2012 at 4:56 p.m.
      Congratulations, Professor Bar-Adon on your singular honor.
    • Quote 2
      Harold Billings said on Jan. 12, 2012 at 4:44 p.m.
      During my many years directing the libraries at Texas. Bar-Adon was a colleague, a friend, and a challenge! His efforts helped strengthen the library's holdings in the Hebrew language. His daily swims in Gregory Gym helped bring him into physical shape and probably promoted the energy that he brought to scholarship and collection building. Bar-Adon, you have walked in God's light. Congratulations!
    • Quote 2
      Brad Moore said on Jan. 12, 2012 at 4:38 p.m.
      While I was not a part of his program, Dr. Bar-Adon was still one of the most critical and toughest professors I experienced in my economics/history studies 20 years ago. And I am thankful and appreciative for that. Congratulations to a scholar.
    • Quote 2
      Jane Moore said on Jan. 3, 2012 at 11:07 a.m.
      Professor Bar-Adon, Congratulations on being honored in this way. Your contributions to the Hebrew language are unsurpassed. It is good that UT has told a bit of your fascinating story!
    • Quote 2
      Keith Kelly said on Dec. 29, 2011 at 10:58 a.m.
      Dr. Bar-Adon is a great scholar, teacher and all around mensch. I am a former student of his who will always be in his debt. Thank you Dr. Bar-Adon and congratulations.
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