Featured Linguist: Ghil‘ad Zuckermann

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann:

I was born in Tel Aviv and grew up Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel. My father was an Italian Jew who survived the Second World War in Italy and then arrived in Israel as a teenager in 1945. My own first memory is being rushed to the shelter during the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). As a child growing up in Eilat I experienced ‘Othering’ (defining oneself vis-à-vis the other) every day, looking at the spectacular, albeit inaccessible, unreachable, mountains of Aqaba, Jordan.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann before the “Prof. Dr.” titles!

In 1987, I hosted Yitzhak Rabin (then Israel’s Defence Minister) in Eilat. He arrived there on the Day of Youth in Power, when I served as elected mayor.

During that year, in 1987 I left Eilat for the international boarding school United World College of the Adriatic (Collegio del Mondo Unito dell’Adriatico) in Duino, Trieste, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy. It was my first time overseas and since then I never stopped travelling all over the globe; the college has changed my life.

I returned to Israel in 1989 and served in the Israeli army, followed by studies at Tel Aviv University’s Inter-Disciplinary Programme for Outstanding Students.

A wheelbarrow-full of books at Oxford!

Dr. Zuckermann in a Bookshop in China, travelling the world as always

My dream to look at Eilat from the OTHER side of the bay was fulfilled in 1995 – after Jordan (Hussein) and Israel (Rabin) signed the peace accord. Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, and I left Israel for a doctorate at the University of Oxford in 1996.

From Oxford I moved to Cambridge but in 2001 I fell in love at first sight with Australia, when I was invited to deliver a public lecture on what I call the Israeli language (the result of the Hebrew revival) at the University of Sydney. At the time, I was a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, while on sabbatical from the University of Cambridge. I returned to Singapore and Cambridge, but decided to look for an academic position in Australia. When I arrived in Melbourne in 2004, I asked myself how I might contribute to Australian society that was hosting me so graciously.


I identified two pressing in situ issues:

  1. the exasperating bureaucracy (there are democracies, and then there are aristocracies; some people might define our Israel as an adhocracy; modern Australia was founded as a bureaucracy, and today is a professionalized one); and
  2. the suffering of the Aboriginal people.

I said to myself: How could an Israeli professor assist in reducing Australian bureaucracy?!? I decided to invest my efforts in the Aboriginal issue.

Had I been a dentist, I would have tried pro bono to improve dental health among the Aboriginal people. I once offered a toothpick to an Aboriginal friend of mine after I shouted her a tender angus steak, to which she replied: “What is this?” “It is a toothpick”, I said. “I don’t have any teeth”, she retorted. (I had not noticed that she had chewed the steak with her gums.)

Had I been a psychologist, I would have tried to assist some Aboriginal people break their addiction to alcohol or smoking. But I am a linguist specializing in the revival of Hebrew and the emergence of the Israeli language, a hybrid language based on Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages spoken by revivalists.

So, I found a fascinating and multifaceted niche, in a totally virgin soil: applying lessons from the Hebrew revival to the reclamation and empowerment of Aboriginal languages and cultures. I decided to act in three fronts: macro, micro and “MOOCro”:

In the macro: since 2004: establishing “revivalistics”, a global, trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation (no native speakers, for example Hebrew, and the Barngarla Aboriginal language of South Australia), revitalization (severely endangered, for example Shanghainese, and Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia) and reinvigoration (endangered, for example Welsh, and Te Reo Māori in Aotearoa, i.e. New Zealand).

In the micro: since 2011: reclaiming the Barngarla Aboriginal language of Eyre Peninsula (e.g. Galinyala = Port Lincoln; Goordnada = Port Augusta; Waiala = Whyalla; all in South Australia). This is not a laboratorial enterprise. In 2011 I asked the Barngarla community if they were interested and they told me that they had been waiting for me for 50 years. How do I – a Jewish Israeli, son of a Holocaust survivor – help Aboriginal people undo what I call “linguicide” (language killing) done by English colonizers and reclaim the Barngarla language? By means of a dictionary written in 1844 by a Lutheran Christian German, Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann! This is, then, a patently cosmopolitan enterprise.

In the MOOCro, so to speak: since 2015: creating and convening a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) entitled Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages. So far I have had 12,000 learners from 190 countries (including Syria and Afghanistan).

I have detected three types of benefits of language revival:

Urak Lawoi is a language in Thailand undergoing revitalization efforts. Above, Prof. Dr. Zuckermann in Thailand during his involvement in the project–

The first benefit is ethical: what is right: Aboriginal languages are worthy of reviving, out of a desire for historic social justice. They deserve to be reclaimed in order to right the wrong of the past. These languages were wiped out in a process of linguicide. I personally know dozens of Aboriginal people who were “stolen” from their parents when they were kids. I believe in what I call “Native Tongue Title”, which would be an extension of “Native Title” (compensation for the loss of land). I propose that the Australian government grant financial compensation for the loss of languages – to cover efforts to resuscitate a lost language or empower an endangered one. In my view, language is more important than land. Loss of language leads not only to loss of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality and heritage, but also to the loss of the “soul”, metaphorically speaking.

South African Language Revitalization

The second benefit for Aboriginal language revival is aesthetic: what is beautiful: Diversity is beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. Just as it is fun to embrace koalas (in the hope that they have had their nails cut short) or to photograph baby rhinos and elephants, so, too, it is fun to listen to a plethora of languages and to learn odd and unique words. For example, I love the word mamihlapinatapai, in the Yaghan language, spoken in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The word is very precise and to the point in its meaning. Any attempt to translate it cannot be performed in fewer words than the following: “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves”. Despite the fact that any word in a language is translatable, there is a difference, at least aesthetically, between saying mamihlapinatapai and saying “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

Language Revival efforts are underway in Namibia

The third benefit for Aboriginal language revival is utilitarian: what is economically viable: Language reclamation empowers individuals who have lost their sense of pride and at times even the reason to live. This wellbeing empowerment can save the Australian government millions of dollars that would otherwise need to be invested in mental health and incarceration. Not to mention the various cognitive and health benefits of bilingualism. For example, native bilinguals are cleverer than themselves as monolinguals; native bilingualism delays dementia by more than 4 years.


Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann’s forthcoming book, Revivalistics, Cross-Fertilization and Wellbeing: Awakening Hebrew and Other Sleeping Beauty Languages, is in print with Oxford University Press.

Professor Zuckermann’s brief bio:

Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann (D.Phil. Oxford; Ph.D. Cambridge, titular; M.A. Tel Aviv, summa cum laude) is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is a chief investigator in a large research project assessing language revival and mental health, funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

He is the author of the seminal bestseller Israelit Safa Yafa (Israeli – A Beautiful Language; Am Oved, 2008), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), three chapters of the Israeli Tingo (Keren, 2011), Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property (2015), the first online Dictionary of the Barngarla Aboriginal Language (2017), and Barngarla Alphabet Book (2019). He is the editor of Burning Issues in Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (2012), Jewish Language Contact (2014), a special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, and the co-editor of Endangered Words, Signs of Revival (2014).

He is the founder of Revivalistics, a new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration. In 2011 he launched, with the Barngarla Aboriginal communities of Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, the reclamation of the Barngarla language.

Professor Zuckermann is elected member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL). He is President of the Australian Association for Jewish Studies (AAJS) and was President of AustraLex in 2013-2015, Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow in 2007–2011, and Gulbenkian Research Fellow at Churchill College Cambridge in 2000-2004.

Prof. Dr. Zuckermann with Stephen Fry in Israel

He has been Consultant and Expert Witness in (corpus) lexicography and (forensic) linguistics, in court cases all over the globe, e.g. the Philippines, Singapore, USA and Australia.

He has been Distinguished Visiting Professor at Shanghai International Studies University and taught at the University of Cambridge, University of Queensland, National University of Singapore, Middlebury College (Vermont, USA), Shanghai Jiao Tong University, East China Normal University, Shanghai International Studies University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, University of Haifa, and Miami University (Florida).

He has been Research Fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science; Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Institute for Advanced Study, La Trobe University; Mahidol University (Bangkok); Tel Aviv University; Institute of Linguistics, Shanghai International Studies University; and Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūjo, National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo. He has been Denise Skinner Scholar at St Hugh’s College Oxford, Scatcherd European Scholar at the University of Oxford, and scholar at the United World College of the Adriatic (Italy).

His MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages, has attracted 12,000 learners from 190 countries (speakers of hundreds of distinct languages): https://www.edx.org/course/language-revival-securing-future-adelaidex-lang101x

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