The diaries are in Hebrew, a language which in Darwin's time was considered extinct, a linguistic dodo, having fallen out of use as anything other than a liturgical language for well over two millenia. As Darwin noted in The Descent of Man:
“Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears”.
But Hebrew provides the most telling counter-example to Darwin's and Lyell's dictum, with a revival which, I thought until recently, began a few months after Darwin's death with the birth of Itamar Ben-Avi. In particular, legend has it that Hebrew was re-born through the single-handed efforts of Itamar's father Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who had settled in Palestine in the early 1880s and insisted in speaking to Itamar solely in Hebrew.
However, it turns out to be not so simple as that. Although Itamar was the first native speaker of the language in modern times, the language's revival as a literary language had been underway for over a century, through the Haskalah, a Jewish version of the Enlightenment that brought European Jews into contact with the wider intellectual life of the continent.
In fact, one of the early responses to Darwin's Origin of Species was written in Hebrew. On reading The Origin, Polish-born Naphtali Halevi (1840–94) sought to reconcile evolution with the Torah. In 1876, six years before Itamar Ben-Avi was born, Halevi sent Darwin a long essay in Hebrew, Toldot Adam, which Darwin mentioned in his autobiography: “an essay in Hebrew … showing that the theory is contained in the Old Testament”.
Both essay and covering letter were in Hebrew, and as Darwin could not read the language, he asked Henry Bradshaw, librarian at Cambridge University, to have the letter translated. In the covering letter, Halevi addresses Darwin:
“To the Lord, the Prince, who ‘stands for an ensign of the people’ (Isa. xi. 10), the Investigator of the generation, the ‘bright son of the morning’ (Isa. xiv. 12), Charles Darwin, may he live long!”
In the essay, Halevi makes an argument, drawn from a rather idiosyncratic analysis of word use in the Torah, that there were no irreconcilable contradictions between Darwin’s evolution and the Genesis account of creation. For more information, see this paper by Edward Dodson.
Aside from extinction, Darwin makes other comparisons between biological and linguistic evolution. In The Origin he writes:
“It may be worthwhile to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world … The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical…”
While in the Descent of Man he writes:
“We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation."
The enduring conflict between Hebrew-speaking Israelis and Arabic-speaking Palestinians is never far from the news, but ironically Hebrew and Arabic provide a telling example of Darwin's principle of descent with modification, with obvious similarities even between the everyday greetings Shalom/Salaam.
In fact, recent population genetics study of the evolution of Jews and Palestinians, like this one:
High-resolution Y chromosome haplotypes of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs reveal geographic substructure and substantial overlap with haplotypes of Jews.suggest a deeper truth: not just are the languages related, but so are their speakers: Arabs and Jews are, biologically speaking, brothers!