Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Hebrew - a changing language

For those Olim Chadashim who spend their formative months in Israel breaking their teeth on Hebrew nouns and trying to get to grips with Hebrew grammar whilst not falling asleep out of sheer boredom, it is somewhat gratifying to hear a familiar English word inserted into a burst of Hebrew. English is incredibly pervasive in Hebrew today with terminology becoming common usage before a Hebrew equivalent has been created, let alone given a chance to compete.

English words are often used in preference to the correct Hebrew ones. I well remember being laughed at in the army as I used a word that might have been acceptable according to "Ha'akademia" (ironically not a Hebrew word) - The Academy of Hebrew Language, but was certainly not in common colloquial usage. My favourite example is "Hasfan" (lit. "one who uncovers") - a correct word for an Archeologist. Colloquially however, one would say "Archeolog", "hasfan" being the (exceedingly logical) term for a stripper!

Hebrew Language day was marked yesterday by the Knesset(Jerusalem Post and Haaretz reports). The Prime Minister spoke against the use of English terms, naming TV companies HOT and YES as examples, and deriding the use of "yalla, bye" instead of "shalom". "The escalation in English taking over poses a great danger to Hebrew," said Academy Professor Moshe Bar Asher, quoted in the Haaretz article whilst conceding that "language is a dynamic thing with a life of its own and we don't want to impose innovations in Hebrew."

Modern Hebrew was brought back from the dead to become the language of the Jewish State and as such, made a start as a relatively "pure" language, without the influences of other tongues. Speaking the language in the early days was of ideological importance to the pioneers who built the state with foreign terms shunned as a matter of principle. It has helped to provide a unifying factor for subsequent Aliyot and to go into any Ulpan and see South Americans, Anglos and Francophones brought together and speaking in Hebrew is to me, still an emotional experience.

All languages change over the cause of time. Words constantly drop out of use whilst new ones are adopted and the rate at which this has happened has increased with the advent of the Internet and the extended reach of cable TV. English itself has seen various influences over the centuries alter it beyond recognition from the language spoken by Alfred the Great.

As long as the language continues to be taught in Israeli schools and ulpanim, and a recognition is given to what is correct Hebrew and what is slang then I believe that Hebrew is safe. Words and concepts will move in from other languages but are highly unlikely to take over in any circumstances and particularly if children are properly educated.

Just as we pepper our English with slang, so we will do with Hebrew - everyone wants to show how cool he is by using the latest term, whatever the language. At the same time we know that in using slang, we are not speaking properly and are, for the most part, aware of what we should be saying as opposed to what we do say. Hebrew is no different from any other language in this respect and will continue to evolve. Anything that does not continuously move forward stagnates and becomes irrelevant, language is an ongoing process and trying to stop this process is intrinsically unhealthy.



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