Hebrew Hear-Say: Almost exactly the same thing

Throughout history, Hebrew has been adopting and adapting foreign words.

October 11, 2007 13:03
3 minute read.


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Throughout history, Hebrew has been adopting and adapting foreign words. Just ask the Hebrew Language Academy - Ha'akademya Lalashon Ha'ivrit - whose very name is proof of the way living languages develop to incorporate words and concepts from "out there." The Sapphire Dictionary of Foreign Words and Terms by Eitan Avneyon, which I reviewed a year ago, contains a huge selection of some 30,000 terms and words which have "made aliya." (You might have noticed that the Hebrew verb la'alot has completely fallen from grace and been ignobly replaced by the composite "la'asot aliya," "to make aliya," using the Hebrew words with the English syntax.) Some terms undergo a Hebrew conversion so successful that Avneyon prefers to call them "adopted" words rather than "borrowed." Others have not so much crept in as dropped in, as if by parachute, fully armed and able to combat any resistance: "Zap" and "flirt," to name just two, easily knocked out any local competition. Sometimes words have been chosen simply because of their similarity to the English: Lahit for "hit" (as in "popular" or "hit parade") is just one example. A huge number of words are the same or almost the same - it's often just a matter of pronunciation or accent. I remember an army comrade who tried for what seemed like hours to get me to say "kitbeg" instead of "kit bag." For him the pronunciation was "otomati" (automatic), whereas my tongue refused to wrap itself around such a version without feeling forked. In the end I issued an ultimatum; he said I meant "ool-ti-mah-toom," and in the best tradition of the Louis Armstrong song concerning the argument over "potato" and "potahto," we decided "Let's call the whole thing off." Too much ego (or egg-o, as my friend would pronounce it.) But this anecdote (anekdota) is a digression (digresya?). The blue-and-white marketing scene, with its accent on all things American, frequently favors almost-English words such as "originali," "otenti" for authentic, and dinami (dynamic) - a situation which is far from idiali (ideal). Idyot (idiot) and imbatzil (imbecile) both function as epithets when you lose your temper without finding your Hebrew. Be warned, however: One of those wonderful new immigrant bloopers that readers often send me recalled a case of hilariously mistaken identity when the newcomer assumed "hedyot" (layman) meant idiot and proceeded to insult someone who was actually praising his unusual grasp of a subject. Some words are the same - or almost exactly, to be oxymoronic. "Terrorist," for instance, (just roll the "r"s) is also used in Hebrew - but it only refers to the perpetrators of atrocities abroad. Attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets (tfu, tfu, tfu) are carried out by mehablim. "Atmosfera" is acceptable in Hebrew but used only if you're talking about outer space. The ambiance of a restaurant, or any other place on Earth, is referred to as "avira." You might find something intriguing, but be careful how you express that interest in Hebrew. If you use the word "intriga," it will definitely be seen as a matter of intrigue in its most negative sense. For that matter, interesim, too, implies vested interests rather than anything broader. And you might find a lost puppy in the rain "pathetic" in English but the Hebrew "pateti" is used only in the loser-type sad sense, such as a politician struggling to remain in power. Each word is "individuali." Nothing is "absoluti," as they say around here. One word that you quickly learn (and learn to live with) is "overdraft." Meshichat yeter just doesn't have the same appeal as a foreign word which at least makes being in debt sound "egzoti" (exotic). Some words are universal. Or near enough: They are universali. There are optimists and pessimists in Hebrew too. But it took Arab-Israeli writer Emil Habibi to coin the term "opsimist," an elegant combination of the two concepts - almost integrali, an integral part of the Israeli state of mind. Talking of which: "Tact" is "takt" - in such short supply that there hardly seems to be a point in coming up with a Hebrew term for it, at least according to the stigma. ("Stigma," despite what you might think, is pronounced the same way in Hebrew as in English.) Compiling a full lexicon (leksikon) of Hebrish words (or their paraphrases/ parafrazot) could be a real project (proyekt). I'll again call the whole thing off here, with the hope that at least some of this has been informativi and not too abstrakti. It's hard for me to be obyektivi. liat@jpost.com

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