Hebrew Hear-say: Look who's talking

Between the letters "alef" and "tav," we are taken on a journey of contemporary Israel in its own words.

September 11, 2007 11:48
4 minute read.


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How we talk says a lot about us. That is the premise behind the new book Speechless: How Contemporary Israeli Culture Is Reflected in Language (L'lo Milim, published in Hebrew [obviously] by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir). Speechless was compiled by Amalia Rosenblum and Zvi Triger. It seems to have been a labor of love - hard labor. In their introduction, the two writers explain that it was born out of their experiences returning to Israel from an extensive period abroad. "Anyone who has spent a winter in New York knows about Manhattan's wind tunnels. You come out of a subway station, you turn onto a main street, and suddenly you find yourselves up against a frozen, invisible wall. The wind is so strong that you can't walk in the face of it. You can't see this wall, but it's there. And there's no choice but to go in a different direction," they write. Both Triger, who studied law and worked in New York, and Rosenblum, who studied philosophy, anthropology and psychology there, found themselves, on their return, up against the local equivalent of a wind tunnel, "only this time we aren't talking about a meteorological phenomenon but a cultural-linguistic one. The Israel we returned to spoke Hebrew, but not the Hebrew that we spoke." It wasn't so much the slang that challenged them. Slang by its very nature is catchy. They were stonewalled by the new use of words that did not come easily to someone returning from the cold of Manhattan - the use, for example, of the word "hitnahalut" for the government's behavior instead of "nihul" (conduct). One of their coping mechanisms seems to have been working on this book, somewhere between a sociolinguistic textbook and a good read. It is not a dictionary of Hebrew slang but, as the title suggests, a serious study of language and mind-set. Set out alphabetically, it starts appropriately enough with "ajenda." Although the writers don't have an expressed agenda of their own, their frequent reference to the reflection of changes in the words used to describe different sectors of society - the use of Aravim (Arabs) instead of bnei mi'utim (members of a minority), for example, or the use of the word "homo" instead of "homosexual" - suggests their exposure to a liberal New York has left its mark. As they mark our words, however, they are sometimes stronger on the sociological side than the linguistic. Incidentally, Rosenblum depicts the success of "ajenda" in a large part to former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak's use of the term when opposing the appointment of Ruth Gavison to the bench. Rosenblum says theoretically it might be simply another case in which Israelis choose to use the English word over the Hebrew (seder yom) but tellingly in Israel "ajenda" is used only to mean a hidden agenda as opposed to something procedural. The last entries are "targia" ("relax," previously and more correctly teraga) and tithadesh (literally "renew yourself," but used when somebody has bought something new). This is described by Rosenblum as a "genius word that no polite person can manage without. I really don't know what else to say to a girlfriend who turns up with a dreadful, new haircut (let's say, bangs) other than 'Tithadshi.'" Traditionally, for a haircut one would say "Sapihes," more a term of congratulations, but with the idea of renewal you can acknowledge the transformation itself, as Triger points out. Between the letters "alef" and "tav," we are taken on a journey of contemporary Israel in its own words. There's the greeting "Sheyihye lecha yom kasum" - "Have a magic day" - which has replaced the equally annoying "Sheyihye lecha yom tov" ("Have a good day"), as the lately preferred greeting by shop assistants and marketing guys. As Triger notes, this is often simply a trick to distract attention from a basic lack of service. Let's face it, in New York, too, no salesgirl really cares whether you have a nice day or not. There's the evermore frequent use of the word "totali" - another English-speaking immigrant - which in Triger's view is perfect for the contemporary worldview which blurs the borders (totally) between public and private as can be seen in the celebrity culture, television reality shows and Internet blogs. No matter how comprehensive - and eclectic - the book is, it naturally missed a few changes which I've noticed lately: Not only has the word "ragil" disappeared, its replacement "normali" has been ousted by "normative"/"normativi." You can actually hear people say: "It started out as a normative day..." As with any language compendium, Speechless risks becoming quickly dated. It might reflect how we think and speak now, but in less than a decade, returning Israelis are going to find the invisible wall blocking roads already traveled by Triger and Rosenblum. The book didn't leave me speechless, but it did make me wonder how often people say what they mean and don't mean what they say.

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