Even if it's all talk, at least it's in Hebrew. The
Holy Tongue finally seems to be fighting back. First, there was the
decision last month by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to start the day
in elementary and junior high schools with five minutes dedicated to
correcting common Hebrew mistakes - and that means common in both
senses of the word - and then there was the cabinet decision last week
declaring 21 Tevet, the birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, as National
Hebrew Day and establishing a committee to come up with recommendations
on how to strengthen the language in day-to-day usage.
The ministers will also look into creating an NIS
70,000 annual prize in Ben-Yehuda's name for those working on the
development of the language, as well as asking local authorities to
name streets and public areas after those who, like Ben-Yehuda, have
contributed to the revival of Hebrew. The panel will be chaired by
Moshe Bar-Asher, chairman of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, who
was later interviewed on Israel Radio praising the efforts as "creating
a good climate."
But if the committee is to have any real effect, it should
start looking even closer to home. The street names don't say it all -
the real estate projects are talking. And Ben-Yehuda would find it hard
to understand them.
According to a survey carried out by the Eldar Company, which
markets real estate throughout the country, some 50 percent of housing
projects now have non-Hebrew names. The survey was carried out in 2008
and first reported by Ofer Petersburg in Yediot Aharonot
Mamon financial supplement. I tried in vain to contact Eldar to get an
update on the figures, but judging by the fact that its Web site and
recorded phone message both carry the slogan - in English - "Beyond the
numbers, beyond the sale," I have to conclude that the trend to opt for
English has not changed.
Possibly the project most associated with luxury
housing here is Tel Aviv's YOO Towers, upmarket in every sense. Since
the name is more of a concept than a trade mark - much the same way
that the Ritz symbolizes luxury hotels - I was prepared to forgive them
the fact that it does not come naturally to native Hebrew-speakers.
That was until I decided to find out what the initials actually stood
for. The company's helpful staff in London informed me: "It largely
came about as the product is all about YOU (the purchaser) not US. We
set out and try to inject a higher level of customer service through
the product. [Designer] Philippe Starck preferred YOO to YOU and also
he likes names which have no meaning."
YOO can say that again. Well, I leave it to defenders of the
English language to judge how well poetic license mixes with business
license, but it seems a pity to me that if luxury projects are going to
carry English names, the names aren't at least in good English.
Other high-rises built on the same marketing
principles as noted in the Eldar survey are LIFE & HEIGHTS in
Modi'in (which also sports LIFE & GREEN), YOUNG in Be'er Ya'acov,
ONE in Bat Yam, VIEW in Ness Ziona and Y in Rishon Lezion - which
leaves me wondering why (or Y) indeed?
For other examples, readers in Israel need only look around.
With the heightened sense of awareness that came from preparing this
column, I came across ads ostensibly in Hebrew advertising places with
names including the words "valley" and "tower" (which can't even be
spelled easily in Hebrew). There are also several royals, which always
brings to mind that old joke about the (definitely luxurious) Royal
Beach Hotel, pronounced in Hebrew as "bitch." Feel free to choose your
favorite version regarding after whom it was named.
And this is only part of the phenomenon. There is also a
similar fad of giving stores English names, written in English -
sometimes correctly - and massive marketing in a language that the
queen might just recognize but would be beyond the understanding of
even the greatest of prophets. If there's a sign of the times, it's the
English shop names in malls called Center something or other.
Sa'ar might do better to boost English lessons at this rate.
Predictably, his suggestion focusing on the misuse of the language was
discussed at length in the Hebrew media, with those in favor feeling it
was a small step in the right direction and those against claiming it
was stifling the natural development of the language. Prof. Ghil'ad
Zuckermann, author of Yisraelit Safa Yafa (Israeli, a beautiful language
), who is making a name for himself as a maverick linguist, went as far as to claim in a Channel 1 television interview and a Yediot
op-ed, "Just as the Jerusalem artichoke is neither an artichoke nor
Jerusalemite, so the language being termed incorrect Hebrew is neither
Hebrew nor incorrect. It is grammatical Israeli."
Yaron London, the veteran journalist who put Eliezer
Ben-Yehuda's life, work and story into a well known song, is a
self-proclaimed Hebrew-language loving dinosaur. In his recent Channel
10 TV series London, Corner of Ben-Yehuda
he took to the streets to examine what has happened to Hebrew.
In a fascinating episode on the Americanization of Israel,
London discovered that marketing is the name of the game. Not only do
most companies think that English sells better, apparently the Israeli
consumer also happily swallows the English sound bites.
It is not just English that has made inroads in Israel. While
there are more native Hebrew speakers than ever before, the language is
a victim of globalizatzia
with kids growing up on
Spanish-language telenovellas dropping words like "muy" into their
speech, very often. The pre-state era when the order of the day was "Ivri, daber Ivrit
(Hebrew [man], speak Hebrew) sounds not only politically incorrect, it
is sooo obviously dated to the days before the Net was cast worldwide.
Even the term to emigrate to Israel, la'alot
has taken on the English form and become la'asot aliya
But the immigrants are not responsible for the change. It is the global
world of business, media and the Net. There are some who believe that
it's not so much a language that is in danger of dying out, but a set
of values. The discussion is not new, of course. Periodically,
various personalities in Tel Aviv pronounce the need to clamp down and
enforce the bylaws declaring that store names should appear in Hebrew.
But it needs more than lip service. Wouldn't Paris, for example, lose
some of its chic if they didn't say it in French? Why should Tel Aviv,
known as the First Hebrew City, not show some similar national pride?
And doesn't Jerusalem lose some of its special holy feel with every
extra English name that tries to trip off the tongue?
Nonetheless, there are some bright spots. Israel Radio's Rega shel Ivrit
(A minute of Hebrew) is still so popular it has starting broadcasting
three times a day. And Yaron London's show might have been aired on
commercial television sandwiched between ads that must have made him
cringe, but at least it provided food for thought on a channel best
known for its diet of tochniot realiti (reality shows).
Even before the cabinet's decision last week, Yediot's
Petersburg noted the trend of municipalities calling squares, streets
and even whole neighborhoods after Israeli entertainers and artists. Ir
Hayamim in Netanya, for example, now boasts streets signs bearing the
names of songwriter Ehud Manor, entertainer Dudu Dotan and singer Arik
Lavie - music to our ears. So many signs, and so many wonders.