Shabbat Goy: A bilingual Jekyll and Hyde?

It’s worth considering how the language we speak shapes the way we engage with the world.

November 12, 2010 16:52
Worldview of a German and a Spanish butterfly

311_buttefly language cartoon. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Some friendly advice from a native Englishspeaking friend the other day: “Never date bilingual Israeli men. They are two completely different animals.”

How so?

“They’re as sweet as pie in English... but once they switch to Hebrew, you might as well be with another person altogether.”

I haven’t been thinking about dating Israeli men, as it happens. But the notion of a bilingual Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-ism intrigues me.

It has been said that to speak another language is to possess another person’s soul. Which, to be quite honest, sounds a little scary – I’m not sure that I am in possession of my own soul most days.

But that’s neither here nor there. What does interest me is something else; how does language shape the way a person engages with the wider world?

There’s some interesting research on the subject. Take, for example, the work carried out by Ben-Gurion University researcher Shai Danziger, in collaboration with Robert Ward of Bangor University. Using the perpetual tensions between Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking citizens of the country as a useful prompt, they devised a nifty little test that they ran by a number of Arabic-Hebrew bilingual Arab Israelis.*

The subjects sat at a computer screen and were shown either an Arab or a Jewish name together with a word describing either a positive or negative trait. They had to immediately press a button that characterized the nature of the pairing they saw on the screen; the intent was to test their implicit bias toward certain pairings of words.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when tested in Arabic, the subjects found it easier to associate Arab names with “good” trait words and Jewish names with “bad” trait words; but what was interesting about the study was that when the test was replicated in Hebrew with the same subjects, they showed less of a positive bias toward Arab names over Jewish names.

“People can exhibit different types of selves in different environments,” Danziger suggests. “This suggests that language can serve as a cue to bring forward different selves.”


So the next question that comes to mind is, what kind of self does the Hebrew language bring forth? English, unlike Hebrew, does not allocate gender to inanimate objects. So a bed, for example is an “it” rather than a she; and when my temperamental computer crashes on me, I would not say in English that “he” is acting up once more.

Of course, it should be noted that English is in a minority as far as this quirk of language is concerned; Spanish, Russian, Italian, French, German are all gender- sensitive, so to speak.

In his new book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, linguist Guy Deutscher – Israeli born, and I do not think this is a coincidence – notes that research over the years demonstrates that gender-specificity in language can shape the associations speakers make with the objects around them.

He observes, for instance, that a “German” bridge is feminine, but masculine in Spanish; the same goes for clocks, violins and newspapers. Conversely, apples, chairs, brooms and butterflies are considered masculine in German, but feminine in Spanish.

“When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more ‘manly properties’ like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant.”

Deutscher continues: “With objects like mountains or chairs, which are ‘he’ in German but ‘she’ in Spanish, the effect was reversed.”

I’ve always had the sense that Hebrew is a rather male-centric language. A colloquium of people, for instance, will always be described in the masculine once there is a single man amongst the number; so we have havrei Knesset to describe the country’s parliamentarians, even though there are 22 female Knesset members.

It isn’t something that I’ve thought about very often, but reading in this newspaper about the meeting at the Knesset last week to mark the anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 – which calls upon countries to increase the participation of women at all levels of conflict resolution – the notion of how language shapes our world view came to the fore.

Tzipi Livni, as one would expect, was eloquent on the role that women can and should be allowed to play “in determining their future and that of the country”; Ehud Barak – steeped in the very masculine language of the army, as one would expect from a former chief of General Staff – was more lukewarm, but grudgingly acknowledged that women should play some role in peace negotiations.

But Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) was having none of it. “When the prime minister takes his wife with him to negotiations, doesn’t that count?” he questioned. “It is very respectable for the prime minister’s wife to be with him.”

As the representative of a religious party, it is fair to assume that Ze’ev has a perhaps slightly more conservative view of the world around him; I also suspect that he takes the meaning of the Hebrew word for husband, ba’al – which also means “owner” – more literally than perhaps a more liberal-minded person.

So what does this all mean? It might be useful to get all Israelis to take their high-school studies in Arabic a bit more seriously, for one thing. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more aware, in everyday Hebrew, of the role of gender distinction in shaping implicit assumptions.

We can’t go very far until we are all speaking the same language, after all.

*As an aside, I imagine that it wasn’t possible to run similar tests with Arabic-Hebrew bilingual Jews, since most of them are probably in a form of employment that makes such things impossible. But I’m just guessing here.

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