It had to be Yoo?

The English names given to the country's real-estate projects say a lot about the modern State of Israel.

January 21, 2010 17:56
4 minute read.
eliezer ben yehuda 88

eliezer ben yehuda 88. (photo credit: )


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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's 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.

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