Hebrew Hear-Say: In brief...

June 22, 2006 12:21
4 minute read.

New immigrants often have an initial problem understanding Hebrew. That's initial in both senses of the word. The Israeli media so assume that their audience understand abbreviations that they seem to specialize in sentences full of truncated terms that leave the uninitiated with little recourse other than to admit defeat and ask help from a sympathetic native speaker. When I made aliya at the end of the 1970s, this was further complicated by the fact that a popular catchphrase at the time was zabash'cha - short for zot habe'aya shelcha, that's your problem. It was this approach that led to Israel's most notorious road sign. For years tourists looking for a way out of the country could find directions prominently displayed on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, as long as they understood that "Natbag" is none other than the commonly accepted abbreviation of Nemal Hate'ufa Ben-Gurion, Ben-Gurion Airport. Talk about lost in translation. Recently I received an e-mail from a baffled oleh struggling to come to terms with the inexplicable propensity for the generally garrulous Israeli public to talk and write in abbreviations. There are the words that immigrants learn in ulpan: tapuz, from tapuah zahav for an orange; sakum, made up of the first letters of the words sakin, kaf umazleg, for silverware. At a slightly more advanced level, Hebrew-language students learn that bagatz (beit hadin hagavoa letzedek) is the Supreme Court and roham (rosh hamemshela) is the prime minister. And here lies part of the problem. An English speaker would have no trouble figuring out that PM is the shortened version of the guy at the top, but it assumes a certain familiarity that only comes with time. FYI, an Israeli in the English-speaking world has an equally hard time deciphering requests for CVs (that often need to be cc'd to more than one person). For that matter, most kids nowadays would have trouble figuring out the cc is "carbon copy" when carbon paper might as well belong to a period BCE. Corporate culture in the global village has also changed the way people around the world relate to each other. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when general managers (still known in Hebrew as mankalim - menahalim klali'im) became CEOs and told their treasurers to CFO themselves. It might sound posher (itself a word often thought to have been created in the days when the British high society - before there was such a thing as jets and jet setters - preferred when traveling by ship to have a cabin "port out, starboard home.") It's easy to think of other egs in which truncated English terms became the norm - TV, DJs and ATMs. In English, the problem is compounded by the propensity to use Latin and other foreign-language abbreviations, which are Greek to the average Hebrew speaker. (Think: a.m., p.m., PS, RSVP, etc.) One adjustment the new immigrant has to make when writing or reading formal letters is to remember that the Hebrew letters nun bet at the end are not the translation of nota bene but the equivalent of PS - nosaf betzido or nichtav batzad. The key to understanding Hebrew small talk is to keep in mind that while English abbreviations tend to be dominated by initialisms (BBC) and shortened versions of words (exams, ads), Israelis love acronyms. That's why Brits have MPs while in the Holy Land we are blessed with hacks (from haver Knesset). If you see the tell-tale double apostrophe-like notation in a word (gershayim), it's time to mentally start filling in the gaps. Naturally, the army has mobilized the use of abbreviations and acronyms and many of the military terms have conquered everyday life: the lowly shin gimmel (shomer gader, the soldier on guard at the entrance to the base) has been elevated to his own class outside the army. The humble hapash (hayyal pashut - literally, simple soldier) becomes anyone who takes orders. And most of the country now looks forward to hamshush, the unique Israeli version of a weekend made up of the letters het, shin, shin, which is short for the already abbreviated Hamishi, Shishi, veShabbat (Thursday, Friday, Saturday.) All branches of the military are shrunk to initials and so are even the most important military operations (remember when the Lebanon War was still Operation Peace for Galilee, known as Sheleg, for Shlom Hagalil?) The IDF and military reporters often use terms like emlah, emtza'ei lehima, for arms, and the anachronistic paha, peilut hablanit oyenet (hostile terrorist activity) as if there was any other kind of terrorist activity. May all our enemies' evil designs end up summed up in the letters alef nun, alef nun (ain nifgaim, ain nezek - no casualties, no damage). These are peculiarly Israeli initial thoughts but thanks to SMSs, language everywhere is being chopped down to size. Farewells in Hebrew can now be dismissed with the letters "bet bet" (bye bye) or the even more informal "Yod lamed bet" ("Yalla, bye").

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