Welcome to Petah Tiqwa... or is it Petah Tikvah?

A law passed in December authorized the transportation minister to draft new rules for transliterating Hebrew place names.

street sign 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
street sign 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Petah Tiqwa or Petah Tikva? Mevaseret Tziyon or Mevaseret Zion? Newcomers - especially English-speaking tourists and immigrants - are often struck both by what appears to many as a nonsensical way of spelling local place names in Latin characters and by the wide variations in the transcription of Hebrew names. Even sabras speeding down the country's highways often slow down enough to raise an eyebrow at the seemingly idiosyncratic spelling of a given town's name. A new method for transcribing Hebrew, however, is soon to hit the road. A law passed in December authorized the transportation minister to draft new rules for transliterating Hebrew place names, and decreed that these rules must be submitted for approval to the Knesset Finance Committee by September. The new law caused a certain amount of legal uncertainty, since it contradicted an existing one stating that the Academy of the Hebrew Language is the only body authorized to determine such rules. The issue was resolved when the National Roads Company and the Knesset Names Committee turned to the academy to come up with a new set of transliteration rules for place names that will oblige both the National Roads Company and the Mapping Authority. The academy's old transcription rules date to the 1950s and were never systematically adopted by the National Roads Company. "The National Roads Company's considerations are not necessarily linguistic ones," said Barak Dan, a member of the academy's grammar committee. "For example, it is concerned with making names on road signs as short as possible in order not to slow down drivers. For it, the transliterated place names are mostly meant to cater to the needs of tourists or English-speaking Israelis." For at least some members of the academy, the transliterated names should reflect as best they can the values of the Hebrew language. For example, most native speakers of modern Hebrew no longer distinguish, in their pronunciation, between the letters het and khaf. Assigning them both the same Latin character, however, would amount to officially foregoing this distinction. "When the letters are written in Hebrew, nobody is instructed how to pronounce them," said Ronit Gadish, the academy's scientific secretary. "But when you transliterate them using the same letter, you are basically telling Israelis they are pronounced the same way." "These are ideological questions, which the transliteration forces us to contend with," she said. Other, more conservative members of the academy insist that a single Hebrew letter must not be represented by a combination of two Latin characters, as is often done in the case of the letter tzadi - which is usually represented by the combination "tz" or "ts" (the academy has yet to decide which of these two combinations will be used in the new system). "Some academy members think transliteration should be sophisticated enough to reproduce distinctions in Hebrew," Barak said. "Every worldview brings completely different demands to transliteration methods." After a long period of debate, it was decided that the academy should come up with the simplest method possible, which has been prepared by a special committee and reviewed by the grammar committee. According to Gadish, systems for spelling Hebrew place names in Latin characters have a tradition that goes back to the translation of the Bible into various European languages. For instance, according to Gadish, the English spelling of the name of Jacob's brother, Esau, points back to the ancient Hebrew pronunciation of the name "Esav," when the Hebrew letter vav was pronounced similarly to the English "w." It is this same explanation that accounts for the seemingly peculiar spelling of Petah Tiqwa. The "q," meanwhile, is meant to distinguish the letter quf in the original Hebrew place name from the similar-sounding kaf, which is represented by the letter "k." "Unfortunately, this distinction between kaf and quf is one of the things that the public in Israel rallies against," Gadish said. The complexities of the academy's original, or "precise" method of transliteration, according to Gadish, have been compounded by the increasing influence of English and the expectation that place names should be compatible with its spelling conventions. Other problems arise in the case of place or street names that contain the name of individuals which have been spelled several different ways in Latin characters - such as Yitzhak, which according to the academy's old rules should be spelled "Yizhaq." "This name is spelled differently in different European languages," Gadish said. "In Jerusalem, for instance, street names containing the name Yitzhak are spelled in various ways, according to the spelling used by the individual after whom the street was named." The National Roads Company may start applying the new rules to new road signs as early as September. Within five years, the entire sign system is expected to have been changed.