Hebrew Hear-Say: The good word

The country might still be fighting for its survival, but Hebrew is thriving as a living language.

Given the the national mood, I tried to find a good word to say for Independence Day: I found hundreds. Or more to the point, a look at the Hebrew Language Academy Web site (hebrew-academy.huji.ac.il) delivered the goods. They say you can't argue with success. Israelis can argue over anything, but at least they do it in the Holy Tongue. The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language is one of the country's greatest success stories, second only, perhaps, to our continued existence - both against the odds. Even the way foreign words make their way into Hebrew is encouraging. Change and development are, after all, a sign of life. When was the last time Latin was blessed with a new term? A recent advert suggests the use of the verb "lebarbec" - to barbecue - instead of "lemangel," the word commonly used for the ubiquitous Yom Ha'atzmaut grill. It would be ironic if an English word supersedes the Arabic/Turkish-derived one for something so utterly inseparable from the Independence Day experience, but at least the grammar is good Hebrew. Just why the mangal has become so utterly Israeli provides food for thought for a different type of column, but I suspect it just suits our collective lifestyle: It's about being together with friends and family, it's hot and sticky and it's not for vegetarians. Consider the difference, for example, between what the Brits call the "royal wave," that demure gesture the queen uses as her car passes through freshly painted towns, and the blue-and-white wave - nifnuf - associated with fanning the flames of the barbecue. There are even gift nafnafanim - wavers - commonly given out along with flags ahead of Yom Ha'atzmaut. Strangely. among the greatest opponents of the revival of modern spoken Hebrew were Hebrew-language writers living in the Diaspora. In the same way certain haredi sects considered mixing the sacred and the profane in one language as about as kosher as a cheeseburger, the secular writers considered the language untouchable. The obvious problem being that it is a lot easier to write in a language that doesn't change than to try to live with it. (And, of course, it's easier to give advice from abroad.) Today there is a dynamic relationship between English and Hebrew. Many of the new words proposed in recent years by the Hebrew Language Academy have been proposed to replace English words of the type the classicists never had to deal with - chafitz for "gadget"; ne'imon for "ringtone" and galgeshet for "skateboard," to name but three. Sometimes it seems the words are like the children of Israelis raised abroad and returning home, a cross between the Anglo and Israeli mentalities with a Hebrew accent all their own. How successful their absorption will be is anyone's guess. All newcomers to Israel have heard that irritating phrase: "Kol hahat'halot kashot" - all beginnings are hard. Wordsmith Ruvik Rosenthal, who writes a popular weekly column in Ma'ariv, last year reviewed the factors that in his opinion affect the eventual fate of the words the academy proposes. One factor Rosenthal cites is the "penetrating agent" (sochen hachdara), when some institution adopts the word or phrase and spreads it, increasing its chances of success. Here, the medium is often the message: When Israel Radio, for example, adopted the term mivzak hadashot for a news flash, in a country of news junkies its success was almost guaranteed. A second factor, according to Rosenthal, is the "competition" - suggesting that haizar had no difficulty overcoming the foreign term "alien" and tochna and homra easily beat software and hardware, which do not drop readily off the Hebrew-speaking tongue. A third element to be reckoned with is what Rosenthal calls "fertile ground," when the new word grows up naturally and becomes widespread and the Hebrew Language Academy later adopts it: Gibui for back-up (based on gav/back), for example, finally beat the Academy's first choice timuchin (from tmicha/support). Obviously the more widespread and deeper-rooted the existing word, the more difficult it will be for its Hebrew replacement to nudge its way into the national consciousness: I have to give Rosenthal "kredit" for much of the material presented here even if the academy would prefer "mizkeh." And, as Rosenthal, notes, not all alternatives are so easy to swallow. Some don't so much roll off the tongue as make you gag: techiv, for example, is unlikely to shove "insert" out of the way any time soon, yesef for "drop-in" has not yet proved it is here to stay and takrish for "hair gel" has not, well, gelled. Some words, in my humble opinion, deserve more success than they have so far had: Ya'efet for jet lag, rageshet for allergy and aruchat kach velech for a take-away meal - unfortunately have yet to make their widespread mark. But others have become a fully accepted part of the Israeli experience: Meshivon for telephone answering machine and taklitor for compact disk, are obvious examples. As for that ultimate Yom Ha'atzmaut guys and grills affair, as we've seen, all attempts to replace the word mangal with matzleh have so far gone up in smoke. liat@jpost.com