Hebrish or Engbrew?

While English speakers continue to shake their heads over the transliterations of Hebrew names and places, the Academy of the Hebrew Language is working on a solution.

academia lashon 88 (photo credit: )
academia lashon 88
(photo credit: )
Israel, as anyone will tell you, is a country where the only certainty is that uncertainty reigns supreme. Yet unlike many other truisms about Israel, this is one that does not require you to make aliya in order to smile knowingly while reading the previous sentence. How about just getting into your car and trying to figure out whether you are driving to Petah Tiqwa, Petah Tikva or Petach Tikva? Newcomers to Israel - 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 range of variations in the transcription of Hebrew names. Even native Israelis speeding down the country's highways often slow down enough to raise an eyebrow or two 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 new law, passed in the Knesset in December of last year, authorized the Minister of Transportation to determine new rules for transcribing Hebrew place names, and decreed that these rules must be submitted for approval to the Knesset's Finance Committee by September 2006. After the law was passed, the Israel National Roads Company and the Knesset Names Committee turned to the Academy of the Hebrew Language and requested it to come up with a new set of transcription rules for place names, which will oblige both the National Roads Company and the Mapping Authority. The Academy had already established a transcription system back in the 1950s, which included a simplified version for practical purposes such as transcribing place names on road signs. Even this simplified version, however, was not simple enough for the authorities and the general public, and has triggered continual resistance and a range of unscientific solutions applied ad-hoc throughout the country. "Israel is the only country in the world that has such large road signs, because of the legal requirement that they be in three languages - Hebrew, English and Arabic," said Beni Rom, the spokesperson for the National Roads Authority. "The prior system of transcribing Hebrew place names involved the Interior Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the Ministry of the Environment and local committees and municipalities, and this has created heterogeneous solutions to the transcription problem," he said. Over time, according to Rom, the Roads Authority (formally established as an independent statutory body in 1993) and its predecessors have received numerous appeals from the public concerning misunderstandings, misspellings and inconsistencies in the transcription of Hebrew place names. Several years ago, Israel's Mapping Authority had already requested that the Academy simplify its transcription system. Yet when the matter was brought up for review, according to Ronit Gadish, the Academy's scientific secretary, it turned out that at least some members of the Academy were in favor of a more precise system that would complicate - rather than simplify - the existing method of transcription. "That would have caused an even greater divergence from the habits of a public accustomed to English, so we stopped the process because we felt we shouldn't make things more complex when we had been asked to simplify them - especially given the public's resistance to the existing system," said Gadish. Following the passage of the new law, however, Academy President Professor Moshe Bar-Asher decided that the Academy must come up with the simplest method possible for transcribing place names. As a result, a new and simplified transcription method has been prepared by a special committee and reviewed by the Academy's Grammar Committee. The National Roads may start applying the new transcription rules to new road signs as early as this coming September. Within five years, Israel's entire road-sign system is expected to have transitioned to the new transcription system. ALTHOUGH THE Academy is expected to soon make public its new and simplified system for transcribing place names, its members are far from finished debating the preferred method of transcription. Indeed, the issues they raise exceed the specific issue of road signs and name places on maps and touch upon fundamental questions concerning the preservation of the Hebrew language in an increasingly global information society, in which Hebrew is transcribed for numerous purposes and in many contexts. The complexities of the Academy's original, or "precise" method of transcription, according to Gadish, have been compounded by the increasing influence of English in Israel, and the expectation that place names should be compatible with English spelling conventions. Most native English speakers, in fact, simply refer to the place names written in Latin characters as being written in "English." "Every worldview brings completely different demands to transcription methods," said Barak Dan, secretary of the Academy's Grammar Committee. "The National Roads Company's considerations are not necessarily linguistic ones. For example, they are concerned with making names on road signs as short as possible in order not to slow down drivers. For them, the transcribed place names are mostly meant to cater to the needs of tourists or English-speaking Israelis." At least some members of the Academy, by contrast, believe that the transcribed place names should reflect as best they can the values of the Hebrew language. "These are ideological questions which the transcription forces us to contend with," Gadish said. The distinction between a transcription and a transliteration is an important one in this context: A "transcription" refers to the attempt to represent in writing an oral version of a language; a transliteration, by contrast, is the attempt to represent the written form of a given language in another alphabet. A transcription that is meant to allow non-Hebrew speakers to easily recognize name places they have heard pronounced in Hebrew, or to easily pronounce them in a manner that approximates their Hebrew pronunciation, however, is far from ideal from the point of view of a Hebrew linguist. "The result of such a simplified transcription system is that you can't automatically transform the words back into Hebrew," Gadish said. The differences between the Academy's old and new "functional" transcription systems are essentially focused on the Hebrew letters tsadi, kof, het, kaf and vav - which brings us back to the question of the city currently known as "Petah Tiqwa," soon to become "Petah Tikva." "Petah Tiqwa," the original transcription decided on by the Academy, reflects the emphasis on preserving a number of important distinctions in the original Hebrew. The underlined "h" is the result of the linguistic principle that every letter in the original alphabet ideally be transcripted by a single letter in the corresponding alphabet - which precludes the use of the "ch" commonly used in English to transcribe the letter het. Yet the Academy's new transcription system offers a compromise when it comes to this satellite town near Tel Aviv: While the letter het will continue to be represented by an underlined h, the "q" and "w" in the original "Tiqwa" will soon become obsolete. The "q" in "Tiqwa" was used to distinguish the transcription of the Hebrew letter kof from the identical-sounding, yet distinct letter "kaf." In English, this distinction is still preserved in certain words derived from the Arabic, where a similar distinction between two "k" sounds exists - for example in the words Quran, or Iraq. In the new Israeli transcription system, however, this distinction will be lost. "Unfortunately, this distinction between kaf and kof is one of the things that the public in Israel has really rallied against," Gadish lamented. According to Gadish, methods for spelling Hebrew place names in Latin characters have a long tradition, which goes back to the translation of the Bible into various European languages. The English spelling of the name of Jacob's brother, "Esau," thus points back to the ancient Hebrew pronunciation of the name "Esav," when the Hebrew letter "vav" was pronounced similarly to the English "u." In the new system, the "w" in "Tiqwa" will similarly be replaced by the letter "v," which is equivalent to the modern Hebrew pronunciation of the letter vav. For linguists, these and other changes are fundamental. "When the letters are written in Hebrew, nobody is instructed how to pronounce them," Gadish said. When different Hebrew letters are transcribed using the same Latin character, however, the message is that there is no distinction between them - a message that is fundamental not only in terms of pronunciation, but also in terms of various linguistic issues pertaining to the very structure of the Hebrew language. As a result, some members of the Academy are adamantly opposed to these and other related changes. One of them is Uzzi Ornan, a professor of linguistics and member of the Academy who currently teaches at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. "When a language is written in a different alphabet, it remains the same language," said Ornan. "So when you write Hebrew in Latin letters, the words must continue to be Hebrew words." Ornan's goal is that even when Hebrew is written in Latin letters, readers will be able to reconstruct the structure of the original Hebrew word. "We have to ensure that the transcription does not change the language," he said. A transcription method that does not make the necessary distinctions between different letters, Ornan said, "Would be Israeli, not Hebrew - and that's a different language." Ornan favors the use of diacritic signs, which exist in numerous European languages, in order to transcribe certain Hebrew letters. Thus, for instance, he argues that rather than using the "sh" combination commonly used in English to transcribe the Hebrew letter shin, the solution is to use an "s" topped by a diacritic sign, like in Czech. "Every language has its own rules of pronunciation," Ornan said. "An Englishman does not pronounce the name of the French car 'Renault' the same way a Frenchman does. It's important to ensure that the transcription of Hebrew letters does not become English. Should we avoid diacritical signs simply because they don't exist in English? That amounts to establishing that English is the world's only language. "We are a country of immigrants with about half a million people who hardly know the Hebrew alphabet. If we transcribe different Hebrew letters using the same Latin letter, we are impeding them from understanding Hebrew," Ornan continued. Ornan's own transcription system, which he has simplified over time, is nevertheless still complex enough that it would require supplying tourists arriving in Israel with a short explanatory text on how to read and pronounce the road signs written in Latin characters. TRANSCRIPTION IS by no means a modern phenomenon. In the Jewish world, Hebrew letters were themselves historically used to transcribe other languages - not only Yiddish, which is written using the Hebrew alphabet, but also Judeo-Arabic, which was spoken by Jews in medieval Spain. In the early 20th century, Ataturk decreed that the Turkish language, previously written in Arabic script, be entirely Romanized as part of his program of Westernization. More recent examples of unofficial Romanization include the so-called Greeklish - a form of Greek written in Latin letters that is used in e-mail communication and which has evolved into a form of slang. Although the necessity of transcribing place names into English is far removed from an attempt to Romanize the entire Hebrew language, such attempts have been made in the past: Ironically, it was none other than Itamar Ben-Avi (the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the best-known pioneer of modern Hebrew) who first suggested entirely Romanizing the Hebrew language. Ben-Avi went so far as to consult with eminent rabbis, who decreed it was permissible for the sacred Hebrew letters to be transcribed for secular purposes. Nevertheless, certain dangers associated with Romanization may also arise in the case of limited transcription systems such as the one applied to Hebrew place names. "A transcription of Hebrew based on the principles of English pronunciation is problematic," said Sabine Huynh, a linguist at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem who specializes in languages in contact and is an expert on French-Vietnamese linguistics. As early as the 17th century, European missionaries in Vietnam began transcribing Vietnamese into Latin characters; today, the Romanized version of Vietnamese is the country's official means of communication. What the example of Vietnamese teaches us, according to Huynh, is that the transcription of a given language according to the principles of another language may well result in an impoverishment of the original language. At least some linguists, she said, believe that the Romanization of Vietnamese - which is a tonal language - has resulted in the reduction of the number of tones employed in contemporary Vietnamese, because the diacritical signs used by the French and Portuguese colonizers were not sufficient to match the original range of Vietnamese tones. "One of the disadvantages of Romanization is a reduction of the original language," she said, "because it inevitably results in simplification." May the Hebrew language itself indeed be affected over time by its transcription into Latin characters, whether this is done in a limited context such as that of official place names or in a wider range of both official and non-official realms - from the registration of names by the Interior Ministry to Hebrew e-mail communication in Latin characters? In a country predicated upon uncertainty, it is certainly difficult to tell.