Words, words, words

Ruth Almagor-Ramon has the final say on the Hebrew language at the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

RUTH ALMAGOR-RAMON sits in her office at the Israel Broadcasting Authority. (photo credit: EHUD STAMLER)
RUTH ALMAGOR-RAMON sits in her office at the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
(photo credit: EHUD STAMLER)
In a fortunate development for Israeli Facebook users, the literal – and awkward – Hebrew translation of the social networking site’s name, Sefer Panim, was never considered.
Listeners recently learned this tidbit on the popular Rega Shel Ivrit (A Minute of Hebrew) spot, which marked the 10th year of Facebook this past February.
Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the spot’s producer and language adviser at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, then talked with author Nava Semel about global words related to Facebook that entered Hebrew in precisely the same way as their English counterparts: “like,” “time line,” “feed,” “post” and “status.” Other derivatives that adapted a Hebrew twist include the verbs “l’fassbek” (to be on Facebook), “l’anfrend” (to unfriend), and “l’tayeg” (to tag), they said.
Part of Almagor-Ramon’s work is to monitor the many English and foreign terms used in modern Hebrew. Recently awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for the Hebrew Language at a ceremony in Rishon Lezion, Almagor-Ramon sees the prize as a triple honor – highlighting the importance of the Hebrew language, honoring her 42 years of work for the IBA, and recognizing the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which sent her to the IBA.
Always on call, Almagor-Ramon fields calls and emails from reporters, broadcasters and advertisers, verifying whether their texts – which she receives in written format or read to her over the phone – are fit to be broadcast. She advises and offers tips and explanations on issues of diction, word stress, grammatical forms, sentence order, word choice, disambiguations and politically correct terms.
“The problems in Hebrew differ from English.
Although English spelling is challenging since it’s not phonetic, Hebrew is difficult at the word level, especially when one word can be read in a few ways as there are no nikud signs [indicating vowels].
It’s a difficult language to broadcast, and each sentence can be a minefield.”
At her home in Jerusalem, as part of her morning routine, the radio is on as she leaves notes to follow up on later in both the IBA’s Romema studios and its Heleni Hamalka Street studios. In her small office, surrounded by Hebrew dictionaries, Almagor-Ramon has her ear tuned to the radio to monitor the Hebrew.
Almagor-Ramon is the contact for the IBA’s radio stations, including Reshet Bet, known for its news and general interest programs, Reshet Gimmel for Israeli music, Reshet Alef for classical music, and Radio Moreshet for Jewish content. Sometimes REKA Radio – with programming in different languages for immigrants – consults with her. Her team includes Smadar Cohen and Miriam Tair, who work mainly in the Tel Aviv office.
On her mother Hadassah’s side, Almagor-Ramon, 69, is an eighth-generation Jerusalemite, descended from the Rivlin family. Her father, Gideon Olsvanger (who changed his name to Almagor), was born in Switzerland.
Almagor-Ramon registered to study biology but also liked grammar, and switched at the last minute to study Hebrew linguistics and statistics at the Hebrew University; her graduate degree is in Hebrew linguistics.
Her first job in the field was at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, where she worked on its Historical Dictionary Project, which aimed to present the history and development of the Hebrew lexicon from the earliest occurrences of words down through their most recent documentation.
There she met Aba Ben-David, who was the language adviser for Kol Yisrael. In 1971, Ben-David was the first producer of Rega Shel Ivrit, which is today produced by Almagor-Ramon.
Almagor worked as a language adviser for Israel Television from 1971 to 1983. Yet it was radio that attracted her, and when Ben-David retired she applied for the job of IBA language adviser, which meant working at the radio but being responsible for the language used on television as well.
“I applied for this job because I wanted work that combines my academic background, but I didn’t get the job initially.
A bank clerk who was very knowledgeable about the sources of Hebrew got the job, but before he started working, he got cold feet and left.”
Each broadcasting authority, from Army Radio to TV’s Channel 2 and Channel 10, has its own language advisers.
They founded the Forum of Language Advisers, and hold regular meetings with about 30 members. At the last meeting, they celebrated Almagor-Ramon’s receipt of the Prime Minister’s Prize.
Almagor-Ramon lectures on Hebrew-language editing at the Hebrew University’s graduate Hebrew linguistics program and at the Lifshitz College of Education in Jerusalem’s Center for Textual Studies. In addition, she meets regularly with three different groups of editors who are interested in keeping up with the latest developments in style and terminology.During their first years at the IBA, new reporters are required to send Almagor- Ramon each text in advance. Veteran reporters and broadcasters also seek her advice.
“I often consult with the Academy for the Hebrew Language, especially regarding terminology.
I enjoy discovering how words and phrases used today have evolved from the sources in the Bible, from Mishnaic Hebrew and medieval Hebrew,” she says.
As an example, Almagor-Ramon brings the Hebrew term for “helplessness,” ozlat yad, which is from the song of Ha’azinu in Deuteronomy 32:36. There, the word azlat is a verb, albeit with a different morphological structure than other verbs.
Today, it’s a noun together with yad, affecting its usage and even pronunciation of the first syllable.
“A day doesn’t go by where I don’t learn something new from the many queries that I receive,” she notes.
Listeners of all ages and diverse backgrounds, and many immigrants – new and veteran – send Almagor-Ramon comments, questions and suggestions for corrections on Hebrew-language issues that come up during broadcasts.
Often, these form the basis of the Rega Shel Ivrit spot that is broadcast three times daily, before the news at 6 a.m., 3 p.m. and midnight. “Although each spot runs for two minutes, I can spend three hours preparing it, collecting material.
It’s a mini-study in Hebrew language.”
During Ben-David’s time, the spot was very brief and prescriptive – correcting errors. Today, the focus is more descriptive, on the development of words and terms and their usage; 300 spots are broadcast annually. A collection of these broadcasts was adapted in Almagor- Ramon’s book, published in 2001 and titled Rega Shel Ivrit (Tzivonim Publishers).
Until recently, Menachem Perry, who retired after 42 years of broadcasting for the IBA, presented Rega Shel Ivrit (see box). Now, it is Almagor-Ramon who conducts discussions with people from many fields: authors, artists, doctors, lawyers, athletes, scholars in different fields, and children.
Modern Hebrew, especially when spoken, uses many English or foreign words, with Israelis peppering their speech with phrases like “whatever,” and “on the face of it.” “I don’t see the use of English or foreign words as a problem,” Almagor-Ramon explains.
“In Mishnaic Hebrew, foreign words were also used. However, if a broadcaster uses such terms over and over, I’ll comment on it.”
Moreover, there is some crossover of errors based on translating from English.
Almagor-Ramon increasingly corrects such expressions as “hamesh shanim lifnei” from the English “five years before,” with the correct Hebrew being “hamesh shanim lifnei chen.”
Part of Almagor-Ramon’s work is to monitor the usage of foreign words and to introduce Hebrew replacements, usually proposed by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, especially technological terms. “For ‘start-up’, heznek didn’t really catch on, but the word for ‘SMS,’ misron, is used more and more. Another word that is becoming more popular is hafitz, for ‘gadget.’ This word is used on Reshet Bet’s Giga B program on technology.
Introduced by the academy, it also combines the Hebrew for ‘object’ and ‘to want’ something.”
The Academy for the Hebrew Language doesn’t have all the solutions, and sometimes Rega Shel Ivrit asks listeners to come up with new words. In one such recent spot, the word hatira was discussed; since it includes all types of rowing – traditional rowing, kayaking, paddling – it creates confusion when used in sporting event broadcasts. Zohar Noinar of Tel Aviv’s Daniel Rowing Center requested that listeners come up with a better term for “rowing” than hatira academit (academic rowing), a term coined due to the sport originating at British universities.
Almagor-Ramon tries to combine professionalism with a personal touch, preferring not to impose from above.
“It’s satisfying to get the broadcasters to notice potential minefields on their own, and ask me questions out of their own initiative.”