Keeping A Language Kosher
JERUSALEM — ASK Israelis what makes them Israeli, and they just may answer in Hebrew. Its rebirth as a living language was once viewed as the glue that would bind a dispersed people.
Today, Hebrew experts are less concerned about nation-building and more interested in keeping too many foreign words from getting stuck in that glue.
A century ago, Zionists looking to revive the Hebrew language - all but unspoken for 1,700 years - began turning to the Bible and medieval Jewish commentaries to build a modern vernacular.
But the deepest searches through the Scriptures don't turn up any references to correction fluid, teleprompters, or high-tech.
The instinct of most Israelis, with their predilection for things American, is to graft such words into the language of their ancestors.
But thanks to the latest rulings by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, secretaries now correct errors with mechikon, news anchors read from a makraya, and Bill Gates is the giant of taasiya eleet.
Purists say they're losing the fight to protect Hebrew, but they haven't given up yet.
Indeed, many of their inventions will be ignored. Taasiya eleet doesn't quite have the trendy ring of high-tech, and it could easily join the long list of Academy inventions that the public refused to absorb.
A few years ago the Academy, headquartered at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, decided to call in-line skates galgiliot lahav - literally, wheels on edge. But a salesperson will be dumbfounded if you ask for them in any sports store, because they're still called Rollerblades, the brand name that caught on in the early 1990s.
Academy members had an easier job when the state was young and the advancement of Hebrew was treated as a national priority.
That spirit prevailed until the 1960s, when the first computer arrived in Israel. The Academy called it a machshev - something that thinks - and it stuck.
But today, 50 years after Israel's establishment, the Academy doesn't even attempt to impose Hebrew words where globally recognized ones, like Internet, are already ingrained in everyday speech.
"In the '60s, the Academy tried harder than it does today to coin Hebrew words," says Gabriel Birnbaum, the Academy's academic secretary.
"Some caught on, but many others did not. In the past 20 or 30 years, the Academy hasn't even tried to coin Hebrew equivalents of most international words," he says.
Modern words from ancient roots
Speaking one of the world's oldest living languages, Israelis are ever in pursuit of new Hebrew words to make up for the gaps where the language left off almost two millennia ago.
Many of the 46 members of the Academy, among them some of Israel's foremost linguists and authors, argue that the purpose of resurrecting the Hebrew language is defeated by simply relying on English or other foreign substitutes for 20th-century inventions.
So, sitting down together at least once every two months, they pick through the English words creeping into the language and try to create Hebrew versions. The goal is to build new words out of existing Hebrew roots, or at least the roots of other Semitic languages.
To some extent, their creations are still taken seriously. The Academy, a quasi-official body established by a law of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, regularly sends its rulings about new vocabulary, grammar, and syntax to all public institutions. State-run radio and television stations, the army, and all government offices are obliged to abide by its rulings.
For three hours a day, the Academy even runs a hot line to answer questions from the public about Hebrew usage.
The original idea, of course, was to create a language academy like those found in Europe. But motions to pass any legal enforcement for the rulings - as seen in France and Francophone Quebec - have failed.
"We are much less purist than the French, but [Anglicization] is a concern of the Academy and many others," says Dr. Birnbaum, who is also a professor of Hebrew.
"There are malls you can go to where every shop has a foreign name," even though they are full of domestically owned stores, he says. "It doesn't threaten Hebrew's survival, but it's a shame. Why not have a Hebrew name for your shop?"
When Russian-born Eliezer Ben-Yehuda began trying to revive Hebrew as a modern language in the late 1880s, he refused to speak anything else. But even then, many words had already been borrowed from Arabic and Spanish from the time when Jews and Muslims crossed paths in Islamic Spain. In the 1920s and 1930s, the new Hebrew speakers saw Yiddish and German as language invaders to be kept at bay.
Mr. Ben-Yehuda might be shocked to find that Israelis now use more English words to create faux Hebrew verbs: They took the word discuss, for example, and made the verb ledascess.
Israelis also use a lot of English idioms in Hebrew. Of late, Israeli teenagers even seem to have picked up the tendency of American youths to say "like" all the time, sprinkling the word k'eelu (as if) into almost every clause.
"Americanization touches almost everything in this country, so it's become a different country in many aspects," says Shulamith Har-Even, a writer and member of the Academy.
She thinks technological advances are a key culprit. "When you use a computer, you subconsciously conform more to a universal style. You're not quite yourself, and Hebrew is becoming less itself in many ways," she says.
Netiva Ben-Yehuda, who wrote the first dictionary of Hebrew slang, disagrees with the purists and academics who impose what she dismisses as "super-Hebrew" on the masses.
"I fought for the new Hebrew and said, these are not mistakes, it's the development of the language," says Ms. Ben-Yehuda, who is not related to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. In hourly news updates on the radio, "the Hebrew they speak is so ugly that nobody can listen to it, because the level is so highfalutin," she says. "There are new words in Hebrew, but it's kind of a double-strata. Everyday people on the street don't care about speaking pure Hebrew."
Getting hip to the use of slang
Birnbaum says that the Academy's paternalistic days are over. They gave up on fighting slang, which is more visible in current Hebrew fiction and newspapers than ever before.
"We recognize that slang is a vital component of a living language," he says. "And there's been a change in the written language that allows much more of what would have been considered substandard or colloquial Hebrew."
To prove it, the Academy has tried to offer up some of its own jargon. In place of a hangover, the Academy decided that Israelis should complain of a hamarmoret the morning after. The root of the word is wine, but ironically, it comes from Aramaic, the ancient Semitic language spoken by Jesus.
After all, the source itself isn't pure, linguistically speaking. "There are lots of foreign words in the Bible, from Accadian, Sumerian, Persian," says Birnbaum. "So why should we limit ourselves only to Hebrew?"