Keeping A Language Kosher

By Ilene R. Prusher Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

Keeping A Language Kosher


Ilene R. Prusher Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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