Easy rider: Breaking through the language barrier

When it comes to English words, Israel’s borders are wide open. I was reminded of that again this morning as I was reading a snide TV review in the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz. I stumbled over a word and had to sound it out mentally several times before I realized what it was: le-hit’absess. The reviewer, basing himself on Wikipedia and The Rain Man, was expounding on characteristics of Asperger syndrome, particularly the tendency to obsess over a very narrow field of interest.

Every new learner of Hebrew (and even much more experienced ones) knows that the hardest words to read are those that have leapt the language barrier and become part of Hebrew. That’s because foreign imports don’t follow the Hebrew pattern of having a three-letter root, which a reader can pick out and thus get some ballpark idea of the meaning.

Nevertheless, we’ve been importing words by the barrel, especially in connection with computers and other newfangled technology. No matter what some people think, computers were not part of the Creation, and the Hebrew Bible has no words for the parts, processes, and actions connected with them. So we’ve had to make them up as we go along, which is what Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was doing when he became the father of modern Hebrew more than a century ago.

Thus, it should be no surprise that Israelis will tell you lehaklik (to click) on a link or that you need lefarmet (to format) your hard disk. In connection with other modern gadgets, you may be asked lefaxess (to fax) a document or lesamess (to send an SMS [text] message) from your cell phone. And before you start gyrating on the dance floor, you will need someone ledajeh (to act as a DJ).

And all this follows the long list of words for car parts, which my colleagues have already written about at length, including silbim (for sealed beam) beck-ex (for rear axle), and front beck-ex (for front axle).

Sure, there are plenty of folks who bemoan the bastardization of Hebrew. They’re the same people who will tell you from morning to night what’s wrong with the world. But even in the good old days (when we were living in tents and riding on camels) Hebrew, like its brothers and cousins, had parents and grandparents, not to mention all the foreigners who married into the family.

The Hebrew words we use for stadium, shelf, and pine cone are from Greek. Others are from Accadian, Ugaritic, Persian, and a host of other languages, including Arabic. And don’t get me going on the names for the Supreme Deity. We’ve been giving and taking words for as long as we’ve had language. It’s a global economy of words that preceded today’s globalization by thousands of years.

For me, the fact that we can take a foreign word and make it our own is a sign not of the weakness of Hebrew but rather of its robustness. True, in Israel today foreign words have more cachet than they merit, as a recent incident involving Tel Aviv communications students showed. They were asked to invent a name for a deodorant and then ask shoppers in a mall which of several proposed names they prefer. The English names won hands down over the Hebrew.

But see what we do with foreign words, and especially verbs. We embrace them and make them our own, in an atypical display of loving the stranger in our midst. We conjugate them in all tenses. A guy would say, Ani maklik (I click); heklakti (I clicked); aklik (I will click). A gal, in the present, would say, Ani maklika.

It’s a local form of veni, vidi, vici. What could be more Hebrew than that?

Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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5 Responses to “Easy rider: Breaking through the language barrier”

  1. Abe Says:

    very cool article. i love this stuff.

  2. Debbie Says:

    Absolutely! My two favorites are:

    L’Gagel (what to do to find something on the Internet) and
    L’Haklir (what you do to the table after dinner)

    And conjugating them is so much fun!

  3. Tamara Colloff-Bennett Says:

    I love this article, and I’m particularly interested in your list of the different languages from which Hebrew has derived some of its vocabulary.

    As someone who’s been told that I’m a fairly advanced speaker of the language (I’ve been speaking from early childhood, but I know just how much I do not know of the language no matter what others say!), I also smiled broadly to myself when you write here about the difficulties that people like myself have of making out those words in Hebrew that ‘have leapt the language barrier and become part of Hebrew’ – oh, how I’ve ‘been there, done that’!!

    Great analysis overall, Esther…

  4. Lee Kurtz Says:

    Dear Esther, How interesting! I frequently read in BAR (Biblico. Arch. Rev.) about the early development of Hebrew. Lee

  5. Avshalom Says:

    Nice stuff. just a note on ‘ledajeh’. Before anybody here plans to use it, I’ll just say that it is very rarely used, and if you want people to understand what you’re talking about, you’d better use ‘letaklet’. This is what most people still say – from the word ‘taklit’ (record) and ‘taklitan’ (DJ). You can check the google results for each option and see for yourselves… Avsha (an Israeli)

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