Tag Archives: Israel

A history of Hebrew, told one word at a time

Ben and Jerry's ice cream in Israel is labeled "glida," the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel is labeled “glida,” the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Here’s a guest post from Daniel Estrin, who lives in Jerusalem.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of words over centuries.

In Israel, linguists are still compiling a similar dictionary for the ancient Hebrew language.

English as we know it has been around about 860 years.

“Without bragging, the history of Hebrew is much older,” said Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at Israel’s official Academy of the Hebrew Language. About three times older.

Birnbaum’s job is to write the entries for the Hebrew Historical Dictionary. Four days a week, seven hours a day, he sits alone in his small office, surrounded by dusty volumes of ancient Hebrew texts, and types out definitions.

“The ideal is to have all the words with all their history, how they started, when they started to be used, the whole of the treasure of the Hebrew language,” said Birnbaum. “The English have it, the French have it, the Hungarians have it, so we should also have it.”

Hebrew was born around the 12th century BC. It’s the language of the Bible; Jesus knew Hebrew. But a few decades after Jesus’ death, Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, and they adopted different languages.

“Hebrew for 1,700 years wasn’t spoken by anyone,” Birnbaum said. “Some people call it a dead language. But if it was dead, it was a very lively corpse.”

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

It really wasn’t dead at all. Jews wrote their literature and liturgy in Hebrew, and recited prayers in Hebrew, as they do to this day. In the late 19th century, waves of Jews moved to the Holy Land, and revived Hebrew as a spoken language.

But how do you order ice cream in an ancient tongue?

“They didn’t have words for office, or eyeglasses, or for matches,” said Birnbaum. “So from where will we take this? Of course we can coin new words. But first we have to use all the words we have in our sources.”

That’s how the mysterious Biblical word chashmal, referring to God appearing with fire and light, became the modern word for electricity. In an ancient Aramaic translation of a Biblical passage, manna from heaven is described as thin as frost, or glida. Today, glida is the frosty stuff you order at the ice cream parlor.

Hebrew is based on “roots,” patterns of letters that are the building blocks of the language. The three-letter combination in the word “write” also appears in the words for “article,” “reporter,” “letter,” “spelling,” “address,” and anything having to do with writing.

More than half of the roots in modern Hebrew come straight from the Bible.

“If I give you a text of Old English, you won’t understand a word. Those words have changed a lot,” Birnbaum said. “Now you take an Israeli child, you give him a text from the Book of Genesis, or a text from the Book of Samuel, he can understand, not to exaggerate, 70 percent of it. He can understand it.”

The Hebrew Language Academy began compiling its historical dictionary in 1959, but only came out with a first edition in 2005. There are many words from the past few thousand years to comb through, not to mention all the new words of the last century.

Linguists at the Hebrew Language Academy are still coining new words for terms that didn’t exist in the Bible or the Middle Ages – and Israelis often email the language academy to request new words.

Staffer Tzipi Senderov said there’s been high demand lately for one particular word.

“People always write the same thing. ‘I need to know the Hebrew term for cupcake,’” Senderov said. “Then we have to say, ‘There is no alternative,’ and people are like, ‘Why, can’t you find an alternative?’”

They did. The Hebrew Language Academy has posted two options online for the public to choose from. So far the more popular choice is ugoneet, which in English translates to “mini-cake.” The other contender is mufeen mekushat, or “decorated muffin.”

Do these alternatives to cupcake sound tasty?

“No, and it wouldn’t catch, whatsoever,” Senderov said. “That’s the problem.”

All the Hebrew Language Academy’s new words will eventually end up in the historical dictionary. But sometimes, its new words just don’t catch on.

At birthday parties across Israel, a cupcake may just stay a cupcake.


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Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show pal Matthew Bell

One place that was not on President Obama’s Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it’s tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

“What’s the capital of Palestine,” the teacher asks in Hebrew?

“Jerusalem,” the students respond in unison.

Thess are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She say Hebrew is, “easier than English.” And of course, “it’s the language of our enemy.”

“We must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

Nadine’s Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

“No,” she responds matter-of-factly. “We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis. We are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation.”

On the streets of Gaza City, it’s easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44 year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

“At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers,” Saber says.

These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don’t really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program. Mohamed Abu Shuqair is deputy minister of education.

“Why Hebrew,” the minister asks? “Even if we don’t agree with the Israelis on many things,” he says during an inteview at his office, “we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites.”

There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. “Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded,” he says. “We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here.”

That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy – rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government – for the sake of Gaza’s future.



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Bilingual tots and the language of smell

Not many parents in Israel make the choice, but a few send their kids to Arabic/Hebrew bilingual preschools. The World’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell is one of them. His son is about to enroll in a preschool where Hebrew and Arabic are spoken on alternate days. To relax, this 3-year-old will speak English at home. (Matthew, he’ll thank you for it one day…)  Matthew says parents have different reasons for sending their kids to a bilingual preschool. For Hebrew speakers, it often comes from a desire to learn more about the culture of their Arab neighbors. For Arabic speakers, it’s more likely to be out of a wish to get a leg up the socio-economic ladder. For outsiders like Matthew, it’s a golden opportunity to have the kid learn a couple of foreign languages at a stage in life when those languages might stick.

Next in the pod is an interview with Seattle-area rabbi Mark Glickman (pictured, looking at the camera).  He recently visited the Cairo Genizah, which once boasted one of Judaism’s largest repositories of documents. Many of these documents dated back hundreds of years, but at the Cairo Genizah, they were, in Rabbi Glickman’s words, “a messy, jumbled dump.” They are now stored, in somewhat better shape, in archives around the world — in the UK, the US and Israel.  Glickman explains why so many sacred Jewish texts were written in Arabic.

Next, a report from Syria on book-publishing and reading in Arabic-speaking world. Books in Arabic have a long history (pictured is an Arabic version of One Thousand and One Nights from the 14th Century). But not many people these days read books in Arabic: a recent UN survey reported that less than 2% of native Arabic speakers reads even one book a year. That means that fewer books are being published.  However, you can still find bookstores in cities like Damascus and Beirut; they’re trying mightily to revive the practice of reading in Arabic.

A short plug here for Ed Park’s novel, Personal Days. The book is replete with inventive wordplay (unwanted backrub given by a character named Jack = jackrub; character called Graham with whiny British accent is renamed Grime). Plus, there’s a nice un-Eating Sideways moment. It’s when the narrator suggests that there should be a French expression, along the lines of l’esprit d’escalier, for the sensation of being initially amused but later unnerved by something that’s said to you.

Finally, we visit the New York Public Library for a smell test. What does a book’s particular odor convey to an educated nose, such as that of Shelley Smith (pictured) of the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division?

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Street names, Bible translators and locavore language

When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.)  In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes  its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.

You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories.  But wherever there are streets — or other things to name —  there are heated debates over what to call them.  Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?

Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.  According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper.  So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture.  The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it,  freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.

Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Israel’s street sign vigilantes, learning Hindi, and your brain on language

sign1This week, a mom-and-pop effort to restore Arabic script to street signs in Israel. Earlier this year, Israel’s new transport minister Israel Katz proposed an overhaul to his country’s road signs. So far they’ve been trilingual: Hebrew, Arabic and English. But Katz wants to remove Arabic and English city names and replace them with transliterations of the Hebrew names. So instead of the English word, “Jerusalem,” and the Arabic name for the city, “Al-Quds,” both languages would spell out “Yerushalayim,” the Hebrew name of the city. The proposal hasn’t been implemented yet. signs2But street signs in Israel have long been ideological battlegrounds: the Arabic has often been defaced or obliterated. That’s where Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel (pictured right) come in. They are reinstating the Arabic, one sign at a time. So far the police haven’t stopped them. (Photos: Daniel Estrin)

Also in this week’s podcast, I speak with author Katherine Russell Rich on learning Hindi at a language school in Rajasthan. Her book “Dreaming in Hindirich-dreaming1 is also an investigation into what happens to our brains when we learn a learn a language. Rich quizzed several neurolinguists, so she could get a handle on the challenges and all-round weird linguistic moments she encountered in her pursuit of Hindi mastery. So there are answers (not THE answers perhaps) to the following: what’s the difference between learning a language “intuitively” as a child and in a classroom setting later on? Why is it so difficult to have a perfect accent in your second or third language? Why do so many people verbally shut down for weeks or months  when learning a language? How does language effect personality and vice versa? And is there blowback from your learned language that changes how you speak your native tongue?

On the subject of the last question, check out this fascinating conversation on The World’s science podcast on the latest research into what happens to your native tongue when you learn a second one. According to this study, you’ll never read your first language in the same way. Also, that cognates can trip you up.

Finally, we cast a somewhat shameful eye over a tough-to-translate expression in Spanish.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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New rhetoric on Israeli settlements, an international libary of children’s books, and faux French in France

settlersIn this week’s podcast, Israel’s Likud-led government tries out some new words to describe its West Bank settlement program. One particularly explosive term that some Israeli politicians are now using is the German word “judenfrei.” It means– literally– Jew-free. The argument goes like this: the West Bank should never be allowed to be judenfrei. Therefore, Israel should not withdraw its settlements. “Judenfrei” was first used by the Nazis to designate a part of Europe that would be free of Jews. The fact that some Israeli politicians are reviving the term can’t help but recall the Nazi usage, and so it associates Palestinians with the Nazis’ extreme anti-semitism. Our report looks at this and other rhetorical attempts in past decades to justify Israel’s expansion into Palestinian territory.

Next, a conversation with the University of Arizona’s Kathy Short, who oversees a collection of children’s books from around the world. She says that in recent years American publishers have taken a second look at foreign books, even if sometimes in the translations, they become so Americanized that they cease to be, well, foreign. Here’s a gorgeously illustrated book from China that Short talks about in our interview.

culottes2Finally, an update on Brooklyn’s finest fake French band, Les Sans Culottes. (That’s  singer Kit Kat Le Noir above) After more than a decade together, the band is finally performing in France.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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podcast #3: a linguist’s fantasy island and Seinfeldian diplomacy

In this edition of The World in Words, the stories of a couple of people who aimed just a little too high. Linguist Derek Bickerton talks about his lifelong love of creoles and his attempt to create a new language by importing a half-dozen families onto an uninhabited  desert island.  Bickerton’s memoir, Bastard Tongues, is a page-turner, and not just for story of the island experiment he conjured up.  Also in this cast former speechwriter Gregory Levey on how he almost got an Israeli prime minister to quote from a  Seinfeld episode. Listen in iTunes or here.

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