[lg policy] Israel: Hebrew: Why Netanyahu wants Israelis to send a 'misron, ' not a text

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 25 22:48:17 UTC 2010

Hebrew: Why Netanyahu wants Israelis to send a 'misron,' not a text
The Academy of the Hebrew Language is on a mission to keep one of the
world's oldest living languages pure – and, in the halls of
parliament, at least – proper.


By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer
posted January 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm EST

Jerusalem — Tucked into a leafy corner of a campus of the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, the Academy of the Hebrew Language has the
challenging job of trying to preserve and promote one of the world’s
oldest living languages. In an effort to counter the influx of foreign
words, the institution develops and distributes some 2,000 new Hebrew
words each year; the most recent batch includes words for biosphere,
sustainable development, hacker, and blog.For jetlag, it came up with
ayefet – a newfangled Hebrew word created from the root for "tired"
and rendered in such a way that it resembles words for various other

“In the academy, we try to fight word by word. Instead of just making
an exact translation from English, we try to find an original Hebrew
word that captures the meaning,” says Moshe Bar-Asher, the academy’s
president. The linguaphiles under his direction are not only
interested in hearing Israelis talk about sending someone a quick
misron instead of a text or an SMS, however, but also in stopping the
general deterioration of the quality of Hebrew, especially in public
life. “You hear people, kids especially, using the same 10 to 15
verbs,” laments Mr. Bar-Asher. “We don’t want the language of the
school, or of the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] to be the same as the
language of the street. Any society should distinguish between the

National Hebrew Day

France has its venerable L’Académie française, and there are
institutes and committees around the world dedicated to the
preservation of at least 90 other languages. Many of these have been
ribbed at some point for their linguistic chauvinism, or for
isolationist, reactionary, and ultimately wishful thinking that would
keep foreign words out. But defenders of the Hebrew language – which
was revived as a spoken tongue only about 150 years ago, after some
1,750 years in which it was almost exclusively a language of biblical
and other religious texts – have their own unique challenges to face.
The man credited with single-handedly taking Hebrew out of the holy
books and into the modern era is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, though others of
course played a key role in the overall project as part of the early
Zionists’ nation-building.

Marking 152 years since Ben-Yehuda’s birth, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu’s cabinet held a special session earlier this month on the
state of the Hebrew language, and voted that Ben-Yehuda’s birthday
[Jan. 7] would from now on be marked as National Hebrew Day. The
cabinet agreed that the academy would provide lessons to improve
Knesset members’ Hebrew and would form a committee to formulate ideas
of how to strengthen the lingua franca in public life, all under
Bar-Asher’s direction. They also agreed to a plan to have
schoolteachers dedicate four hours a week to improving students’
Hebrew.“Every culture has some high standards that they expect to be
used in the media and in the parliament,” explains Bar-Asher. “The
Hebrew in such institutions should be normative and correct.”

'A waste of my tax money'

Not every Hebrew aficionado agrees with this outlook. Ghilad
Zuckermann, an Israeli professor at the University of Queensland in
Brisbane, Australia, vehemently disagrees with what the academy is
doing.  “I think it’s ridiculous to tell teachers at Israeli schools
to speak according to a certain grammar, because at any rate, what we
speak today is only based on Hebrew,” says Dr. Zuckermann, back in
Israel on one of his occasional visits. He says the structure of
sentences and turns of phrase grew more out of Yiddish – the
German-offshoot language of European Jews. As such, he thinks it’s
more appropriate to call today’s Hebrew “Israeli,” to show its
distinction from classical Hebrew. In 2008 he published a
controversial book called Israeli, a beautiful language. “What they’re
trying to do by correcting Israelis and the way they speak today, as I
see it, is a dangerous move,” Zuckerman says. “Such a thing can cause
a kind of schizophrenia. Many Israelis grow up unsure of what is
grammatical and what isn’t.”

Moreover, it bugs him when the academy takes a popular “Israeli” word
like intuitzia for intuition (many words work like this, such as
coalitzia for coalition) and tries to come up with a “proper” Hebrew
word instead. The academy suggested people use binat halev, which
literally translates into “understanding of the heart.” “There is no
need to get rid of these words,” Zuckerman says. “These words are
integral parts of the Israeli language, but they’re treated as if
they’re illegal foreign workers. The Academy of the Hebrew Language is
a waste of my tax money.”

Israeli children now have harder time reading Bible

Some go further. During the session earlier this month, one of
Netanyahu’s ministers noted that the very word “academy” is Greek.
Couldn’t the institution dedicated to promoting the Hebrew language
come up with something ... well, Semitic? Bar-Asher laughs at this
question. It was originally called a committee – for which there is a
Hebrew word – but to denote research, he said, only academy would do.
Even the Mishna - the precursor to the Talmud – which was redacted in
the year 200 AD, has nearly 2,000 words in it that come from Greek or
Latin, he notes, showing that the influence of neighboring cultures is
nothing new.  “I’m not terrified by foreign words,” he says. “They’re
usually just a fashion. What is worrying is that 40 years ago, Israeli
children were much better able to open the Bible and understand what
they were reading.”

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