Monday, April 22, 2013

(Thumbs) Ups and Down of English Grammar Usage Change

Language and generation are closely linked.  By hearing the words and structure of a sentence, it is possible to know the approximate age of the speaker and, to a lesser degree, writer.  It is clear that since languages are living and dynamic, they will evolve in time. However, just as in regards to the changes in our mind and body as we grow older, we are entitled to our opinions about them.  Alas, as with our complaints about reduced vision, expanded stomachs, and disappearing hair, complaints don’t make any difference.  Still, it does provide some satisfaction to voice them.

The gradual disappearance of whom, the ithers, and the present perfect for emphasis saddens me for some reason.  I like the sound of phrases such as “To whom am I speaking” and “For whom it may concern” not to mention that classic Hemmingway title For Whom the Bell Tolls (Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was a far superior book on the Spanish Civil War).  They simply have more character than “who am talking to”, for example. As for the “ithers”, hither, whither, and thither, the last surviving remnants of the Latin locative case in English are only expressed in two expressions: come hither and whither to.  For those younger readers, locative expresses direction as compared to location and thrives in Russian and Hebrew in such forms куда [kuda] instead of где [gde], сюда [syuda] instead of здесь [sdyess], туда [tuda] instead of там [tam] and לאן [la’an] instead of איפה [aifo], שמה [shama] instead of שם [sham] and הנה [hena] instead of כאן [kan] for where, there, and here in Russian and Hebrew, respectively.    Finally, Americans now commonly use the past simple instead of the present perfect in the following sentence: I just woke up instead I have just woken up.  The latter form, still preferred by UK speakers I am told, better emphasizes the fact that I don’t want to talk or make decisions until I drink my first cup of coffee or tea.  In short, it adds flavor and texture to the language, which is desirable in the right proportion.

So as not appear as a grumpy old man fighting progress, there are usage changes that I like, really.  The almost complete extinction of the word shall brings me great joy.  The only time I see it is in the legal texts I translate, which are archaic anyway and don’t count for measuring active use.  The reason for my joy is who in the hell could remember the stupid rule: Future: I shall, we shall, all the others “will”; determinative: I will, we will, everything else “shall”.  Moreover, why should we remember that rule?  I have the same sentiment to the long forgotten restriction of the word can to ability only and not permission.  I hated the elementary school teacher answer to the question “Can I go to the bathroom?”: Yes, you can, but you may not.”  Now it is much clearer: “you can’t” without the grammar lesson.

I just have one more small request for one word to disappear as fast as possible: awesome.  The sound of middle-aged sports announcers saying that the singing of the national anthem was “awesome” sounds like parents trying to copy their teenager’s language, i.e. pathetic and utterly unnatural.

So, language will change for better or worse, whether we like it or not.  Let me know if any change in your language that pains or gladdens your heart.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The (Galilee) Spice of Life

I am a resident of the Galilee, the part of Israeli north of the (relatively) crowded center of the country and southwest of the Golan Heights.  Its topography varies from sea and agricultural plains to hills and forested peaks.  Its climate also varies, generally depending on the distance from the sea and the Sea of Galilee, known locally as the Kinneret.  Many tourists visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Eilat, and even the Bahai Temple in Haifa.  Generally they skip this highly diverse and interesting area.

One of its most striking features is its cultural diversity.  Residents of the Galilee include ultra-religious Jews, observant Jews, traditional Jews, non-observant Jews, Russian and Ethiopian Jews and sort of Jews, Messianic Jews, Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Greek Orthodox, and complete atheists.  A sensitive observer can identify each group by its clothing or facial features.  The various forms of head covering are generally a sign of identity.  Locals can tell from the accent or last name to which group the person belongs.  Amazingly, the vast majority of time, people get along and work together perfectly fine.  Money is a wonderful social glue apparently.  For example, the town where I live, Karmiel, is the commercial center for this part of the Galilee.  Many of both the salespeople and customers are Arabs from the local villages.  Likewise, many Jewish inhabitants appreciate the quality and price of the Arab restaurants in the area.  So, this heterogeneity functions rather well on a day-to-day basis.

In terms of language, the Galilee is a Tower of Babel.  In cafes, the listener can easily distinguish five languages here: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and even Yiddish sometime, not to mention the occasional French or Rumanian.  More importantly, local Arabs speak Arabic inside Jewish towns without any hesitation.  The local Arabic is also quite unique, especially among the Christian and Druze population.  It is heavily sprinkled with Hebrew words, often because of the extensive intercommunity commercial relations and/or service in the IDF in the case of the Druze.  This leaking of Hebrew also affects Russian speakers, especially those that have been in Israel for many years.  They are almost incapable of saying a sentence in Russian without a Hebrew word or two.  So, the polyglot can truly enjoy the sounds of the Galilee.

The picture is not entirely roses.  Many younger Arabs and Jews, often due to their living in separate communities in my opinion, profess strongly racist and/or nationalist opinions.  These issues sometimes arise when groups of Arab boys come into Jewish town on Friday or Saturday nights and start trying to flirt with Jewish girls.  On a more serious note, every decade or so, an incident ignites riots among the younger Arab population in the villages, creating mistrust that takes many years to repair.  However, to be fair, even within the communities, tensions run.  Muslims and Druze in Rama, Moroccans and Russians in Karmiel, and religious and non-religious Jews in Zefat are some examples of intracommunity schisms.  Still, all things considered, the Galilee has some components of the American “melting pot” experience (which was never completely a melting pot in itself, to be honest).

So, aside from its beautiful physical features, the Galilee is a fascinating site for social tourism, i.e. seeing how other cultures live.  In this case, the visitor can see how each culture lives in itself and in combination with the other residents of the Galilee.  I strongly recommend the experience.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hitting the Road

Driving, like eating, is a similar but unique experience in every part of the world.  Apart from the legal differences, i.e. making a right turn on a red light in Los Angeles, the pace and rhythm varies from country to country, often based on such factors as distances, density, kinds of roads, weather, and national character.  All together, it makes sitting behind the wheel a part of “feeling” the country no less than sitting on a chair in a café.

In the United States, a rather law abiding country despite all the TV shows to the contrary, most people actually follow the laws and are even polite.  Not only that, once you leave the crowded streets of the city, there is generally plenty of road for everybody.  Of course, there is a lot of space to cover, especially in the West where the states are much bigger.  For example, California from tip to tip is easily some 15 or more hours of continuous driving.   The meaning of this is driving in America, especially outside the cities, is actually quite pleasant.  Most roads are made for consistent high speeds (California highway 1 being an obvious exception).  The national tendency, outside New York City, of striving to be nice extends to the road.

Israel, well, is another story.  Israelis tend to tense and proud in all they do, including driving.  As for laws, they are merely suggestions for behavior, like at home.  Likewise, Israeli drivers tend to treat the road as if it is owned by their father, giving them extra privileges, such as not having to signal or let another car pass them.   As for red lights, time is money.  If you day dream for two seconds, you can be sure that the driver behind you already has his or her hand on the horn.  The speed limit and average pace on the road are often ignored, especially if you are less than 25 years of age. I live in the Galilee with a large Arab population.  Its driving style is quite interesting, generally too fast or too slow, with seat belts being a bit of a nuisance to the eight people in the car.  Sadly, the Arab population in Israeli suffers from a relatively high rate of accidents both to drivers and pedestrians.  If you are so unfortunate to find yourself in religious neighborhoods like Bnei Brak or many parts of Zefat, be very careful.  While it is clear that driving on the Sabbath may get you “rocked” in the wrong way, even on a normal day, the drivers and pedestrians alike travel in complete tranquility, oblivious to anybody else, apparently absolutely sure that God is protecting them.  On a good day, driving on Israel’s crowded roads in an interesting experience while on a bad day, you can imagine.

I would be interested in hearing other people’s description of driving in their country.