Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hebrew-English Words 1 to 2 splits

In terms of the sheer number of existing roots in the language, Hebrew and English are the David and Goliaths of their kind.  While Hebrew was asleep for a few thousand years in a sort of linguistic coma, English was stealing and developing roots at a frantic pace.  Millions of foreign students worldwide are challenged, to put in nicely, by the sheer number of ways in English to express annoyingly similar ideas.

While Hebrew’s root-poverty may make it easier for learners, it makes the language much more ambiguous.     Here are some examples of a sing

When a people is being oppressed by a repressive regime, a human rights observer can get very depressed.  In Hebrew, both use the same Hebrew word, מדוכה (me-du-ke).

Likewise, whether a person deserted the army or defected from a country, in Hebrew, he ערק (arak) in Israel.

Older people (and NFL football players) may suffer from aches and pains, but all they have in Israel is כאבים (kaevim).

A solution in Washington D.C. may be effective and efficient (though it probably isn’t in reality), but in Jerusalem it is merely יעיל (ya’il].

So, pity translators into Hebrew facing a sentence talking about poor depressed people suffering aches and pains caused by a repressive army who find an effective and efficient solution to their problem by deserting their army unit and defecting to the enemy.  It does not produce a very pretty sentence in Hebrew.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pomp and Circumstances

Last week, in a notice mainly read by sports fans with too much time, the untimely death of baseball umpire Wally Bell was announced (  As I read the complete article, including an official statement from the Major League Baseball Executive Vice-President, I was struck by the difficulty language and custom is having coping with the social change and how this confusion expressed itself in the condolences for this umpire.

First, in many Western societies, divorce rates range from 30-50%, meaning that there are many people that are not married to their first spouse.  Some of them do remarry, but others, for multiple reasons, don’t formally marry again, even if they have a new partner.  This is not a new phenomenon, but society is still confused about protocol. 

In the case in hand, the Commissioner expressed his condolences to the family, an ambiguous word implying everybody, no matter the relationship.  By contrast, Joe Torre, the Vice President of the League, specifically mentioned “his girlfriend,” implying, at least to me, that is was a long-term relationship.  The choice of the word girlfriend is already a bit contrived since, if he was 48 years old, I imagine she is clearly no longer 16 years old.  Still, no good English word exists for partners that have passed the change of being girls and boys.  I think that the French copin/copine and Hebrew  חבר\חברה (Haver / havera( based on the word meaning friend, sound better to me.  The article ended by completely ignoring the poor woman by saying that he was survived by his two children.  That comment sounded rather shrill to me.  If you hadn’t paid attention to the previous quotes in that article, you would have thought he was dreadfully alone in life.

The three approaches in the article reflect the ways society has dealt with non-traditional family structure.  You can be ambiguous, i.e. family; you can be specific but forced to use inappropriate language, i.e. girl and boy friend.  Finally, one can simply ignore the reality and pretend that nothing has changed – no marriage, no status.  I hope somebody finds a nice catchy term in English to describe adult, non-married, relationships and soon as an ever growing number of people are coupled but not wedded.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sports Overdosing

Sports are part of any culture.  Organized athletics have represented an important vicarious experience in most countries, affecting their very rhythm of life.  Whether it is Olympic games in ancient Greece, hippodrome activities in the Roman world, or the ups and down of the modern football season in Europe, people feel the seasons through the existence or absence of sport.

In the United States, due to the prolonged sports seasons, an extreme situation has occurred.  At this moment, in early October, all four of the major team sports are active, specifically baseball (postseason), American football, basketball (preseason), and hockey.  On any given night now, the fan can watch a live game from morning to night or, even worse, have to make a difficult choice on which sports to watch.  For example, last Sunday, I had to choose whether to watch my Pirates (baseball) or Bengals (football). 

This is like going to the store to buy fruit and finding fresh oranges, peaches, apricots, grapes, and cherries.  Once upon a time, every season had its fruit and vegetables, for example potatoes and oranges in the winter and lettuce and strawberries in the summer.  Today, in American stores, the only marker of the season is the price – a bit higher in the offseason.
Likewise, every season had its team sport – baseball in the summer, college football in the fall, and basketball and hockey in the winter.  Today, those poor athletes seem to barely get three months off while we fans are constantly in a state of overexcitement.

So, if you are in a country that does not import fruit and vegetables from the other hemisphere and has one or two major sports played at different times, consider yourself lucky.  You feel the ebbs and flows of the passing of the year, rejoicing with every seasonal rediscovery instead of being constantly bombarded with excitement and becoming, paradoxically, blasé from overexposure to good things.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Russians have come!

Time allows perspective on historic events.  One of the most dramatic movements affecting current Israel is the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.  Unlike the arrival of the Ethiopians, it occurred over time, quietly and relentlessly.  It clearly changed the face of Israeli society.

According to Wikipedia, more than one million Russian immigrants arrived over a period of some twenty years from 1980.  Given a base population of around four million people at that time, these immigrants represent a significant percentage.  As many settled in smaller towns throughout Israel, these newcomers sometimes increased the population by 40% in some places. 

Such a cultural infusion has had a marked effect on the country.  Russian became the dominant second language in the street, displacing the many other languages of Israeli, including Arabic.  Both male and female Russians enjoy dressing elegantly.  Even today, it is very easy to identify a Russian from a distance.  As a result, the experience of window shopping dramatically changed.  They also enjoy and are willing to spend money on restaurants.  Although even today eating out is still not inexpensive in Israel, the number of restaurants as well as the quality and variety of the food has multiplied beyond imagination.  The Russian immigration is clearly one of the factors behind this.

The new immigrants also brought their education with them.  Although some did not have university degrees, the great number of doctors, engineers, and teachers, to name a few, eventually found work in their trained professions.  Whether high tech or higher education, it is hard to imagine who worked there before this wave of immigration.  For purposes of illustration, in the engineering college where I teach, for the most part it is impossible to find anybody in the teacher’s room whose native tongue is Hebrew.  Also, most of the immigrants were laic, either by choice or lack of exposure to Judaism.  Today, eating non-kosher foods, such as shrimps and pork (white meat as it is called here), is much more common as are open stores on the Sabbath, Saturday.

Alas, the Russians are also blamed for introducing or worsening certain social ills.  Israelis, old and young, drink much more alcohol today than they did in 1980, with the corresponding increase in alcoholism.  Organized crime has thrived in the last few decades.  Broken families, with its attached social costs, are much more prevalent than during the forty years of modern Israel.  While the Russians did not invent these problems, there is some correlation with their arrival.

So, if walk down the street of Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Nazareth Elite, or anywhere in Israel, it will be hard to imagine the world before the Russians came.  Whether it is better or worse is a matter of opinion, but Israel is clearly a different country today because of the last Russian immigration.