Monday, December 29, 2014

Language Inequality or the Joy of Challenges - Part 1

Learning a foreign language can be one of the most satisfying or frustrating experiences.  Success depends on age, environment, motivation, innate skill and the language itself.  The latter is relevant because not all languages are equally difficult, with several factors influencing the “challenge” factor.

      A.      The first aspect a learner notices is the visual one, the alphabet.  Psychologically, unfamiliar alphabets seem quite daunting.  While they do require some effort, most alphabets can be mastered in terms of sound identification within a month using a decent book and some practice.  The most difficult system is the traditional Chinese (used to a certain degree in Japanese) character writing, which is strictly speaking not an alphabet at all since the pictures has no relevance to the pronunciation.  Even native speakers of Chinese require years to attain a decent vocabulary.  So, a strange alphabet can quickly become comfortable.

      B.      Spelling is a complicated issue.  The easiest languages to read and spell involve few letters, consistent pronunciation and minimum opportunities for error. Italian is a wonderfully easy language to learn how to read.  The rules of pronunciation and therefore spelling are simple, based on consonant/vowel combinations (co = /ko/ while ci = /chi/) and no letters with the same sounds. Other languages are not as easy.  Polish consonant use may be consistent but the combinations (cz, dz, etc) are confusing to foreigners.  It demonstrates by counter example how efficient the Slavic alphabet is, i.e. one letter for each sound.  French is also very consistent with its vowel pronunciation but has too many ways to make the same sound, such as the long “a” sound, which can produced by ai, é, ais, ait, aient, et al. Standard Hebrew avoids the latter problem by mostly not inserting the vowels and trusting the speaker to figure it out.  On the other hand, Hebrew has many letters that once were  pronounced differently but are less and less frequently being distinguished now, including tet and tov, alef and ayin, and het and hof, to name a few, complicating spelling for the foreigner.  English is the monster of the group, failing in all aspects.  There are many letter combinations, many of which are completely different than their component parts, as in the ti in the word “vacation”, pronounced sh.  It is famous for lack of consistency.  Try explaining how to pronounce “gh” in the words enough, though, and through.  The reasons are historical but that does not help the latter. Worst of all, it offers almost endless ways to make the same sound and confuse the foreign learner.  Thank god for spellcheck!

      C.      Verb tense structures vary from language to language and require different amounts of time to master.  The easiest ones have only three tenses: past, present and future. Semitic languages are a breeze in that respect.  Latin languages muddy up the waters by distinguishing meanings within those times and constructing complicated forms.  The ability to understand and produce these various tenses forms does take some time and instruction but learning time is quite finite.  Slavic languages are deceivingly simple, only having two tenses but at least two forms (perfect and imperfect aspect) of each verb, creating all three tenses.  The catch for the foreign learner is in the past form, where both aspects can work. It takes years to understand what a native speaker grasps intuitively in regards to the difference between the forms.  For example, depending on which form is used in the past, perfect or imperfect, if I closed the window, the window is now either open or closed.  So, the complexity of the tense structure does help determine the time and effort required to learn the language.

[To be continued]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Coexistence in the Galilee

Reality in the Middle East is either much simpler or complex than it appears.  Seemingly clear reality often becomes quite blurred when you start focusing on the details.  For example, the Galilee is divided more or less equally between Jews and Arabs and is an undisputed part of Israel.  Consequently, relations between the sectors are regular and peaceful. In other words, while there may not be integration, the Galilee is a place to show what coexistence can be. 

The problems begin with the definitions.  What are Arabs, just mentioning the main groups?  There are Moslems, Christian, Druze, Circassian and even Bedouin communities.  While all may speak Arabic, they share a long history of conflict and identify with different external communities.  Some serve in the army while others view the army as the enemy.  In fact, just recently, there was a large ethnic tussle in a village in the North between Druze and Muslims that resulted in many injuries.   On the other side, Jewish attitudes towards the local Arabs vary significantly depending on age (teenagers tend to be quite racist), life experience, ethnic origin (Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic), and political opinion. Moreover, many locals do not distinguish between the various communities. The level of trust (or distrust) as well as interaction can vary widely.

While it is clear that the Palestinians from the Judea and Samaria view all of Israel as Palestine, the attitude of the local Arabs is more complex.  According to studies and realities, they are proud of their Arab identity, speaking Arabic and not wanting to give up their community connection even if they do intermix with the Jewish population.  For example, at the college where I teach, the various Arabs speak Arabic openly and exhibit no “oppressed” behavior.  At the same time, I have never seen any refusal of students of different ethnics to work or talk with each other.  By contrast, there are certain limits.  Flirting with girls of the other religion is not looked on fondly by anyone.  Mothers of all kinds want their children to marry “one of ours”.  Recently, two local teenagers that reached the finals of a regional Arabic singing contest stated that they were from Palestine and expressed anti-Israeli opinions. From the other side, many Galilee residents do not view them as Israelis. It is clear that it is currently quite hard to maintain an “Israeli-Arab” identity.

The current coexistence is also far from uniform.  The dominant reality is that there is a strong economic necessity to live in peace.  Karmiel, the intended and actual capital of the Galilee, is surrounded by Arab villages.  Today, without Arab customers, most retail business in Karmiel would go bankrupt.  The same can be said for the businesses in the villages in terms of Jewish customers.  Even more, due to Shabbat labor laws and a better approach to service work, Arab workers provide an important source of employees, which helps the high standard of living in the villages.  Where economic interests apply, coexistence is the rule.  Yet, the police are very careful when entering the villages and arresting Arab thieves (one of the growth industries in the area).  Fights often break out on Friday night when Arab boys come to Karmiel and catcall Jewish girls.  Most seriously, every ten years or so, there are riots and rock throwing incidents, generally by younger people, “confirming” the distrust between the community. Still, according to a recent survey, almost 80% of Israeli Arabs would not move to a Palestinian state.  Apparently, life as an Israeli-Arab may be complex but has many positive points.

So, in fact the Galilee is an island of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, just as it seems.  In addition, it is also a spectrum of internal and external conflict between communities involving identity and interest that defies generalization.  In terms of future hopes, I can only quote the quaint Polish blessing, “May it not get any worse.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Is it a boy or a girl?

Once of the challenges of  the new global village is trying to determine whether your correspondent is a male or female. When interaction was limited to the local and known culture, the gender of the name was almost always known just through passive experience.  For example, in England, Jim was man while Jane was a woman.  Today, as a translator, I communicate with people worldwide, often leaving me clueless whether my interlocker is male or female. Googling the name in pictures often clears up the issue, but not always.  The cultural / language basis is also sometimes helpful.

For example, English names for girls often end in the ee sound, i.e. Julie, Mary, Stacie, Stephanie and Nancy.  Most other female names are traditional, such as Jane and Susanne.  Interestingly, it is very rare that a “girls” name is given to a boy, maybe for reasons expressed in Johnny’s Cash’s famous song “A Boy Named Sue” (See  if are not familiar with this classic song.). Given the omnipresence of Anglo-Saxon culture, most people can distinguish the women from the men.

In Metropolitan France, the letter e at the end of the name feminizes it.  Examples include Jean and Jeanne, Paul and Paulette, Henri and Simon and Simone, to name a few.  Also, since it was traditional to name children after saints (partly as part of policy to eliminate langue d’oc, a common language in France several centuries ago), French French names are easily identifiable.  Interestingly, African French names are wonderful hodgepodges of the two cultures: typical French first names and exotic (to Western ears) African last names. So, gender identification is generally not difficult for French names.

By contrast, Hebrew is quite a challenge, even for Hebrew speakers.  First, many names are unfamiliar to Western cultures, including Idan and Shiran.  Some names have specific and humorous meanings in English, such as Moran and Pines (a girl and a boy, respectively).  The only rule is that generally if a name ends in an a sound, it refers to a female.  Examples include Yosef/Yosefa, Ziv/Ziva, Ayal/Ayala and Michael/Michaela. Also, names ending in it are feminine, e.g. Ronit, Sigalit, etc.  The major problem is that, consistent with the stereotypical macho culture, girls are often given many traditional boy names (but not the other direction), creating mass gender confusion.  Some of the androgynous names include Tal, Chen, Gal and Chen. To given an idea of how confusing this is, I teach one class with three students named Mor, two of them female.  Alas, guessing the gender of a Hebrew name can be a crapshoot.

So, faced with foreign name without a gender-identifying title, correspondents have few alternatives. They can google the name as a word or picture; they can make a guess based on the ending of the name; or they can simply ask as politely as possible if the person is a boy or girl.  Hopefully, the respondent will understand that nothing is obvious in a global village.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Rocky Road

Rocks are omnipresent.  They are found on every continent, including Antarctica. Given that that they come in many forms, English, being above all a precise language, boasts a large number of words to describe the specific types.

In general, rock and stone are almost interchangeable, describing both the material and form. When referring to a large stone, a boulder is more specific, implying a mass that is impossible or almost impossible to move.  By itself in the sea or the desert, a large rock is called an outcrop. By contrast, as part of a hill overhanging the sea or a valley, it is called a cliff.  A steep and rough patch of rock is a crag. Finally, a large hill-sized rock in a flat area is called a butte.

In the other direction, small rocks created by water or wind erosion are called pebbles, which are generally large enough to be held in a human hand and quite fun to skip.  By contrast, gravel is much finer, reaching the size of sand.  Scree is the pebbles and gravel that break off on hills that make climbing down them so dangerous because solid footing becomes impossible.

If the rock contains solid minerals, the specific section is called a vein (of gold or coal, for example).  However, if such rock contains mud and crude oil, it is called shale, a matter of great interest in the world today.

While a rose is a rose, a rock can be many things, rockabil(it)y, so to say.