Category Archives: Language

On self-definition and basic decency

Last week, I Facebook-liked a news item about an acquaintance of mine, Y., giving birth. The reason this was national news in Israel is that Y. identifies himself as a male. The article respected this, using the male gender even on the verb for “gave birth”. Two other acquaintances of mine made snide comments on Facebook, culminating in “it’s like they’re trying really hard to show that it’s actually a man who gave birth”.

I can understand this sentiment quite well. Some five years ago, Y. gave me a ride in his car; his self-definition as a male was new to me at the time, and indeed I had never had to deal with this situation before. I knew that Y. wished to be seen and treated as a man, and wanted to respect that, but it took me a lot of effort to start using the male gender for him.1 I remember sitting in the passenger seat, struggling with awkward silences, and trying to figure out how to speak to him, until I finally got a male “you” out of my mouth. Continue reading On self-definition and basic decency

Footnotes

  1. It’s important to note that in Hebrew, there are two different forms of singular “you” – one for males, another for females. The same applies to other pronouns, like “your”, as well as to verbs, like “like” – so I can inflect the sentence “Do you like hamburgers” one way for addressing a male (ata ohev hamburgerim?) and another for addressing a female (at ohevet hamburgerim?), but I have no way of leaving the sentence neutral as it would be in English. []

Links: Harry Potter and Terrorism, Apes and Englishes, and more

I’m in Jerusalem with my family right now, and we’ve just returned from the annual extended-family vacation. I used the past days on the seaside to catch up on my feed reader, and I have a bunch of goodness to share which might help tide an eager reader over until I actually write something again.

PEACE: Harry Potter and the Politics and Terror

Dan Nexon over at The Duck of Minerva took two stabs at analyzing the last installments of the Harry Potter series. Both are an amusing and interesting read:

The Duck also points to a piece on Foreign Policy about the post-conflict reconstruction that must be done after the fall of Voldemort.

On the lighter side, there’s a trailer for Harry Potter as a teen comedy and the plot of the series in a 99 second song (both on TastefullyOffensive, both via Dubi Kanengisser).

LANGUAGE: Pullum on apes and (possible) racists

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum has two excellent and characteristically sharp posts:

Other fine links

  • Charlie Brooker makes some necessary comments regarding the commenting on the Norway right-wing terrorist attacks (Comment is Free, via Dubi)
  • John Oliver spreads the word about the Florida couple that foreclosed on Bank of America (Daily Show, via Yuval Pinter)

The Passive in English

Wheeeee!
Image by Erika Hall via Flickr, illustrating a real live passive (can you spot it?)

There’s an excellent essay by Geoffrey K. Pullum over at Language Log, in which he explains — in a way that anyone can understand if they try — what a passive construction in English is.

Our grumbling about how these people don’t know their passive from a hole in the ground, we have received mail from many people who want a clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is. In this post I respond to those many requests. I’ll make it as clear and simple as I can, but it will be a 2500-word essay. I can’t make it simpler than it is.

Pullum and others at the Log rightly ridicule overzealous application of the “grammar rule” that the passive should be avoided at all times. I actually find the “rule” useful, and this is not incompatible with my agreeing with Pullum’s post. The passive is often used for blurring agentivity (even as it can be used for the exact opposite) or for sounding official/smart. As long as common sense (i.e. a native speaker’s intuition) comes first, I find I can actually make my writing simpler, more direct, and a better read by eliminating passives that only snuck in because part of me thought they sound smarter or something.

Also, when writing for EUDEC, I often find myself tempted to say something like “the wug1 was selected because…”, in order to glaze over the fact that the ones doing the choosing were, in fact, the Council I’m writing for. (I happen to always be a bit uncomfortable with our role as elected representatives, and I wish EUDEC were more of a direct democracy.) But having written something like, and being aware of the tempting perils of the passive, I often correct it to “we chose the wug because…”, which is both more honest and, I think, easier to read.

Anyway, Pullum’s essay will surely be a long-lasting contribution to the Internet war between descriptivists and prescriptivists, and is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to find out, in just 2500 words and without needing a linguistic background, what the passive is. It’s also a neat example of the kind of thing linguists look into. So check it out.

Footnotes

  1. “wug” doesn’t mean anything, but you probably know two or more of them would be “wugs”. []

Extra-curricular activities…

Me and Sabine have both been itching to travel, and so we’ve been kicking around ideas for where we want to go after we finish our degrees. This morning we came up with a really exciting idea: a world tour of learning.

Basically, each station on our way around the world would be a place where we want to learn something. We were already discussing getting a driver’s license in Massachusetts, USA (because I have family there and it’s much easier than it is here or in Israel), and we have also been thinking of spending some time in Israel in which I could learn Arabic and Sabine could learn Hebrew. We might also, for example, go to learn how to cook a proper curry somewhere in India, learn to tango in Argentina… Who knows what else we might come up with.

Of course, we’ll also have to work somehow at most stations on the way, to fund the next leg of the trip… But every job would be a learning opportunity.

We’re thinking of what we can make out of this idea… It might also be something we want to blog about and publicize, to attract attention to all the non-traditional ways a person can learn in today’s world. It’ll be a while before we can start (we each have at least a year left for our degree) but I imagine I’ll be posting more as our plans develop.

My German Manicure

Pink nail polish.
Image via Wikipedia

After my previous guest post Beware: Adult Content generated a high volume of traffic to Michael’s blog, he invited me back, and I will be contributing occasionally (even though we both know what really drove the traffic surge were the key words “adult content”). As I end my visit to Leipzig I offer you a piece I wrote during a previous visit two years ago. It is long.

My German Manicure

By Shoshana London Sappir

I am ushered to a downstairs room in the beauty salon. The manicurist, walking a step behind me, says something in German about “links.” My mind flashes straight to Dr. Mengele on the platform. Links – left –means life. Rechts – right – means death. She wants me to take the seat on the left, I realize. I sit down.

“English?” I ask. She struggles with the words “only a little,” giggles and shrugs. I answer with a big smile, trying to convey: “Don’t worry, we’ll be just fine.” Continue reading My German Manicure

Sababa shel hummus – The National Language Fallacy

arab men smoking pipe and drinking turkish cof...
Image via Wikipedia

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Noam Sheizaf at +972 Magazine brought to my attention a Jerusalem Post editoral which made a few red lights in my head go off (bolding mine):

ISRAEL IS the only country in the world where Jews are the majority. Only here can they enjoy the advantages of living in a state whose language, holidays and national symbols are their own.

Let’s leave aside the truly objectionable stuff in this editorial and focus on the linguistic part. I love Hebrew, in fact, it’s my favorite of Israel’s national symbols. I would like to point out how ludicrous it is for the Post to claim Jewish “ownership” over this, or any, language.

I

Before anything else, reflect for a moment on the fact that the majority of Jews worldwide do not speak Modern Israeli Hebrew and would probably call another language (usually American English) their own.

II

The nation is a relatively new construct, dating back just to the end of the 18th century. Naming official national languages was part of the rise of nationalism in Europe. It was part of the creation of a national identity — not artificial, but put together of existing pieces.

To the linguistically uninitiated, it might seem natural that every nation-state has a language “of their own”. German for the Germans, Swedish for the Swedes, Chinese for the Chinese. But languages are actually really bad at sticking to international borders. The Swiss speak Swiss German, which is no more similar to Germany’s Standard German than is Dutch. Standard Swedish is so similar to Norwegian and Danish that the three might be considered dialects of one language, and can be understood mutually with a bit of effort. “Chinese” is not even one language; usually “Chinese” means Standard Mandarin, the official language used by the People’s Republic, but the term includes the many many languages spoken in mainland China, even though many of them only have a writing system in common, remaining unintelligible to one another.

In the case of Modern Israeli Hebrew it should be especially clear that there is not a 1:1 relationship between (Jewish) nation and (Hebrew) language. Modern Hebrew has taken on European structure in almost all areas of grammar (with some very notable exceptions), since those who revitalized it were speakers of European languages. The bulk of Israeli slang is comprised of Arabic loanwords such as ahla and sababa. And the language is spoken by non-Jews as well; the Arabic of Israeli Arabs is so full of Hebrew that efforts are underway to refresh the community’s Arabic vocabulary.

III

Nonetheless, Modern Hebrew is the result of a conscious effort of will, and one might insist that it is an exceptionally national language. After all, the Zionist made a real, and apparently successful, effort to revive the language of Jewish scripture.

But in fact, even those parts of Modern Hebrew considered “pure Hebrew” — the parts attested in the Bible and other ancient texts — are unlikely to be in any way pure or belong entirely to any ethnic group. Quite simply, no language ever does. The ancient Israelites did not live in isolation, and were surrounded by different peoples with different cultures and different languages. Inevitably, the language they spoke was affected by it, and likely eagerly assimilated elements of the gentiles’ languages, just as all languages have always done everywhere. (but see NOTE below)

IV

The suggestion that the Arabs have no place within our state, that they are a foreign entity that does not belong, is ludicrous and incredibly offensive. It is even ludicrous if you think there’s a god-given right for Jews to be in what was once Cana’an. Modern Israel (and its language) have always had non-Jewish residents (and speakers), most of them Arabs. At no point was the pre-state Yishuv isolated from Arabic culture. Israel has co-existed with Arabs, sometimes more peacefully than at other times, from the very start. Perhaps oddly, I find myself startled to see Israelis railing against Arabic culture as though it were a scary foreign influence. To me, hummus is the national dish, and even those who mistakenly think it’s falafel can’t deny there’s a bit of Arab in us.

Incidentally, sababa shel hummus, roughly “nice hummus”, is a phrase with an [arguably] European structure (cf. English “quite a day” and “hell of a guy” ), made up of two Arabic-loaned content words connected by one Hebrew function word [shel, “of”]. And what phrase could possibly be more Israeli?

I feel there is a general point here about Jewish culture – before, during, and after Diaspora. Before Diaspora, the Israelites were a part of the fabric of the Ancient Near East, going about the typical Ancient Near East national pass-times of worshiping, building, farming and conquering, maintaining a distinct culture and very distinct religion but not without influence from the languages, cultures and religions of their neighbors (who were all influenced in return, and by one another as well). In Diaspora, the Jews of every area developed their own cultural and linguistic remix. The most well-known resulting languages are Yiddish and Ladino, but they are not nearly the only ones. I recently learned that a small Jewish community in northwestern India developed a dialect of Marathi: Judæo-Marathi, still spoken in India and Israel.

And indeed, after Diaspora, the state of Israel has been a cultural patchwork quilt, taking patterns and colors from the many places its residents came from, while remaining firmly grounded in the political and cultural reality of the Middle East, which we are now undoubtedly part of.

V

One could argue, and perhaps one should, that in all of these cases the borrowing group made the borrowings its own, both by choosing them and by integrating them in a unique way (i.e. fitting loanwords to native phonology and morphology, which Modern Hebrew excels at). But there is nothing particularly Jewish about living in cultural isolation, nor is it a particularly sensible proposition that Modern Hebrew belongs exclusively to Israeli Jews. The Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have been there since before Hebrew was revitalized, Hebrew has been in contact with them ever since, and whether the Jerusalem Post likes it or not, the Arabic language and Palestinian culture are part of the fabric of the Israeli quilt.

Note

Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with Ancient Hebrew and neighboring languages of the same period, such as Philistine, Phoenician, Moabite, Hittite, and Ancient Egyptian, and can’t give examples for loanwords off the top of my head like I can with English and Modern Hebrew. I also don’t know any good source to check (though I’d be eager to get one). But I’ve certainly seen mention on Wikipedia and on Israeli linguistics blogs of loanwords from neighboring languages into Ancient Hebrew, and this is not surprising in the slightest. It would be surprising if it were the other way around.

Related reading tip

Jerry Haber of the Magnes Zionist is writing a fascinating series of articles about “Israel’s ‘Arab Problem'”. Part one, part two. I read them cross-posted on +972 Magazine, which is becoming a more and more central source for my reading…