Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world

Through i-iter i came upon this interesting post: Tamil, Kannada and the middle path. Tamil and Kannada are two important languages spoken in the south of India and their speakers are quite proud of their identity.

The article complains that not enough is being done for the linguistic normalization of non-Hindi languages in India. It was very interesting to read it and, being Israeli, i was surprised to see the compliments to “Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world who aren’t wasting time tom-toming about antiquity, beauty or originality, but are instead investing their time, money and energy in using their languages for almost all known purposes”.

I was curious – why did they choose these three? Why not Russians and French, who use their languages for everything because many of them openly consider them to be better than all the others? Why not Catalans, whose language is in a political situation which is much more similar to that of Tamil and Kannada?

And why Israelis? Sure, we use Hebrew a lot; Hebrew Wikipedia, for example, is our pride. But i don’t think that we use Hebrew enough. For example, a lot of people (not all) write email in English. They write email in English even if they don’t know English well. They write email in English even though practically all the technical problems with encoding and bi-directionality were solved years ago. And they write email in English even if the email is about a topic for which Hebrew is perfectly suitable: one could argue that English is more convenient for writing about software or physics, but quite a lot of people write email in English just to to tell recent family news or to make an appointment.

I used to do that, too, but i made a conscious decision to stop writing email in English unless it is absolutely necessary. I tell all my friends about it. Some of them are indifferent and some of them – especially those in the software industry – say that Israel should have adopted English and not Hebrew as its language. Shame on them. Students think that i know English well, so they often ask me what is the most polite way to make an appointment with their professors in English, and i always tell them: “If your professor can read Hebrew, just write the email in Hebrew!”

Of course, there’s also the matter of university papers. In physics, for example, even though Hebrew is used in classroom, it goes for granted that papers at M.A.-level and higher are written only in English. The need for an English version is understandable, because in the world scale very few people would be able to read a paper in Hebrew, but i would imagine that it’s much better to write the paper in Hebrew and translate it. Yes, it would take time and probably money, but it is nevertheless useful and not just for the honor of the Hebrew language: it would actually advance science and education, because this way people would express themselves in their own language and think about physics instead of thinking about English.

Finally, there’s Facebook. For some reason many Israelis still use Facebook with the English interface – again, even though they don’t know English well, and even though they never read or write anything in English there. The translation of Facebook into Hebrew is terrible, and what’s especially frustrating is that i would gladly fix it, but i can’t, because the interface for submitting translation corrections is absolutely unusable. I nevertheless use Facebook in Hebrew, because it solves the bi-directionality problems – for example, the notorious problem with the punctuation marks appearing at the wrong end of the sentence. There was a newspaper report saying that Facebook influences Israeli children so much that they got used to writing the question mark at the beginning of the sentence – and that’s how they submit their homework! Some Israelis develop weird tricks to make the punctuation appear on the correct side of the sentence, for example by adding a letter after the period – compare “אתה בא לכדורגל בערב?י” and “אתה בא לכדורגל בערב?” – notice the placement of the question mark and the redundant letter in the first sentence. But they could simply switch to Hebrew. (And one day i will write an email to Facebook offices and tell them that they really should improve the translation.)

It’s quite pleasing to see that speakers of Kannada look up to us, but it doesn’t mean that we already did all we could to normalize Hebrew.

(And why am i writing this in English? Because i started writing it as a comment for that blog and it grew into a post by itself.)


9 thoughts on “Japanese, Germans and Israelis of the world

  1. Hebrew has come a long way. All around the world, people whose languages are dying look up to us for what we were able to do in just a couple of generations. But we still have a way to go (or perhaps we’ve regressed): I was just invited to a “קונצרט” and I don’t even know what the correct word is.

  2. Good read, had never come across an Israeli blog.

    Thanks for the link,btw, Indian “linguistic chauvinists” spend too much time on praising how old and great their language is and not others. Some of them go and argue how all other languages are derived from theirs.

    1. The mystery isn’t that big really – even though linguists argue about the correct terms in which the (re-)birth of Modern Hebrew should be described, everybody agrees that it is the most unique case in the history of sociolinguistics.

      So there are many people around the world who admire Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – Basques, Lakota, Tamils, Tatars, Udmurts, Bretons, Welsh. (The Welsh, by the way, are so envious of the success of Hebrew, that they call their language schools “Wlpan“!)

      The problem is that these people don’t always realize that the vigor of the Israelis of today is not quite the same as it was a hundred years ago and that even a successful linguistic planning project must be maintained and not just be happy about past victories.

      1. What, you mean the deterioration of Israeli Hebrew and the decrease in its lexicon?

        Understood; so what about the Japanese and the Germans? What do they have in common with our case?

        1. I didn’t say that there’s a decrease in lexicon. It is a very problematic thing to measure.

          There are many types of “deterioration”, some of which are certainly applicable to the current state of Hebrew. For example, the very poor understanding of grammar by students and general population and even by teachers of grammar; the failure, so far, to implement a standard orthography; the inability of a large part of the speakers to read literature; the lack of a complete standard dictionary; the fact that university students of many disciplines need to read textbooks in English and to submit papers in English; and more.

          The Japanese and the Germans, to the best of my knowledge, take their languages seriously. They translate textbooks into their languages. They are less dependent on English. Changes in standard orthography become headline news in Japan and in German-speaking countries; in Israel the media doesn’t report them and doesn’t implement them.

          Not that they don’t have problems. I heard that in Germany many English words are replacing German ones and that in Japan it’s hard for young people to read older literature. The good thing, though, is that they actually care about it and are able to discuss it, while Israelis know so little about their language that they can’t really follow a discussion on the matter.

          It all boils down to education, really. Ben-Yehuda, by the way, cared deeply about schools – he understood that implementation and dissemination are not less important than codification. Our Academy today only does research and codification, which is great, and it says that dissemination is the responsibility of the media and the education system, but they don’t take this responsibility. So who will take it?

        2. Well, the Japanese and the Germans enjoy the benefit of having generations upon generations of shaping the language by native-speakers, as well as this tiny matter of having over 100,000,000 speakers, each.
          In the reality of a language which has less than 10 million speakers, it’s unrealistic to expect translation of textbooks and/or having academic papers written in Hebrew.

          I comletely agree with you regarding the role meant for education. I agree that theoretical and practical knowledge of Hebrew (that is, grammar and orthography, among other things) is, well, not at optimum level, and that we should allocate resources to improve the current state.

          But having that been said, I believe we should also attend to the poor lexicon owned by current Hebrew speakers (see Michal Efrat, “האם שפתנו העברית מידלדלת?”).

          Actually, I must admit that I find myself getting disappointed time and time again by the poverty of our lexicon, comparing to, say, some European languages. I really don’t know how we will ever be able to overcome this gap.

      2. My girlfriend’s older daughters lived in Wales for a few years and learnt Welsh. I realised the Welsh language is getting a big push from children who learn to speak it fluently so their parents can’t keep up :-D It’s filling with English words, but the grammar is completely different, so it’s unlikely to just merge like Scots did … until the grammar starts going too.

  3. Hi Amir,
    I liked your post

    I think that the fact that Hebrew is spoken in all undergraduate classes in all universities is actually a triumph of the Hebrew, and that should be celebrated instead of the textbooks and papers in English being looked down upon.

    The decision to open the Technion was passed at the Zionist Congress in 1904. Among the big decisions to make, there was the question of what language would be taught. This saprked the whole “Language War”, where the prime candidates were English, Hebrew and German, as most of the instructors would be immigrant German engineers, and most of the textbooks would be in German. Eventually a decision was reached where English, Hebrew and Arabic would all be accepted languages. Fortunately for all students, by the time the Technion opened its doors in 1924 (The first Hebrew-speaking university!), Hebrew was amuch more established language and it was the only language used for teaching, as it is to this day.

    At Weizmann, all courses and seminars take place in English. This is actually a problem for the Technion – because all classes are given in Hebrew, it is a big deterrant for foreigners to come study there. Basically, if a university wants to be international it needs to embrace an international language.

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