Wednesday, 23 November 2011

V'Ayn Kol Chadash Tachat Hashemesh

One naturally makes mistakes in a language that isn’t one's own. So I have, in my time, made the odd gaffe or two in Hebrew. Fairly new in the country back in the last millennium, I was asked what I did for a living. I’m a civil engineer, I wanted to say, mehandes ezrachi מהנדס אזרחי, only it came out mehandes atzbani מהנדס עצבני, a nervous engineer.
But learning the language of the country in which you have chosen to live is, I think, a prerequisite for making it your true home. And Hebrew, in my humble opinion, is a logical, well thought out, and relatively easy language to master. Some words, in particular, stand out, because they sound fun, or warm, or beautiful, or odd, or fascinating. Or because of their etymology, their history.
Bakbouk בקבוק, for example, which means bottle. It’s called that because when you pour a drink out of a bottle, doesn’t it make the sound “bakbookbakboobakbook....”?
Chukka lukka (pronounced chuck a lucker) צ’אקה לאקה is a fun word. OK, the purists may say, that’s not a real Hebrew word. Maybe it isn’t. But it sounds too odd to miss. And what does it mean? It’s the siren on a police car or ambulance.
Chashmal (sounds like hush mull, but beginning with a hard “ch” as if you were clearing your throat) חשמל. It’s a dead common word. It’s the word for electricity. But electricity wasn’t around when ancient Hebrew was being spoken. The word had to be created.
Where did the English word for electricity come from? Electron, which was the ancient Greeks' word for amber, that shiny burnt orange stone. The Greeks, as reported by Thales of Miletus, noticed that if you rub amber with fur it creates some frisson, a force that can attract hair (or balloons, if they had them back then), sometimes even a spark if you rubbed long and hard enough.
Is the word chasmal found in the bible? It is. Among other places, in Ezekiel Chapter 1, 4 and what did it mean then?: "And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire." 
So today's Hebrew word for electricity comes from the ancient word for amber, which in ancient Greek gave its name to today's English word for electricity. It's all connected!

The first school in the country that taught in modern Hebrew was… have a guess, go on, where? (answer later on) which began teaching all subjects in Hebrew in 1888, at the same time that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man responsible for taking biblical Hebrew and reviving it, was living in Jerusalem. In reinventing a fairly dead language (still breathing--though not getting out much and having fun--thanks to its use in Jewish prayers) Eliezer Ben Yehuda had to not only encourage others to use the language, but to think up new words fit for every day life in the late 19th/early 20th century.
When the staff at this school (it was in Rishon Lezion, did you guess it?) found that there was a word missing from the new language, they would write to Eliezer Ben Yehuda. For example, they wrote and said that there was no word for towel. (Apparently Noah and his family didn’t need one, neither did Moses as he led the children of Israel across the dry sea, and as for the Egyptians... well they didn’t require drying off either. Do you think there was some sort of conspiracy just to keep the word towel out of the bible?)
So Ben Yehuda had a think. And he took the word negev, from the Negev, that expanse of very dry land in the south of Israel, and from that he fashioned the word lenagev, to dry, and one step on, magevet, towel. Isn’t that brilliant?

I moved to Israel in 1995, and learned the language on an intensive course, common among immigrants, called an ulpan. And it just so happened that Ben Yehuda’s daughter, Dora, was still alive (just, she must have been over 90). So our ulpan invited her to come over and chat to some of us about growing up in that extraordinary family. We, the chosen few who were invited to the talk (the top two classes, I had to overcome my natural modesty just to add that detail) were in the room waiting for her to arrive. Waiting and waiting. Finally a teacher came in laughing, and told us why there was a delay.
They’d sent a taxi to go and pick Dora Ben Yehuda up. The taxi driver had got to the address, found this old lady standing on the corner, and bundled her into the cab. But only when they got to the ulpan did they discover that it wasn’t her. The taxi driver had simply pounced on an innocent old lady standing on the street. No wonder she’d struggled, he said.
And the revival works. It is an incredible story. As the acclaimed writer David Grossman once said, “If my son today were to meet our forefather Abraham, they could at least have a reasonable conversation with each other”.
lsrael is an extraordinary place, and Hebrew is an extraordinary language. We in Israel should congratulate ourselves that, just by saying boker tov in the morning, we are part of a remarkable achievement.

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