segunda-feira, 15 de novembro de 2010

The irony of Hebrew pronunciation

The relationship between the two peoples and language is an asymmetrical one. Arabs distinguish between the social necessity and desirability of communicating in Hebrew for many practical purposes even though their relationship to Jews and the State of Israel may be hostile whereas most Jews have a negative attitude towards Arabic as a result of the two people’s mutual hostility. This is apparent even among the children of Jews who are native Arabic speakers and were expelled from the Arab countries, and whose property was confiscated during and after the hostilities of the Israeli War of Independence when anti-Jewish disturbances occurred in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen following the defeat of the invading Arab armies.

Ironically, correct Hebrew pronunciation was modeled after the tradition of the Oriental Jews and the Arabic language by prominent linguists in the formative period of the Hebrew "revival". The distinct pronunciation of the guttural letters of the Hebrew alphabet, 'Ayin' and 'Het' were originally used to function as a guide for correct spelling. These letters originally had the same pronunciation as the corresponding letters in Arabic.

But what was once considered “correct Hebrew pronunciation” is now largely regarded by the Jewish majority as a marker of lower-class origin and Arab or “Eastern-Oriental Jewish” identity. Another irony of this situation is that failure to pronounce these letters correctly leads to frequent spelling errors by the “upper class” (Jews of european origin). It also gives the language very little variety in terms of distinctive sounds, creating serious difficulties in comprehension of the spoken language.

[ If you watch TV and listen to the radio it's almost impossible to understand... for me it's very hard to understand what [they] say.
First of all they speak too fast. And since [the letters] 'Alef' and 'Ayin', 'Het' and 'Khaf' became the same thing, the language becomes 'blurred' [it creates serious difficulties in comprehension] and many [distinctive] sounds of the Hebrew language are desapearing.
Our language is a Semitic language and no one can change that...
To my taste - and I don't think it's just a matter of taste - the Hebrew [language] has been losing its beauty. ]

Whereas English and French have approximately fifty such phonemes, and German and Russian about forty, modern Hebrew makes due with only twenty-five. This makes the language sound quite undifferentiated, “boring” and causes confusion because many words sound quite similar. Or as Family Guy's Peter Griffin once wisely pointed out:

This is accentuated due to the failure of most Israelis today to pronounce the guttural “Semitic” letters. The result is even greater confusion due to the spelling system in use and its lack of correspondence with the way most people [particularly the population of Eastern European origin] pronounce words)

One amusing anecdote of this situation is the solution found to the Hebrew translation of the great musical and film My Fair Lady. How would the translators deal with Eliza Higgens’s lower class Cockney accent and dialect and her struggle to learn “proper” (upper-class) English? The first attempt was ridiculous because a proper pronunciation of Hebrew in the “ears” of the purists meant imitating the “lower-class” pronunciation of Hebrew employed by Arabs and Oriental Jews! In spite of this prejudicial view, Arabic has made a significant contribution to Hebrew in both Medieval Spain and in modern Israel.

Arabic, indeed was a favorite source for new Hebrew words - the Hebrew word for socks (garbayim), which Ben-Yehuda fashioned from the Arabic word 'garub', is just one example - as well as being an aid in explaining obscure Biblical terms for which reason, Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues made a close study of the language.

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