Tsarphati
French Israel

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

MiniUlpan: don't say rine, say rain

Those who have seen the musical comedy My Fair Lady, or those who are unfortunate to know only this version of the Pygmalion story, may remember the song "The Rain in Spain", which contained this line:
"Ay" not "I", "O" not "Ow", Don't say "Rine," say "Rain".

This was sung by the virtual Greek Chorus of Professor Higgins' cleaning staff to the low-class Eliza Doolittle, who seemed incapable of adopting his Estuary English in place of her East-Ender poor girl's accent.

"Don't say X; say Y" is a familiar pattern and has served as the format for many a grammarian's table of correct language usage for centuries.
Such lists are written by well-meaning educators who just hope to see some continuity in their little part of the human tradition. As soon as a grammarian starts composing such lists, however, the linguist knows the grammarian's work is doomed, in all likelihood.

From our point of view, they often show at what point in history the a word underwent a change. I first encountered these lists in Latin when studying how that language transformed itself into the Romance Languages. Such lists were written by medieval scholars, often Roman Catholic clergymen, who saw that the integrity of the international language was in peril if people kept using the words incorrectly. One of the most famous is the appendix Probi, compiled in the 3rd or 4th century. Here is an example from Probus' long list of common Latin mistakes.
masculus non mascel
lanius non laneo
iuvencus non iuvenclus
barbarus non barbar
equs non ecus
coqus non cocus

The first word of each pair is the "correct" Latin word (the way Cicero, for example, would have written it) and the second is the "incorrect", or dialectal form of the word that had crept into common usage.

Guess which form survived?

Sigh.

You see, I tend to think Probus was right. He knew the correct spelling of words; he just wanted to prevent people from making further mistakes.

Unfortunately some of his readers were as receptive as Jewish high-school students. (In a private school that their parents are paying a lot of money to send them to. Especially if it is an elite, pluralistic high school that prides itself in the quality of its academics.) By that, I mean, not receptive at all. Tell them what the correct word is: they laugh. "Nobody says that." Since they have such a grasp of world affairs, they are sure they must be right.

Truth be told, it was not always the second, incorrect form that survived. Linguists would have us believe that was the case. But sometimes scribes took the lesson seriously. And sometimes purists at a later date rectified the mistakes (such as in the case of the humanists of the fifteenth century, criticised by Desiderius Erasmus in his Dialogus Ciceronianus). But that was indeed true often enough to convince linguists that once a change has taken hold in the popular usage of the language enough to be noted, it is probably irreversible.

Having said that, I would like to consider the effectiveness of attempts by grammarians to curb the incorrect use of Hebrew by Israelis. Whether the definition of what is correct comes from Tanakh, Mishnayot, or the modern Academia LeLashon HaIvrit, I am talking about any rule that has been established and taught, but from which the popular usage of the language is diverging.

I quote from the Orthodox Union Center's Torah Tidbits, issue 652:
Rather than a word or two this week, we're presenting some rules of HaAcademiya. Abbreviations in Hebrew are marked with a GERESH (or GERSHAYIM), apostrophe or double quote, not a period. E.g.
'טל, not .טל (telephone)
רח' קרן היסד not .רח
אישור מס' 1300 not .מס
ת"ד 37015 not .ת.ד (P.O.B.)
ת"ז not .ת.ז

The obvious purpose of the OU Center publishing this list, and vocabulary reminders that come up in other issues, is to remind Hebrew speakers to try to use the accepted rules of the language rather than allowing the pernicious elements of other languages to come in and replace them. This is also a lively polemic in other languages, such as French, which has the Académie Française to set and promote rules of correct usage. As often as not it is the invasion of English words and grammar that causes problems, but sometimes it is just evolution of the language following its natural course as speakers mangle the spelling and pronunciation.

There is a small but important difference in this case. The OU's Torah Tidbits is addressed specifically to those who speak English and have in all likelihood learned Hebrew as a second language. Such persons may be more likely to consider themselves ongoing learners of Hebrew, continually improving it. Furthermore, it is my conviction that the Jewish world in general may pay more heed to such rules than other nationalities.

Am Yisrael has a vested interest in preserving both our religious and linguistic heritage. We may even consider it worthwhile to pay attention to "picky" details such as the use of gershayim instead of the period used in other languages for abbreviations. In such an idealistic, education-oriented environment, such reminders may actually stand a chance.
PinḼas Ivri 23:49

11 Comments:

Are you kidding me? The Hebrew language has been littered with Aramaicisms, Greekisms and bits of other languages throughout history. Anglicisms are just the latest round. Especially for anyone who has been in Yeshiva (where Hebrew, and much more so Aramaic and English, are butchered daily) to have faith that the Hebrew language will remain pure is pretty incredible.

I still love your blog -Bobby
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