Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Be Careful With Your Language

One of our synagogues college students is off studying in China, and she made a mistake in a paper of hers that reminded me of a favorite story from Rabbinical School. Whenever I think of the story, I can't stop smiling or giggling, so I figured it must be worth a share…

First, with apologies (this really was meant to be a lighthearted post!) I have to give a tiny bit of history of the Hebrew language. For almost a couple of thousand years, leading up to the 19th century, Hebrew was a dead language — it was used for study and prayer, but it wasn't spoken as a primary language. When Zionism began to take root, and it looked like Jews might start thinking of themselves as a nation again, a brilliant, but apparently pretty eccentric guy named Eliezer Ben Yehuda decided to revive the language. And, part of doing that was to invent new Hebrew words for terms which hadn't existed back when Hebrew was commonly used. For instance, Hebrew had no word for "electricity," so Ben Yehuda used a biblical word that probably referred to an ember ("heshmal"). Many of his new words stuck; many didn't. Languages are funny that way.

Okay — linguistic history lesson over.

During our first year of Rabbinical School, our studies were heavy on Hebrew instruction, so we did a lot of essay writing and such. One of my classmates wrote an essay about how much he loved archaeology. Not just him — his whole family loved archaeology. They loved going to archaeological sites together. They had done archaeology in the field, as a family. And, naturally, he was beyond excited to be in Israel, which is home to so much unbelievable archaeology. He couldn't wait to explore the archeology here.

One small problem: he was using the classic Ben Yehuda dictionary which, as I said, contained words which Ben Yehuda coined, but had never really taken root. For example, the word for "archaeology" which he had wanted to be used in Modern Hebrew (hashpanut) was based on the root for "uncovering." But, that didn't work out. In the end, Hebrew just uses archeologica. 

But, luckily, hashpanut  did find use in another context. It's the Modern Hebrew word for "striptease."

Yeah. We had a hard time getting the class back to order that day...

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