English words, names take strange new shapes in Israel

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Over 50 years ago, when I was a pupil in a Los Angeles school, I had trouble spelling the names of several American states, including Connecticut. But even at my worst, I never mangled the name of that beautiful corner of New England as badly as officials in Afula, a smallish Galilee city east of Haifa.

Afula and Connecticut are linked: Some years ago, New Haven's Jewish community adopted Afula within the framework of the Project Renewal scheme. In gratitude, the Afula City Council decided to name one of the town's major streets after the state.

This naturally meant that a number of street signs had to be ordered, citing the street's new name in both Hebrew and English: The purpose of the latter was to gladden the hearts of visitors from Connecticut.

Unfortunately, any such visitors may have trouble recognizing the name of their state, which is spelled four different ways in the Roman alphabet on the street signs. The signs read Conticat, Konnektikut, Kunitiket and Konitket.

Yet even these distortions are more comprehensible than the "English" names of important Zionist leaders that appear on Israeli street signs. For instance, as a longtime employee of the Weizmann Institute of Science, I asked various municipalities to correct signs on which Weizmann was spelled Weitzman, Witzman, Weizman, etc.

But I finally gave up because every time one misspelling was corrected, I found another.

Transliteration is an enormous minefield. The august Hebrew Language Academy sanctions what might be called official mistransliteration. For some reason, scholars at the academy have decided that kibbutz should be spelled qibutz, and that signs directing overseas visitors to the town of Kiryat Gat should read Qiryat Gat.

Most tourists eventually figure out that a qibutz is a kibbutz. But what might they make of a sign along the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway that, until recently, announced the approach to Ben-Gurion Airport. Since space on the sign was limited, the powers that be decided to abbreviate its English-language portion. The abbreviation was based on the Hebrew original, which was "Namal Teufah Ben-Gurion."

The sign read, "Natbag–30 kilometers."

If street and road signs baffle them, tourists can at least ask for help from passersby, most of whom know English reasonably well because youngsters here study the language from the 4th grade to the 12th. And as is not the case elsewhere in the world, most of the teachers are native English speakers.

Nevertheless a good many newly arrived Russian immigrants, though they arrive in Israel with master's degrees or even doctorates in English, still struggle with English idioms. A veteran Education Ministry official in charge of hiring English teachers told me, for example, of well-educated job applicants from Moscow who informed her, among other things, that they had taken "many refreshment courses."

Israeli kids sometimes have trouble with their idioms as well. For example, a young New Englander teaching in Tel Aviv was taken aback when, on the occasion of her marriage, her students smilingly wished her "many happy returns of the day."

That was almost enough to send her back to Connecticut.