Hebrew slang pushes aside older words

jerusalem | The English word “spin” becomes “speen,” plural “speenim.”

The language of Moses has also absorbed “blind date,” “under control” and “hacker” (pronounced hah-cker), along with some 10,000 other words and expressions that have been compiled in a dictionary of Israeli slang, a bestseller since it came out this fall.

The hefty hardcover reflects the onslaught of foreign words in the age of globalization and the struggle of modern Hebrew, revived as a spoken language just a century ago, to adapt an ancient vocabulary to modern times.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for one, doesn’t like the trend. A while back, on Hebrew Language Day, he complained that the once ubiquitous Hebrew farewell “shalom” has largely been replaced by “yalla, bye,” an Arabic-English hybrid. He also chastised the satellite and cable TV companies Yes and Hot for choosing foreign names.

The guardians of proper Hebrew do not seem to be overly worried.

Hebrew is flourishing and has proven its adaptability, said Avraham Tal, deputy director of the Academy for the Hebrew Language known in Hebrew, ironically, as the “academia.”

Seeking to stem the use of foreign words, experts at the academy have been inventing Hebrew alternatives for words such as “conditioner.”

From time to time, the nation’s top linguists present their creations to the academy’s plenum, where favorites are adopted by vote, often after stormy debate. A few times a year, the academy publishes a list of new words and asks state radio and TV to use them.

Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the language adviser at Israel Radio, said it is easy enough to introduce words in newscasts and other programs, but that does not always mean they will take hold.

“Every word has its fate,” said Tal, acknowledging quite a few of the academy’s creations have fizzled, such as Hebrew substitutes for “video” and “jingle.” A belated effort to get the public to accept a Hebrew word for shampoo seems doomed from the start.

Almagor-Ramon said politicians and ad copywriters are among the worst language offenders.

“There is no way to correct them,” she said, noting that in a recent radio ad, a Labor Party legislator refused to use the formal Hebrew substitute for “primaries,” arguing that no one would understand him.