Thursday, April 12, 2007

Linguistics and the Art of Acceptance

This year's Pesach sedarim were on the larger side for us. Since one of my brothers, his wife, and their kids made aliyah 2 years ago, and the other brother with his wife and kids live near her sisters, it is usually just the four Raggedys at my parents' house. Going to Belgium for Yom Tov is not on the agenda, since RaggedyDad's family there is quite secular/assimilated. And since my parents live rather locally, we're there by default on Sukkos (no outdoor space for a sukkah) and Pesach. We've had all of the other holidays at home at this point, sometimes with my parents here, sometimes with friends, or alone.

This year, my oldest brother (who lives in the U.S.) came with his family for the first days of Yom Tov. For the first seder, my parents also hosted my mother's sister, and my father's brother's family from Israel. Specifically, my aunt and her 3 teenaged/20's kids - my uncle had to stay in Israel for work.

We moved here from Israel over 20 years ago, and it has been a long time since we've had a seder together with that side of the family. Having a seder with non-religious yet marginally traditional cousins who you feel close to yet have very little shared upbringing experiences with is an interesting way to get reacquainted! We had a nice time, and it was great to actually have them meet RaggedyDad and my kids.

They stayed almost until the end, since they were catching a flight to Orlando early the next morning.

The next night, a whole discussion got started (not by me!) about how "Israelis don't pronounce Hebrew words carefully or properly" which drove me a little crazy from a linguistic point of view, plus I just disagree with this take on things. But then again, the slang and alternate grammatical usage my students used in public school didn't bother me, beyond wanting the kids to also be comfortable with standard English for life outside the barrio. When I majored in linguistics, the philosophy was descriptive rather than proscriptive - describing and analyzing the way people DO speak rather than how they 'ought to.'

I tried (probably in vain) to convince everyone that if Israelis (including my father) are altering some obscure vowel construction to fit most closely with a Hebrew word they already recognize, it's not "wrong" as much as it's the nature of language used by native speakers of that language. Since to them, there is no prayer concept of every sound being relevant and exact, they are using the language as we all use our native languages. To communicate the meaning effectively. And in that regard, they are accurate and successful. If the word is "veyeKUDASH" and they recognize it as close to "veyeKADESH" and pronounce it that way, to me this is not only totally understandable, it is alright.

Sigh. What are your thoughts?


Scraps said...

I can see the point of both sides--on the one hand, in Hebrew, changing the vowels really can change the meaning of the word, as can changing the emphasis placed on certain syllables. On the other hand, you're right, it doesn't pay to drive them crazy about it.

My sister, who made aliyah, hates Hebrew slang, because it makes it so much harder for her to learn the language the way it's meant to be spoken (and because the sloppiness of it annoys her too, I suspect).

PsychoToddler said...

I'm not sure about the word that you use as an example (which one was the correct one?) but with hebrew, the change of a few vowel sounds totally alters the meaning of the word.

I spent much of my childhood sitting on my Uncle David's knee every shabbos listening to him bentch and complaining that he mispronounced all the words. Which of course he did, since he was a Galicier and I was taught hebrew by Sabras.

Now I find it humorus that boys brought up in the good ole US of A (Milwaukee specifically) get sent off to Yeshivas on the east coast saying "Borchu" and come back saying "Boorchi".

Jack's Shack said...

I try not to get too caught up in the little details. Life is complicated enough without that.

As long as we can communicate effectively and said communication isn't hindering our ability to function in the world it is all good to me.

SephardiLady said...

My husband's family speaks very beautiful formal Hebrew, which my husband grew up hearing. Even he has difficulty communicating with those who speak a very slang Hebrew.

The slang Hebrew I hear is influenced by Arabic and makes me a real outsider. And I hear a lot of it, as you can imagine!

socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Very interesting post:)

triLcat said...

I'm generally fussy when it changes the meaning. When it's still intelligible, I try not be too uptight about it.

strangely, I also studied linguistics.

RaggedyMom said...

Overall, I take quite a liberal attitude about language.

One thing that has been driving me crazy lately is Ann pronouncing "the" as "day" -"What's the name of "day" book we were reading yesterday, Mommy?" Grrrr.

I don't care if she pronounces the "th" as "d" for a couple more years, but the vowel is irksome.

I have to smile to myself thinking about it, because I think it's what she's hearing her Israeli gananot say. Which is one more reason I wish this school would just speak HEBREW to the kids rather than non-native English! :)

RaggedyMom said...

I have to say, though - accents charm me much more than they ever 'bother' me - my father's Israeli accent is unshakeable even after all these years, and RaggedyDad has the whole Russian/Belgian/practically no native language thing going on.

I've been known to encourage his verbal quirks rather than waste time trying to "correct them" - they're too cute!