May 31, 2004

Cussing in Hebrew

Geoffrey Pullum is struck by a passage in the latest New Yorker in which young Jewish settlers in the West Bank use particularly foul language to express their lack of common feeling towards their Arab neighbours. What he finds most striking is the use of the Arabic word for "cunt."

Pullum's sentiment - particularly the futility of looking for a linguistic solution to ethnic hatred - is right on. However, the use of Arabic obscenities by these young Hebrew-speaking men is not terribly surprising. Modern Hebrew is a language that came into being quite recently and which was originally defined in a very artificial way. The language has been transformed by being adopted by many Yiddish, Ladino and Arabic speakers over the last century and much of its real structure and vocabulary comes from those roots.

The consequences of this sort of creolisation were related to me by my Jewish vice principal in high school who tried to order a glass of water in a restaurant in Tel Aviv using his rather rusty Hebrew. It seems that Americans who mispronounce the Hebrew word for water often end up producing something that sounds like the Arabic word that translates as "cunt." Everyone in Israel knows that word because nearly all Hebrew obscenities have been borrowed from Levantine Arabic.

Posted 2004/05/31 8:03 (Mon) | TrackBack
Comments

> Everyone in Israel knows that word because nearly all Hebrew obscenities have been borrowed from Levantine Arabic.

Many, but not "nearly all". I would assess the lexicon of Hebrew obscenities as 50% Arabic, 10% native Hebrew, 20% Yiddish, 10% Russian and the rest for other languages (English, French, German, etc.).

> It seems that Americans who mispronounce the Hebrew word for water often end up producing something that sounds like the Arabic word that translates as "cunt."

Yep, this is "kos" vs. "koos"...

Posted by: Galilite at July 11, 2005 12:33
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