Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Proofreader's Guide to Israel

The sign in the photo, captured at the Central Bus Station in Afula some time ago, offers you a hamburger in two languages---in Hebrew, and in mangled English as a "humborger."

Israel is rich in misspelled foreign words. A bakery sign in Tel Aviv advertised a "corazon" (a heart in Spanish). This is a blue-and-white improvised spelling of "croissant." It roughly approximates how the French word sounds when pronounced with a Hebrew accent.

The country's nonchalance about misusing foreign languages goes beyond spelling. The other day I was talking with someone in a Tel Aviv cafe. A cheerful server heard us speaking English, so she offered to bring us an English menu. We told her the Hebrew menu was fine. We addressed her in Hebrew, which both of us spoke better than she could speak English. Nonetheless, she persisted in speaking English to us, and she replaced the Hebrew specials-of-the-day card with an English card.

If you are a tourist, this treatment might be both helpful and charming. If you are a long-term speaker of Hebrew, it is something else. A widely accepted explanation for this behavior is that Israelis like to practice their English. Darker factors may also be at work.

A neighbor in Tel Aviv used to shout to me in English on the sidewalk. At times when she did address me in Hebrew, she would speak loudly and slowly, mouthing each word separately as if to suggest that I would not otherwise understand. Her attempts at linguistic one-upmanship stopped only when she moved away.

Last year this former neighbor and her family showed up in the Sinai at the same beach where I was staying. For the rest of her stay, this woman spoke to me loudly in clumsy English, even when I replied to her in Hebrew and even when she could see I was reading a Hebrew novel. Her lack of English skills never seemed to deter her.

A local blogger has complained about this phenomenon in treatment of new immigrants: "Scenario #2: An oleh chadash is hanging out with a bunch of Israelis. He is speaking in his best Hebrew and keeping up with the crew. Yet, despite this, the Israelis insist on speaking in stupid, broken English."

Back to misspellings. Last weekend, a newspaper printed a story about a couple of misspellings of French that appeared in a leaflet which the city government distributed in tourist hotels. Our officials misspelled "ce soir" as "se soir," and "Jeudi" as "Jedi."

The weekly Tel Aviv Time quoted Deputy Mayor Per Visner, head of the local Greens party, as brushing off the official display of ignorance with a couple of jokes and a non-apologetic comment. According to the newspaper, he commented that the errors weren't intentional, that mistakes always happen, and that they didn't cause great embarrassment.

A separate statement from City Hall disavowed responsibility for the spelling gaffes. It stressed that an advertising agency prepared and distributed the leaflets, that the misspellings were the fault of a French-speaking volunteer, and that the bottom-line result was that most of the hotel guests complied with the leaflet's request that they turn off their lights for one hour in observance of Earth Hour on March 27.

Many Israelis would second City Hall's suggestion that results count and spelling doesn't. In this country, which has accomplished so much in only 60 years, it is a national article of faith that results speak louder than words.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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