Avi Rockoff

Pure Language, the National Soul, and Gudiz

Italians who use English and other foreign words in official communications could face fines of up to €100,000.  Draft legislation says that “Anglomania,” use of English words….”demeans and mortifies” the Italian language, the more so because the U.K. is no longer part of the EU.

News item, April 2023

While at a clinic the other day, I saw a flyer.  Under the heading (in Hebrew) “Now, more than ever” was a young man, fashionably bearded, leaning back on his folded hands, eyes shut in contented repose. Below him, in large, informal, blue letters was the word, מיינדפולנס.





It’s natural to connect with Mayndfulnes.

My sharp language sense alerted me at once that this word was not (originally) Hebrew. The flyer helpfully gave a Hebrew equivalent: kashivut. Which means “paying attention” and is not perhaps quite the same thing.

I never gave much thought to mindfulness, since it seems to defy Jewish sensibility.  Mindfulness means taking careful note of what is going on in the moment without being judgmental.  Jews, by contrast, have always viewed what happens now as inspiration to worry about what might happen later, and we judge like mad.

Think of the two men in a boat on the open ocean.  “I am thirsty,” says the Frenchman.  “I must have wine!”  “I am thirsty,” says the Jew.  “I must have diabetes!”

Yes, there was a third guy in the boat.  He fell overboard because he was too mindful.

For newcomers, doping out words that aren’t Hebrew but are written in Hebrew letters takes experience and practice.  There are, after all, numerous lo’azi, foreign, words in Hebrew, a good many of them loans from English.  For some of these, perfectly good Hebrew words are already available.  You could call trading in a car hachlafa.  But most Israeli signs that promote this service call it treyd-in.

Hebrew is far from the only language with a fondness for imports, especially from English.  We just watched the new Netflix series Rough Diamonds, set in Antwerp’s haredi community, where characters speak mainly Flemish and Galitzianer Yiddish (with some French and English).  Part of the fun is trying to tell rapid-fire Flemish from Yiddish.  (Not as easy as you’d think.)  Sometimes there are contextual clues, like when a man with a black hat, a bekeshe, and a beard says, “Shkoyach!” even when the person he’s talking to was not called to the Torah.

However, within fully-Flemish dialogue there seem to be words from elsewhere, and not just “okay.”  A public prosecutor, for instance, lets loose a Flemish torrent, ending with the word “statement,” in a Flemish accent.  Flemish is basically Dutch, and Google Translate tells us that the Dutch word for “statement” is “stelling.”  So why use the English word?

Maybe for one of the same collection of reasons that there are English words in German (der Evergreen=golden oldie), Rumanian (locaţie=location), Spanish (lifting=facelift), Bulgarian (семинар—say it in Cyrillic!—“seminar”) and Hungarian (szexepil=sex appeal [!!]).  And while we’re at it, why are there Dutch words in English–boss, dam, freight, caboose, knapsack, dollar?  And tons of loans to English from a host of other languages.  Possible reasons?  Trade, tourism, immigration, military invasion, cultural imperialism, locals who want to sound cool and worldly.  Add your own.

Speaking of Dutch, I once met a fellow named Jack Schermerhorn.  “Schermerhorn!” I said.  “I haven’t seen that name since Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn.”

“My family used to own that part of Brooklyn in the 1600’s,” he said.

Jack did well in the metal business, but not as well as if his family had just held on to their land for another few centuries, while they were sneaking alien intruders like “boss” and “dollar” into our American lingo.

Two groups of people get huffy about words borrowed from other languages: pedants and tyrants.  (Not unrelated types.)  Prominent among the former are the Academie Francaise, which has been guarding the purity of the French language since Louis XIII put them in charge of doing that in 1634.

Israel has a language academy too, the Akademiah Lelashon Ha’Ivrit, founded by Eliezer ben Yehuda.  But the Israeli Academy is more genial, likely to make friendly suggestions rather than issue edicts.  They know that Israelis don’t follow dictates anyway.

As to tyrants (or would-be tyrants), an Italian example was cited at the top of this blog.  The same month a more accomplished bully, Vladimir Putin, decreed that Russian government officials would be banned from using most foreign words when carrying out their duties.  Why?  To protect Russia from what he calls a degenerate West that he alleges is trying to destroy the country.

Those of us who are lucky to be free of the piety of pedants and the diktats of despots can dispense with deep thoughts about national purity, sacred missions, and invasions by sinister syllables.  All we have to do is figure out what those funny lo’azi loan-words are and how to pronounce them.  The challenge is ongoing.

Last week we opened an Israeli bank account.  This involved learning that you can’t just walk into a bank branch, wait for a clerk, and open an account.  You have to make an appointment by phone first.  (The same is true for buying a stamp at the post office!)  There is more to learning the ropes of a new place than decoding quirky language.

Once we downloaded the banking aplikatzia (figure it out), we saw the following intriguing question:

מה מצב הגודיז שלי?

What is the state of my… gudiz?   What the dickens are gudiz?  Turkish letters of credit?

Silly me.  Gudiz are…goodies!

Banking-wise, I have no idea what gudiz are.  Just that I haven’t got any.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.
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