I recently joined a Facebook discussion group for people who speak more than one language. Endlessly fascinating, discussions surrounding how words as well as idiomatic phrases are similar or different cannot help but touch on identity. This week, a conversation about one Arabic word, “yalla,” that has made its way into Hebrew got very heated. Despite the original poster introducing a meme that had cited the word as a Hebrew one by writing a clear acknowledgement that it comes from Arabic, accusations of cultural appropriation and erasing of identity followed. Some of the conversation devolved into discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Commenters who looked at the situation purely linguistically identified yalla as a loanword and nothing more. One took apart the objectors’ comments, pointing out how many of the words they were using in English came from elsewhere (he even noted that 60% of English has foreign roots linguistically). Others addressed it politically, ignoring how languages evolve and claiming it an act of erasure.
I thought about this, and about how more than half of Israel’s population is Mizrahi.
Mizrahim came from Middle Eastern and North African countries speaking Arabic. My former in-laws immigrated from Tunisia and spoke Arabic and French; their language was peppered with everything from the greeting “ahlan” to the term of endearment, “habibi” to the exclamations of a screw up, “fashla,” or of a shameful embarrassment, “fadicha.”
Perhaps Arabic words crept into modern Hebrew because of those who moved to Israel, not because of Palestinians already living here. Perhaps the words they grew up speaking just stayed with them in their new land. I searched online to see if this made sense. Numerous posts offer examples on which words in Arabic are used today in Israel but only this clip on Arabic influence on Modern Hebrew from Paul, the face of Langfocus, took a stab at explaining origins, both ancient and modern. It is well worth a watch.
The discussion surrounding yalla also made me think of words in Yiddish (which in themselves came from German and Hebrew) as part of the American experience. Who doesn’t know what a schmuck is? The Merriam-Webster definition calls it a North American word. Wikipedia calls it American English. The first buries its Yiddish roots lower on the page under history while the latter acknowledges quickly, but both call this an English word. But whether thanks to Seinfeld or to those Jews who made it into entertainment decades earlier, would it cross our mind to say that calling schmuck a word in American English is cultural appropriation which erases Jewish Eastern European identity?
What was interesting in the Facebook group was that some lovers of language recognized the disconnect going on and called it out as unfair to be okay with those languages that borrow and incorporate words from other languages while solely calling Hebrew out for stealing. Borrowing versus stealing. Makes me wonder if this another example of the double standard that Israel gets held to?
I think just as it is important to know and acknowledge word origins, it is as important to recognize that language is a growing, living thing. Each year, dictionary-makers add words to their lists. Some are invented, a result of the technological and social world we live in. Others come from elsewhere but have been absorbed so much into popular usage that they can’t be ignored.
The other day, I stumbled across an interesting website and shared it with the very same multilingual group. Lovers of languages/etymology/history and science can explore each element of the periodic table linguistically. Running down the left is a list of its translation into many languages, accompanied by a history of the element and of its naming. While the dictionary is itself in English, the idea of bringing so many languages under one roof is exciting and opens us up to discussions that can unite rather than divide. Wiktionary takes it one step further, “a collaborative project to produce a free-content multilingual dictionary. It aims to describe all words of all languages using definitions and descriptions in English.” Interestingly, its listing for yalla in Arabic points out that the word’s descendants appear in Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish as well as in Hebrew.
I think it is high time to observe and explain how words and people get absorbed into different languages and cultures without making accusations, please. Yalla, let’s go.