The Words That We Choose

I am a writer, movie nut and reading fanatic. And I’ll admit to you that I am also a Totally Academically Unqualified Nerd when it comes to linguistics in every permutation.

I am particularly interested in the way our cultural beliefs and prejudices are embedded in the words that we use. Generally without conscious thought. It’s just what we’ve been taught.

Like how my grandmother, born in 1906, called African Americans “colored people”. I can hear you gasp. It makes me a bit ill too. She was a nice lady. But this is what she had been taught. Was she racist? I don’t like to think so.

However, we must acknowledge that the words we use are a cultural code for what we really believe, down deep – consciously and unconsciously.

Like when recently, a friend of mine in Tel Aviv explained the fact that “Falestinian” is just the “Arab way” of saying Palestinian – because “they can’t say the letter ‘p'”.

They. They are not us. And they cannot – it’s a failing, really, they cannot make a phonetic sound that we can.

I don’t know about you but I can’t make the breathy sound that is part of the phonetic system of Arabic and g-d help me to pronounce an ayin correctly in Hebrew.  Better you should make chamin, vacuum the house, take three weeks in Eilat and come back before I can make that strange sound that lives halfway down the esophagus.

Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and the combination, politicization, co-opting, modernization and Anglicization of all have led to all sorts of strange creatures: Gaza versus Aza, Hebron versus Hevron, Shabbat versus Shabbos, synagogue versus – okay that’s just Greek.

Ehad, wahad – salaam, shalom – tomato, tahmato. 

But sometimes these differences mean more. Much more.

Like your political stance.

My Palestine is your West Bank. My West Bank is your occupied West Bank, which is your Samaria/Judea. Which is definitely not your Central Park East.

Word choices and pronunciations can reveal where we are from, what we believe to be true, and what our politics are.

They can also reveal what brings us together, as in my favorite song, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu. Watch these 7th grade Kenyan students sing it with abandon.  

I find it interesting and heartening, in a very small way, that Israelis have adopted “yalla” and “sababa” from the Arabic. Could it be that hurry up and cool could bring us together?

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotations, by Lao Tzu, one that demands much of us –

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Watch your words indeed. What are your word choices really saying about what you believe to be true? Are you even aware of this?

It’s worth a think.

Yalla, bye.







About the Author
Julie Gray is a writer and editor who made the leap from Los Angeles to Israel many years ago and has had many (mostly) humorous adventures ever since. She is the author of The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist.