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Central Bureau of Statistics: 27% of Israelis have difficulties in Hebrew

In de beginnigg God cratid de heen 'n the, uh, eard.—Genesis 1:1 as rendered by the Moron Dialectizer



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In the last week of January 2013, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, published its Statistical Abstract of Israel 2012, which included a self-assessment of the level of speaking Hebrew by the local population, according to data collected in 2010 (see its immigrants data). In Instead of Statistics, Israel published Racistics I analyzed the problematic analyses performed by this institution; yet, the current publication contains valuable data, which supports commentaries done in this website on American and Russian settlers. The main headline is that the Hebrew of about a quarter of the Israelis is not good enough for filling forms; the details were even more astonishing.

Hebrew Keyboard

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Hebrew For Dummies

"There is no such a language!"

During three years, I was the Hebrew Professor of the largest Biblical Seminary in Bolivia. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see how Hebrew is perceived from the outside. Urban legends abounded; later on, I found that most of the circulating material in English is misleading while most texts in Spanish were just delusional. This was expected; English speakers have an inherent advantage. The 1611 King James Bible is widely considered to be one of the best translations ever made; it is faithful to the original text while keeping the original prose and poetic characteristics. It became so influential that many Hebrew idioms entered into English. "I am escaped with the skin of my teeth," (Job 19:20) would be understood by most English speakers without further explanation; in contrast most Spanish speakers will define this text as "obscure" (the trick is to visualize the phrase; we have no skin on our teeth thus Job escaped with nothing). Moreover, since English changed since the translation, it accurately gives the feeling of "old" that Hebrew readers have while reading the Bible.


In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

The most unexpected urban legend entirely denied the existence of the language. Most people thought that modern and ancient texts were completely unrelated. The subtitle of this article features the first sentence of the Bible as rendered by the moron version of The Dialectizer; it is a funny reminder that languages change and evolve. Yet, ancient or new, this sentence is rendered equally in Hebrew. The language features what in Hebrew is defined as "layers." Vocabulary changed along its 3,000 years of well-documented existence, but its structure remained constant, mainly because it allowed for expansion. For example, if Prophet Isaiah was brought to our times and presented with the word used for "computer" without seeing the contraption, he would correctly understand that it is a "machine that calculates." Certain words evolved. "Goy" originally meant "people;" about two millennia ago it became "gentile." The language is one, though multilayered.


Killing Hebrew

Having said that, one must admit that the Israeli administration is doing its best to kill its own language. Leading texts used in high-schools attempt to enforce the structure of Indo-European languages onto Hebrew. The result is a bit like the abovementioned Moron Dialectizer. The best example was David Ben Gurion, who in 1948 declared Israel's independence in a disturbing Hebrew. He refused to recognize the existence of the particle "et." "I drink coffee," you say in English. Yet, if translating word by word, a Hebrew speaker could assume that the coffee is drinking you. The proper Hebrew construction is "I drink (et) coffee." Ben Gurion didn't like that and thus sounded like a living Moron Dialectizer. Another good example is Benjamin Netanyahu. When he returned to Israel in the late 1980's his Hebrew was very poor; even now it is quite evident that he hasn't mastered the subtleties of the Hebrew verb system. In de beginnigg God cratid de heen 'n the, uh, eard.

The data collected by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that Hebrew is the mother-tongue of 49% of the citizens, Arabic accounts for another 18%, and for 15% of the denizens, whose mother tongue is Russian. 90% of the native Hebrew speakers claimed that they control the language at a "good level." This was expected; yet, 39% of the Russians who arrived in the 1990s claim to "barely be able to read;" overall, 49% of them claim not to have a "good level of speech." Twenty years have passed; do they still yearn for their Communist past? A surprising datum was that 32% of the Palestinians claim to speak Hebrew with their friends. The data-mining ends with an intriguing finding; 27% of the Israelis aged 20 and above claim to have difficulties filling forms in Hebrew. In the segment of "65 and above" this rate grows to 53%. This is due mainly to Palestinians, 45% of whom (average of all age groups) experience difficulties and by Russians, 58% of whom are unable to fill out Hebrew forms. Only 14% of the native speakers experience such difficulties. In part these amazing rates are caused by the poor language used by the authorities themselves. Many times their texts are open to diverging interpretations. They shouldn't study Hebrew with their official texts.

The Israeli parallel to the Chinese Great Wall is not the feeble fence surrounding the West Bank and its other borders, but its language. Hebrew is unique and beautiful; concise, yet rich. Kept alive by the Bible, it keeps ancient characteristics that disappeared in other Semitic languages like Arabic and Aramaic. It bundles consonants so that speaking it quickly is impossible; yet, it is so concise that a few words match entire sentences in other languages. Many constructions cannot be properly translated (for example, in English it is not clear where the will of an action originates); in other cases, clumsy auxiliary verbs are used in other languages. A three-milennia old linguistic miracle is being slowly killed by people unable to respect anything or anyone.

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