Taking Foreign Leaders’ Names In Vain

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.
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Rick Zichlin of Highland Park, N.J., asks:

“Why does the American press refer to the head of the Likud party as Benjamin Netanyahu instead of Binyamin Netanyahu? I understand that Benjamin is the English language equivalent of Binyamin. Yet to my knowledge, the English-language media have never referred to other Israeli politicians as Isaac Rabin or Simon Peres.”

The obvious answer to Mr. Zichlin’s query is that, unlike Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu spent many of the early years of his life in the United States, four of them attending high school in Philadelphia in the 1960s and nearly 10 more studying and working in Boston in the 1970s. Presumably, he became Benjamin to his classmates and teachers in his high school days and remained that in English afterward, although his family nickname of Bibi continued to stick to him, too.

But Mr. Zichlin’s query also raises a wider question, which is that while in mentioning foreign names in speech or writing, we English speakers do not, in most cases, use Anglicized versions of them, there are notable exceptions to this rule. Thus, for example, we speak of Leo Tolstoy, not Lev Tolstoy; Christopher rather than Cristóforo Columbus; Joan of Arc instead of Jeanne d’Arc; Frederick the Great, not Friedrich the Great of Prussia; Joseph, not Iosif, Stalin. And as English-speaking Jews, we tend to do this even more often with Hebrew names. We — or at least our scholars and historians — call the third-century rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, Judah the Prince; the 12th-century philosopher Moshe ben Maimon, Moses Maimonides; his contemporary, the poet and biblical commentator Avraham ibn Ezra, Abraham ibn Ezra; the 16th-century author and politician Yitzhak Abrabanel, Isaac Abrabanel; the Ba’al Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidism, Israel and not Yisro’el Baal Shem, etc. Benjamin Netanyahu is not alone. He even has a famous namesake, the 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela.

Is there any consistent explanation for these exceptions? One is clearly historical. The further back in time we go, the more likely it is that a figure will have his or her name Anglicized, because this is what English speakers tended to do unreflectingly in the past. Nobody in medieval England called the Catholic theologian Tomasso of Aquino anything but Thomas Aquinas, just as Queen Yekaterina of Russia was known only as Catherine in 18th-century England. The overall attitude once was that anyone unfortunate enough not to have a proper English name should be given one if possible, and most of these names have remained with us to this day. While this still doesn’t account for such anomalies as Leo Tolstoy or Joseph Stalin, it does cover most cases.

With English-speaking Jews, I think, there is yet another explanation — namely, that a very high number of Hebrew names are biblical, and that since these names are also well known to English-speaking non-Jews from the English Bible, it has always seemed more natural to use their English versions. We speak of Judah the Prince or Abraham ibn Ezra because the biblical Yehuda and Avraham have been Judah and Abraham in English for hundreds of years, so that just as no American Jew would say to a non-Jew (although he might say it to a fellow Jew), “Monotheism begins with Avraham” rather than “Monotheism begins with Abraham,” he might feel strange saying, “Avraham ibn Ezra is a great medieval Hebrew poet.” When in Rome, do as the Romans.

English Abraham (with the stress on the first syllable) and Hebrew Avraham (with the stress on the last syllable and the three “a’s” pronounced like the vowel in “father”) look more alike than they sound, but they do look different. There is more of a problem with names that are spelled exactly the same in English and in a foreign language but are pronounced differently. What does one do then? Should we say “Tsharlz” De Gaulle or “Sharl” De Gaulle? Angela Merkel with a soft “j” or with a hard “g”? “Dey-vid” Ben-Gurion or “Da-veed” Ben-Gurion?

In most cases, contemporary Anglo-American usage calls for pronouncing these names as in English: Tsharlz De Gaulle, Angela with a soft “j,” Dey-vid Ben-Gurion. On first thought, this may seem curious, since on encountering a foreign name that does not look like English, we make an effort to pronounce it correctly — “Hwan” and not “Jwan” for Juan, for example, or “Onree” and not “Henry” for Henri. But in fact, it’s not curious at all, since when we see Juan or Henri on a printed page, their immediately identifiable foreignness calls up no native English pronunciation in our minds, unlike the situation with Charles, Angela and David. Once we know that Henri is pronounced “Onree,” we need make no special effort to say it that way, whereas Charles and David automatically make us want to say “Tsharlz” and “Dey-vid” and we have to force ourselves to say “Sharl” and “Da-veed.” As a result, it may strike us as affected when someone does say these names, just as it would if we heard a burgundy wine referred to in English as a “boor- gan-dee.”

Perhaps the best solution, Mr. Zichlin, is to say Bibi. No matter what language you’re speaking, it sounds the same.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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