Israeli Arabs and Hebrew

On Language

By Philologos

Published May 08, 2008, issue of May 16, 2008.
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An unsigned e-mailer has sent me an article that appeared recently in the English-language edition of the daily Hebrew newspaper Haaretz. It’s about the use of Hebrew by Israeli Arabs, and since I had already noticed in it the Hebrew Haaretz myself and considered writing about it in these pages, the idea for this column can be said to be a joint one.

Basically, the Haaretz article commented on a phenomenon of which many Israelis have long been aware: the paradox, as it were, that, as Israel reaches its 60th birthday, the same Israeli Arab citizens who have become increasingly identified politically with their Palestinian brethren on the other side of the 1967 border, and less inclined to accept the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, have been incorporating more and more Hebrew into the Arabic they speak among themselves.

You don’t have to know Arabic to realize this. You simply have to keep your ears open the next time you listen in on an Arabic conversation between two passengers on the train, or to someone talking in Arabic on his cell phone. You’ll hear a string of Arabic words — and then, suddenly, a familiar word in Hebrew. More Arabic — and again, a bit of Hebrew. Sometimes the Hebrew will consist of a whole phrase and sometimes, even, of one or more complete sentences. And it’s all done entirely un-self-consciously. One has the impression that if one were to ask the speakers why and when they switched to Hebrew, they wouldn’t always be aware of having done so.

What are the Hebrew words that creep most commonly into the speech of Israeli Arabs? They seem to divide between everyday expressions of social intercourse on the one hand, and words for things or situations that are associated by Arabs with Israeli culture on the other. Haaretz lists some words that belong to the second category, such as ramzor (traffic light), mah.som (checkpoint), g’lidah (ice cream), lah.maniyah (bakery roll) and sulamit (the hash sign on telephone dials). Belonging to the first category are words like b’seder (all right, okay), b’vakasha (please) and me’anyen (interesting).

You might find it odd that a Hebrew word for “interesting” is used regularly in Israeli Arabic. I once asked an Arab friend of mine about this and was told, to my surprise: “That’s because we don’t have our own word for ‘interesting.’ The closest we can come is either ajib [‘strange’ or ‘unusual’] or else muhim [‘important’ or ‘noteworthy’], and neither really means what me’anyen does.” When I checked on this with other Arabic speakers, it was confirmed. Is this just a linguistic oddity, or is it indicative of a deeper feature of Arab culture — the absence, perhaps, of the very concept of “interesting” that is so basic to the Western mind, since what isn’t unusual enough or noteworthy enough to arouse curiosity is not considered worthy of attention?

Similarly, while visiting someone in the hospital not long ago, I happened to overhear two Arab doctors discussing a patient. They were speaking in Arabic interspersed with Hebrew medical terms when suddenly one of them said of the patient, “Hiya k’tir [Arabic for “She’s very”] neh.madah [Hebrew for “nice”].” Was the switch to Hebrew performed because the patient was Jewish and the doctor associated her with a Hebrew word? Because “nice” as a category applied to a woman isn’t part of Arab culture, in which one would generally used the word h.ilwa, “sweet,” for such a purpose? For some other reason?

“Code switching,” as linguists call the seemingly spontaneous movement back and forth between different speech levels, dialects or languages, is a complex phenomenon about which much has been written. It can perform many functions: the need for a term or a degree of precision that one’s own normal speech doesn’t have; the desire to invoke the context of another language, culture or subculture; the wish to demonstrate that one is at home in another language, culture or subculture, etc. Nearly everyone engages in it occasionally, but people living in environments in which two or more languages or dialects are spoken are especially prone to it.

For a sociolinguist there is another question here: Is increased code switching to Hebrew among Israeli Arabs a first harbinger of what may one day become their wholesale adoption of Hebrew as their native language? Although it may seem remote at the present moment, it is not inconceivable that, if Arabic-Hebrew code switching continues to grow, such a development could start to take place a generation or two from now — at first among the best-educated and most integrated Israeli Arabs, and subsequently, among the Israeli Arab population as a whole. This has happened over and over with minority groups in the course of history, and although there are strong forces working against it in this particular case (for example, Israeli-Arab enmity, the universality of Arabic in all the countries bordering on Israel, the special connection between Arabic and Islam, etc.), it is not something that can be totally ruled out. It will be very interesting — me’anyen k’tir — to see how things stand when Israel has its 120th birthday 60 years from now.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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