Putting a Campaign Spotlight on the (Hebrew) Character Issue

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 23, 2008, issue of October 31, 2008.
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Who will get the Hebrew vote November 4? There must be a big one, since I can’t imagine why else the Obama and McCain campaigns and their supporters would be putting out so many Hebrew buttons, stickers, T-shirts, shopping bags, hats, mugs, mouse pads and other paraphernalia.

Will it be a close race? If it’s about politics, perhaps. But if it’s about Hebrew, Barack Obama wins, hands down.

In all fairness, he started with an advantage. “Barak” (with the accent on the last syllable) is both a Hebrew word — it means lightning — and the name of a biblical hero in the book of Judges who answers the call of the prophetess Deborah to fight the Canaanite Sisera.

Thus, there’s no problem with spelling Senator Obama’s first name — nor, really, is there any with spelling his last one. The only question is whether to use what is known in Hebrew as k’tav malei, “full spelling” or k’tav h.aser, “missing spelling” — that is, whether to insert an extra letter, in this case an alef, between the bet and mem to indicate Obama’s middle vowel. Whereas “full spelling” is usually reserved for foreign words that Hebrew readers may have trouble with (it was used in Hebrew “Hillary” buttons during the Clinton primary campaign), in “missing spelling” most vowels are unwritten and have to be supplied by the reader.

Thus, the fact that, as can be seen (top left), the Obama buttons, bags, and T-shirts employ “missing spelling” makes the Democratic candidate seem only even more of a native Hebrew son. If one can fault Obamian Hebrew anywhere, it’s on the joint Obama-Biden button — where, as you will notice (center left), Biden is spelled with only one yod. This would be fine if the name were pronounced BEE-den, but for BYE-den, two yods are needed.

That’s nothing, though, compared with the gaffe on the McCain-Palin button (bottom left). Look at the first letter of Palin. The peh with the horizontal line over it is not even Hebrew; it’s a Yiddish character

never used in the Hebrew alphabet. Worse yet, this line turns the peh into a feh, so that the button is promoting a “McCain-Falin” ticket. And another McCain-Palin Hebrew logo, seen here on a sticker, is no better (top right). Here, a horizontal line has been added below a letter, the lamed of Palin. This line can be read only as the vowel sign pata h., which combined with the yod that follows the lamed obliges the Hebrew reader to pronounce the name “Plein” or “Flein.” (To make sure in Hebrew that the peh is pronounced as a “p” and not as an “f,” you have to put a dagesh, or little dot, into it so that the correct way to spell Palin is oiliit. .)

When Hebraically paired with Sarah Palin, whose first name is, of course, biblical, too, John McCain at least gets his own name spelled right. This is not the case when he has to appear by himself. The McCain mouse pad you’re looking at (center right) treats Hebrew as if it were a mirror-image method of writing English. Does McCain have two c’s in English? Then give it two kufs in Hebrew, even though Hebrew rules forbid a letter from being doubled without an intervening vowel. The result is a word on the mouse pad that looks like makakin, which means “cockroaches” with an Aramaic -in rather than Hebrew -im plural ending. Nor does the apostrophe between the kufs help any, since such a diacritical mark in modern Hebrew is used only to change the phonetic value of certain letters (as when turning a tsadi into a “chadi,” or a hard gimmel into a “j”). And sillier yet is the golf shirt (bottom right) that miniaturizes the first kuf to make it resemble the small “c” in McCain, even though Hebrew has no such thing as small and capital letters.

As far as Hebrew is concerned, it looks like an Obama landslide. The Republicans get a Falin grade.

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


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