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When Coinages Don’t Take

New York resident Gil Kulick writes to ask why, despite the great efforts made to find modern Hebrew equivalents for common words that did not exist in premodern Hebrew, Israeli Hebrew still uses foreign borrowings for such basic terms as bank, student, muzika, universita and historiya. “Or,” Mr. Kulick asks, “did the creators of modern Hebrew come up with coinages for these things that just didn’t catch on? And if so, why didn’t these words survive?”

The question of why certain Hebrew neologisms have caught on in modern spoken Hebrew while others haven’t is often a difficult one to answer. Sometimes such newly coined words have come too late to replace a foreign or international word that has already rooted itself in the colloquial language. (Thus, for example, a few years ago the Academy of the Hebrew Language belatedly suggested a new word for “supermarket,” but Israelis were by then far too used to saying supermarket or super to adopt it.) Sometimes the new words have been simply been unwieldy or unattractive. (In the early 20th century, for instance, sah.-rah.ok, literally “far-speaker,” was suggested for “telephone,” but Hebrew speakers preferred the international telefon.) Sometimes it’s a mystery. Successfully introducing a new word into a modern language demands many things, among them its promotion by the media (which nowadays in Israel show little interest in cooperating), and it can be hard to say why one word does well and another doesn’t.

As for the specific words mentioned by Mr. Kulick, each is a story in itself. The English word “bank” ultimately derives from Italian banco, a small table, because ancient and medieval money handlers operated from tables set out in the street. Traditional rabbinic Hebrew has exactly parallel words — namely, shulh.ani, a moneychanger or banker, and shulh.anut, moneychanging or banking — which translate literally as “tabler” and “tabletry.” But whereas modern Italian distinguishes between banco, a table, and banca, a bank, in modern Hebrew a table is still, and a word for “bank” built from it would sound strange to Hebrew ears. Hence, the borrowing of bank, with the “a” pronounced as in “father.”

In the case of “student,” on the other hand, Hebrew has a perfectly good word for one: talmid, which is in everyday use for grade schoolers and high schoolers. When it comes to college, however, you’re no longer a talmid but a student, with the accent on the second syllable. (This distinction goes back to the Yiddish of Eastern Europe, in which a talmid was a student in a Jewish heder or yeshiva while a student attended a secular high school or university.) And speaking of higher education, modern Hebrew indeed invented a word for university — that is, mikhlala, from klali, general or universal, modeled on the same Latin universitas from which “university” derives. (The Latin word referred in the Middle Ages to a collectivity of students, not to the universality of things studied.) Ironically, however, while mikhlala actually made it into Israeli Hebrew and has stuck there, it did so in the sense of a college, not of a university, which continues to be called universita.

Muzika, music, is a different case. It is a word that already exists in some medieval Hebrew texts, such as Yehuda Ha-Levi’s great philosophical work “The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith,” and therefore could be considered an indigenous Hebrew term. (Halevi and other medieval Hebrew authors borrowed it from Arabic, which in turn had borrowed it from Greek.) Thus there was no perceived need to invent another word for music, and muzika was retained.

This leaves us with historiya, which is perhaps the most interesting of Mr. Kulick’s examples. Classical Hebrew actually has two terms, both biblical, that might be translated as “history.” One is divrei ha-yamim — literally, “the matters of the times,” which is the name of the book of Chronicles and was subsequently used in rabbinic Hebrew to mean “history” or “a chronicle.” The other is toldot, which is generally translated as “generations,” as in eleh toldot Noah, “these are the generations of Noah,” although one might render this more modernly as, “This is the history of Noah’s offspring.” It’s a noun deriving from the verb yalad, to give birth, and it is only found in the Bible in the plural (the singular would be tolada) and in the constructive or genitive case. It’s always the generations or history of something, never history in itself.

And what do we find in modern Hebrew, despite late-19th and early-20th-century attempts to introduce toleda for “history”? History in itself is historiya, and the adjective “historical” is histori. But if one wants to say “the history of” something, one never says historyat, which would be the genitive form of historiya. Rather, one says toldot, using the biblical word, as in toldot artsot ha-brit, “the history of the United States,” or toldot ha-mahapekha ha-tsorfatit, “the history of the French Revolution.” Linguistically speaking, it’s an extremely unusual situation, because a descriptively accurate Hebrew dictionary would have to have, under the entry for historiya, the note that its genitive form is toldot. Offhand, I can’t think of any other noun in any other language known to me that behaves this way.

The answer to Mr. Kulick’s question, then, is a complex one that could provide doctoral dissertations for a slew of socio-linguists. Fortunately, I’m called upon only to write a weekly column.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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