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Israeli officials make sure Hebrew syllables stay pure


JERUSALEM -- To save a syllable, songwriter Ariel Zilber could lose his listeners.

Mr. Zilber, a popular Israeli singer and composer, needed to shorten a line of one of his latest tunes, so he pronounced the Hebrew word four in the feminine form -- "arba," instead of its masculine, "arba'a."

The result was a snappier -- but grammatically incorrect -- lyric.

Not allowed, said the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The authority has given him until March 13 to get his syntax straight. After that, the monopoly Israel Radio has been told not to broadcast any newly recorded songs that contain grammatically incorrect Hebrew.

"Incorrect grammar, especially in [musical] hits, takes root and becomes everyday usage," said Zvi Lidar, a spokesman for the broadcasting authority. "They turn into an educating form."

The authority's effort to purge the airwaves of bad grammar is one of several ways the government is trying to save the Hebrew language from the ravages of sloppy use and alien words.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, an ardent Zionist and teacher, resuscitated biblical Hebrew into a modern language in the late 1800s. He was adamant that everything here should be in Hebrew, and the first Zionist immigrants shunned their native tongue, spoke Hebrew at home, and changed their names to Hebrew versions.

But modern Israel is wired for foreign cable TV, and Israelis are compulsive travelers, so the language acquires words from other countries.

The bastion against these foreign imports is the Academy of the Hebrew Language, a group of 45 linguists, writers and poets charged with safeguarding the language. One of their jobs is to invent new Hebrew words for things that did not exist in the days of Abraham.

Instead of "jet lag," for instance, the academy prefers "ya'efet," derived from "tired." Instead of "country club," the academy suggests "mo'adon sadeh," literally "field club."

But Israelis are stubborn. They keep using the English for many words, shunning the newly minted Hebrew hybrids. The golf set would rather talk about their day at the "country club" in English, for example, and a modern traveler is more cosmopolitan complaining of "jet lag" than of "ya'efet."

"We can say that 20 to 30 percent of our words are accepted," not a very high batting average, acknowledged Gabriel Birnbaum, academic secretary at the academy. Some foreign words are already too entrenched. They don't even try to fight "chocolate," "university," "logistics" or "OK," for example.

"If it is in international usage, used more or less in all the European countries, we don't come up with a new word," he said.

Some of the Hebrew linguistic coinages seem a little like inflated currency. There is a Hebrew word for "immigrants," but if they are arriving in Israel, the newcomers are making "aliyah" -- literally ascending to a higher level -- and become "olim ha--im," -- the "new ascenders."

To encourage good Hebrew, the academy has "language counselors" at all the Israeli radio and television stations, who read news and advertisements before they are broadcast, with an eye for correctness.

It was the broadcasting authority's own initiative, however, to ban songs with poor grammar. Artists grumbled that the new rule inhibits the poetic inspiration of slang and other linguistic variations.

"Nobody will lay a hand on slang. We are only referring to incorrect grammar," insisted Mr. Lidar.

There are other targets of linguistic purism. Israeli diplomats are "advised" by the Foreign Ministry to change family names to Hebrew ones before they are posted abroad. Yuval Frankel became Yuval Rotem before taking a post as Israeli spokesman in New York.

But Hebrew can be used for many purposes. A stocking company prompted complaints from women's groups with recent billboards showing a high-heeled blonde with splayed legs and the slogan, "Min shelo nigmar."

The company insisted the Hebrew words read, "the brand that never wears out." But others thought that interpretation seemed strained. The meaning at first glance, they said, was "never-ending sex."

Mr. Birnbaum said the academy offers no opinion on the ad. "Hebrew is a language that can be used to express ambiguity," he offered.

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