Tongue Tied

28 02 2011

Just ask my parents and they will tell you how much I hated Hebrew school.  There I was, little eight-year old me, in the Hebrew school classroom playing with my pencil as if it were some kind of rocket ship while Mrs. Schonfeld tried to hammer the alef-bet into my stubborn little head.  Had I paid more attention, perhaps I wouldn’t have asked my wife yesterday if she wanted to burst into flames.

Let me clarify one point: I love Anat very much.  And in all truthfulness,  I really do not want her to spontaneously combust.

Anat is Israeli, and in our new Israeli household we are trying to speak more and more Hebrew.  Yesterday morning, as we were getting ready, I asked if she wanted to ignite.  She burst out… not into a human bonfire, but in a lovingly derisive laugh.  At least I didn’t have to grab the fire extinguisher.

Hebrew can be a maddeningly difficult language.  Not being a Romance language there are very few cognates between Hebrew and English.  One word that works in both tongues, however, is idiot, which is what I often feel like when I open my mouth and try to wax eloquently in the Holy Tongue.

Actually, I already speak a pretty good intermediate-plus Hebrew, but usually it is just enough to get myself into trouble and here is why: by reversing a single letter, or mispronouncing a vowel, or transposing a single syllable, or applying a masculine qualifier to a feminine noun, you can render a word, or a whole sentence, completely, utterly and fantastically wrong.  So, yesterday morning when I meant to ask Anat, “Do you want to shower?” (lehitkaleach) what I asked instead is, “Honey, would you like to burst into flames?” (lehitlakeach)

There are other such examples.  Like the time I wanted to say “artillery” but instead said “underpants.”  The difference?  One syllable out of place: totachim vs. tachtonim.  Yes, it is a really good thing I’m too old for the Israeli army.  I can only imagine a scenario where Pvt. Santis spots an enemy column and calls on his radio, “Enemy tanks spotted!  Quick! Shoot the underpants!”

This is really a problem, a matter of pride.  Speaking of which, after I take my combustible shower I will  need to dry myself off.  So, do I mityabesh or mitbayesh?  The former means to dry yourself, the latter means to embarrass yourself.  Exactly.

Also, for the life of me I can’t remember the difference between teka and sheka.  One is an electrical outlet, the other is the plug.  Do you put the teka into the sheka, or the sheka into the teka?  I can rest easy on this one: I’ll be right 50% of the time.

Now, as an exercise, say “sheka, teka” ten times fast…

Or, imagine me teaching a history class in an Israeli high school.  Here I’d be talking about the pioneers that founded the state, only I don’t get it quite right.  Instead of describing the efforts of the chalutzim, I lecture patriotically about the chamutzim (pickles) who built Tel Aviv.

Without a doubt, this is Mrs. Schonfeld’s revenge. Mrs. Shonfeld, wherever you are, I am sorry!  I’m sorry for that rocket ship pencil.  I’m sorry for the spit balls shot across the classroom at Malka.  I’m sorry for bringing that dead bird to class one day!  I’m sorry!  Just, please, untie my tongue!

So, it is off to ulpan with me, where I will frequently consult a Hebrew-English hotel, whoops! dictionary (malon vs milon) while snacking on a melon (melon).





7 responses

9 03 2011
Julie F Skiddell

Hi Yitchak,
I’m Dana’s mother-in-law’s rebbetzin: Julie. I read your blog and totally understood your predicament. We lived in Israel for 14 years and I went through similar language mess ups. I taught English for 13 years and had learned a slang term for “enough” which was “chalass” (Arabic, actually). Anyway, while teaching one day, the class was a bit too rambunctious so I wanted to tell them enough! Instead of saying “chalass” I said “chasah”, which means lettuce. Well, the class went dead silent for a moment, and then they all started cracking up. That was the end of “chalass” for me. I enjoyed your blog.

2 03 2011
nancy ekberg

Hi Yitzhak
You don’t know me, I am an old friend of your mother’s – many years ago. I remember when her brother took Hebrew classes in Wilmington and I was envious and wanted to attend with him. He, I guess would be your uncle. Your Mom did not tell me that your wife is Israeli so now I understand why you wanted to move there. anyway – take care and be safe and if one has to learn another language, have fun with it – it could be Japanese or Chinese but then. maybe they are similar I don’t know.

1 03 2011
Gloria Michelson

Hi Yitzhak: If I remember correctly, Mrs Schonfeld didn’t have much of a sense of humor so I’m not sure she’d have much sympathy. I enjoyed reading your blog, (via Arlene). Keep up the good work; I know you will be successful.

1 03 2011
Rebecca Kuiken

Ok, I took Hebrew in seminary and loved it. But, we were only speaking to each other and of course any spirits of minor prophets. I remember that one guy was dyslexic and I felt for him. Imagine working your whole life to struggle left to right — and then having to move the opposite direction. Ouch!

Glad you are having fun with it.

1 03 2011

Here’s my favorites: You’re my teacher (ot ha’morah sheli) vs. You’re my jackass (ot hamorah sheli) Luckily, I didn’t say that one. Another was grandma “Mata” called “Meta” (corpse). I switched an aleph with an eiyen and wrote “I’m lost in the negev” instead of “I’m working in the Negev” And my favorite, I confused “ganav” and “nahag” (learned them the same day) The problem was: there’s no difference :0

28 02 2011
Steve Lipman

Just remember…ani is I, hoo is he, he is she and of course dog is fish…and don’t get your cannons in a bunch…it will come…you’ll make your ex Hebrew School teacher proud some day! 😀

28 02 2011
Jen Maidenberg

It’s such a matter of pride. Doesn’t help that many Israelis don’t have an ounce of tact and will call you out on each and every mistake you make along the way.

The best thing to do for both help and a good laugh? Google Translate. Yesterday I entered in one of the emails from the Hannaton google group (the one about bringing your used clothes for an exchange). And instead of closet, it translated as “coffin.” And for the Purim festivities? It said, “come bring your families from midget games!”

Oh man, did I laugh.


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