(continued from here)
Political correctness is a hot topic here in the Ulpan. By my lights, it’s incredibly important to spend class time developing a politically-sensitive ear, because Hebrew's ֿsemantic [mine]field is studded with complicated and potentially hurtful connotations.
For example, people here use two different words for Palestineans: “falestinim” and “falestinayim.” I’ve heard that among younger Hebrew speakers, the first pronunciation connotes support for the Palestinian people, whereas the second pronunciation is either neutral or negative in connotation. The city-name of Haifa does a similar sort of thing. Some speakers use the original Arabic pronunciation (which sounds very close to the English). Others use the Hebrew-ified version: “chey-fa.” You can probably guess what pragmatic payloads those pronunciations tow.
Students in advanced Ulpan classes need to learn able to control the allegiances expressed by our word choices. But it’s not always clear how to do so. Sometimes my American political awareness serves me well: I have no problem saying מאיותגר (challenged) instead of מפגר (retarded) — and, indeed, avoiding both of them and using a more specific word if I can.
But often enough, my political conscience seems to misfire. For example, Hebrew uses adjectives that express group membership as singular nouns to refer to individual people — “that Sephardic” — and as plural nouns to refer to groups — “those Filipinos.” In English, I would absolutely never use an expression like “that Black,” or “those gays.” In Hebrew, even conscientious leftists seem to regard those expressions as wholly unproblematic — just like “that Muslim” or “those Americans.” (And even there, I prefer “that Muslim guy” or “those American tourists.”)
It gets worse. “Those Filipinos” are only sometimes an ethnic group. Hebrew also uses “Filipino” to refer to anyone who takes care of elderly people in private homes, regardless of their race. Apparently, an overwhelming majority of Filipino residents of Israel work in those sorts of caretaking jobs, and conversely, occupants of those jobs are overwhelmingly of Philippine descent. Modern Hebrew has evidently integrated that trend right into the lexicon. Problematic? (!)
Here's another example. I asked one of my cousins how to say “queer” in Hebrew. His first suggestion was הומו (“homo”) — a word that leaves out most of the queer spectrum, especially when you consider that only men can be “homo-im” here. Then he suggested LGBT. (In Hebrew, that comes out as a pronounceable acronym: להב"ט (“lahabt”). But it still doesn't include plenty of the gender identities and sexual identities included under the queer umbrella. And what's more, it doesn't do well as a label for an individual. It makes sense to talk about a lahabt movement or march or support group, but an individual can only be הומו, לסבית, טרנס/ית או ביסקסואל/ית.
And that doesn't even begin to touch the issues arising from Hebrew's gendered grammar, or the taxonomic mess of its racial/ethnic/national terminology. More on that tomorrow.
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