Israel – How German Built the Hebrew Language


    Israel – When an Israeli gets out of bed on a dark morning, she will flick on a light Schalter (switch in English) and wash down a Biss (bite) of toast with a Schluck (sip) of coffee – all Hebrew words that stem from the German language.

    After breakfast, an Israeli driving to work must occasionally using the car’s Winker (from German word Blinker, or indicator) or the Wischer (windscreen wiper) if it rains.

    Many words in Hebrew entered the language through German immigrants who arrived in Israel in the last century.

    Israeli linguist and journalist Ruvik Rosenthal distinguishes between words that originated directly from German and those that found their way into Hebrew from Yiddish, a German dialect once spoken in Jewish ghettos across Central and Eastern Europe.

    “It’s mainly in the worlds of construction, engineering science and architecture that almost all (Hebrew) words have their origins in German,” says 64-year-old Rosenthal, whose own parents came from Germany.

    The vocabulary arrived in Israel particularly during the Fifth Aliyah, or wave of immigrants, in the 1930s when German Jews fled persecution under the Nazis.

    Yiddish developed as a fusion of medieval German dialects with Hebrew, Slavic and other languages, a reflection of the migrating Jewish diaspora. The German words that have filled gaps in Hebrew are a result of the migration of Jews from Europe into what became modern Israel.

    An Israeli who works on a building site may use a Spachtel (German for trowel) or will cover an exterior with Spritz (plaster, literal meaning spray). An Israeli construction worker will use German words such as Isolierband (duct tape), Beton (concrete), Gummi (rubber), Dibel (from the German word Duebel for dowel), Leiste (ledge) and Schieber (slide).

    Many technical terms in Hebrew such as Schnurgerist and Stichmass, however, are not familiar to the majority of native German speakers.

    An Israeli electrician will talk about Erdung and Kurzschluss (grounding and short circuit) but with a strong Hebrew accent. A German would not need a dictionary if visiting a mechanic in Israel as almost every term would be familiar. Even Arab-Israeli mechanics use German words such as Kupplung, Kugellager and Drucklager to refer to car parts.

    German Jews played a major role in the organization of Israel’s educational system, which accounts for the many German words found in Israel’s schools and universities. Small children go to Gan Jeladim (derived from Kindergarten), and students are taught the Spagat (the split) in gymnastics.

    In summer, a child will offer a friend a Leck (lick) of her ice cream, and if she gets her clothes dirty, the girl may hear a Fuyah (derived from Pfui, the German expression for yuck) from her mother.

    Elderly Israelis need an afternoon snooze called a Schlafstunde (sleep hour) to get back in the swing of things (in Schwung) and keep them gesunt (healthy). They may develop a condition that has a German name such as Hexenschuss (a slipped disk) or Plattfuss (flat feet). A doctor will write out a Rezept (prescription) for a minor ailment.

    “Most Israelis are not aware that many Hebrew words are German in origin,” explains Rosenthal. Even the at sign (@) used in email addresses has a German name in Hebrew: Strudel. An Israeli engineer gave the symbol this name in the 1960s because it reminded him of the traditional Viennese Strudel desert.

    Rosenthal, who has drafted several dictionaries that document the German component in modern Hebrew, says that as many as 300 German words are used in everyday speech in Hebrew, aside from the several hundred words that have their origin in Yiddish.

    A century ago, German was so dominant as an international language of science that it almost set off a “war of languages” among Jews living in the former Palestine.

    The German Jewish aid agency Deutscher Juden decided in 1913 to use German as the official language in the first technical high school for Jewish immigrants in Palestine. This sparked a wave of anger among Zionists who considered Hebrew to be the language of the Jewish people in their home country. Pressure from the school’s donors lead to the decision to teach through Hebrew even though the biblical language had a very limited range of technical terms in its vocabulary.

    Even today, visitors to Israel will be hard pressed to avoid the German language’s influence on the country’s streets.

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