On Root / The Freedom of Imported Speech

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One of the signs of a growing, thriving language is its ability to creatively assimilate words from other languages. There will always be purists who decry foreign influence and fight the wholesale inclusion of non-native vocabulary, but the language "as she is spoke" rarely conforms to their pedantic sensitivities. This is no less true in the language of political discourse as well.

An imported word or phrase often has a certain cache, yet some languages stigmatize the very foreign-ness in the name they give this phenomenon - making the words themselves and their use a cultural-political issue. For instance, Hebrew calls all foreign languages lo'azit. On the one hand, this is just like the fact that to an Israeli the entire rest of the world is simply chu"l for chutz laaretz, "outside the land," or "abroad." And even though that lumps together everywhere from Sinai to China, the term itself has no derogatory connotation.

Speaking in tongues

Lo'azit, though, is a different story. While some claim that it too is an acronym, standing for lashon 'am zar, "the language of a foreign people," that is a folk-etymology, a sort of popular conjecture where the word might have come from. But it's false. The word actually goes back to an Arabic root that means something like "distorted or unintelligible speech." Sound familiar? The Greeks called non-Greeks "barbarians" as an imitation of their unintelligible (to them) speech. Though lo'azit does just mean "foreign language," the root, l-'ayin-z, has acquired a negative tone in words such as lehal'iz, meaning "to malign or speak ill of." There's certainly a lot of that in politics – but we don't need borrowed words for it, most is in the good old holy tongue.

In the wake of the revival of Hebrew, hundreds and hundreds of words had to be coined to fit modern needs – and to fight the tendency to just use a commonly known word from one of the many languages more familiar to the nascent Hebrew speakers. Many of these coinages have stuck – but there are still some gaps or places where Hebrew speakers have felt that the lo'azit captures something that doesn't come through in the more Semitic semantics.

Let's look at some of the lo'azit common in our political culture.

Affairs of city and state

The first and most obvious term is the word "politics" itself, in Hebrew, politika. Coming from the Greek for city, polis, it refers to running civic affairs. In Hebrew, it can appear in a number of forms: a politician is a politikai, and if an issue or organization has become politicized, it has experienced politizatzia. There was even once a political commentary television show called Popolitika, whose distinctive and very vociferous combination of politics and populism made it very popular.

Another Greek contribution is demokratya. There is no single native lexical item that means democracy, though it is usually defined or glossed as shilton ha'am, "the rule of the people" (as in the Greek roots: demos, "people," kratos, "rule").  Here, too, we see a variety of forms: there are states which are demokratyot (plural), and others undergoing demokratizatziya.

One could claim that these internationally accepted terms are foreign in all languages except Greek. Different languages, though, have different mechanisms for "naturalizing" borrowings, and so are already quite at home in English and other European languages. Even though, like most lo'azi words, they do take Hebrew forms, they will never sound completely Hebrew.

In the upcoming democratic elections, the parties will struggle for every seat in the Knesset, called mandatim. This time from the Latin, a mandate is a commission or authorization (from manus and datum, "given over into the hand"), and elegantly expresses the idea of representative democracy – demokratya yitzugit – that the MKs are there because we sent them there: they are emissaries on our behalf. They are our netzigim, "representatives" who are there leyatzeg, "to represent" us (root: y-tz-g). While many have a flair for the dramatic, it is hardly a hatzagah, a play.

Let's make a (democratic) deal

Sometimes in order to wangle a place on a party list that is considered reali, that is, "realistic," or likely to get in, a politician will need to wheel and deal, finagle or otherwise coax and cajole his way there. This may involve a promise of quid pro quo arrangements known in Hebrew as dilim ("deals"). Though these often involve 'askanim politiim, "political functionaries" or deal-makers, they are not regular 'iskot, the standard word for a business transaction, or deal, from 'ayin-s-k, "business" or "occupation."

Politicians particularly good at playing the political game in this country are often quite 'asukim (busy or occupied with) setting up elaborate dilim, combining many players, issues and promises, which go by the name kombinot. Wheeler-dealers especially adept at this are known as kombinatorim.

The foreign-sounding dil and kombina possess a special aroma of intrigue their Hebrew equivalents lack. And though it's all part of playing the political game, the shadier dilim may be, or become, quite scandalous. These are two more lo'azi words you may be likely to read on the op-ed pages: intrigot and skandalim. Even though skandal has a lovely Hebrew equivalent – sha'aruryah – it has not been completely replaced.

Lobbying the opposition

Another word that has not been completely replaced is "lobby," and the practitioners thereof, the "lobbyists." While the English word comes from the location in the parliament building where representatives from special-interest groups try to influence politicians, the Hebrew equivalent comes from the activity. Lobby, when it's not lobi, is shdulah, and the lobistim are shtadlanim (or shadlanim), allfrom sh-d-l, for their mission is lehishtadel, "to strive" to "persuade," lishdol. The word shdulah also describes the 'coalition' for a particular issue inside the Knesset, known in English as a "caucus."

But members of a given caucus are not always in "the" koalitziya, that is, the ruling coalition of parties who form the government. More often than not they are pushing their agenda from the opozitziya, the opposition. These are examples of words for which the Hebrew Language Academy has proposed Hebrew equivalents, but which simply have not stuck. Impress your Israeli friends with the words yachdah and negdah which is the official Hebrew for "coalition" and "opposition," respectively, from y-ch-d, "together" (see here), and n-g-d "against, opposed."

But despite all this, there's more Hebrew than not in political palaver, and next week, we'll look at the other side of the coin: the deeply Jewish words that have made their way into Hebrew political lingo. There is at least one important word that is both of foreign origin and of strong Jewish lineage. Impossible you say? Tune in next week to find out.

Comments invited here or write to: jeremybenstein@gmail.com.

The Parthenon in ancient Greece was a seat of early democracy. Similarly, Greek has influenced modern Hebrew, contributing many of its popularly used political terms.Credit: Bloomberg

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