Speaking Flawless Hebrew Is a Lost Art, Veteran Journalist and Linguists Lament

Yaron London takes aim at accent Army Radio presenters Jackie Levy and Avri Gilad take when trying to be cute.

From the get-go, Yaron London's address to the Academy of the Hebrew Language Academy stood out as one of the gems at their conference this week at The Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.

Yaron London at a conference on Tuesday.
Nir Kafri

Readers of the program who came across the title of his lecture, "I don't understand what these people are saying - the language of broadcasters in electronic media" may have expected him to lash out at Yonit Levi, Channel 2 news anchor, for her slurry incantations.

But London, a veteran journalist and novelist, took aim at another, less predictable and more interesting target. He proposed to note which accent Army Radio presenters Jackie Levy and Avri Gilad assume when they are trying to be cute.

The two radio stars, London explained, use a regular Ashkenazi, Sabra accent when speaking directly and to the point, in trying to convey their own opinions. But they take on a false Sephardic pronunciation whenever they try to mock highfaluting speak.

"It's true that I speak with two accents but I can tell when I switch between them," Gilad said in response. "The pathology that Yaron London is trying to establish doesn't resonate as accurate."

But then, who knows, Gilad added. A more detailed inspection might reveal London is right.

London also pointed out a sad fact, that very few of us speak Hebrew with a correct Hebrew accent these days. Whenever he hears the unblemished speech of Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Hebrew Language Academy, London says it feels like listening to music. Prof. Aharon Maman, who chaired the discussion, said London's words could have been funny if they were not so tragic.

The event drew hundreds of Hebrew lovers - most of them over 50, but surprisingly, perhaps, also dozens of people in their 30s. Most of the speakers before them, even the most eloquent, read prepared addresses.

One of the speakers who failed to escape this fate was the Israel Defense Forces Chief Education Officer, Brig. Gen. Eli Shermeister. He read his address, but made the common mistake of pronouncing the word "sifrut," (Hebrew for "in the literature" ) as "safrut."

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat determined that "our language is becoming more vulgar."

Prof. Moshe Florentin painted a more nuanced picture. Written Hebrew, he said, is developing, importing and even exporting words. But spoken Hebrew, he said, was not fairing so well. "Bad and poor Hebrew is spoken by many, whom we have failed to teach clear language."