the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Press that Shift key

Much has been said – little of it complimentary – about the difficulty Israeli restaurants and businesses seem to have in figuring out how to spell (this article mentions menu wonders like "pee sop" for pea soup and "pie-nipple" for pineapple). But I have recently started noticing a different, though related, problem: funky cAPitaliZation.

Part of the issue is the complete absence of capital letters in the Hebrew language. This weekend, I noticed that while the makers of street signs in the new section of Givat Shmuel, a suburb of Tel Aviv, were capable of making the signs glow in the dark (for real!), they had apparently not yet managed to read through "English Grammar for Dummies."

For instance, take Givat Shmuel's Begin Street. In Hebrew, the road was named, as expected, "מנחם בגין" ("Menachem Begin" minus the caps and the Latin letters). In English, though, the late premier was reduced to "M. begin." Many other prominent Israeli figures were similarly diminished in stature, though their first names tended to come out mangle-free.

While the presence of capital letters appears to pose a pesky problem for sign-makers, their absence sometimes poses difficulties for English speakers trying to decipher the holy language. Take the American of my acquaintance who was working temporarily in Israel when he translated "b'gin" – an Aramaic-cum-lawyerly word meaning "due to" – as the first part of a name beginning "Begin." The two words are spelled the same way in Hebrew, and with just as many capital letters.

Menachem Begin's last name can be at least as confusing in the English transliteration. Despite having lived in Jerusalem for five years, there are still days when I pass by one of the entrances to the city's Begin Boulevard - this country hasn't had that many prime ministers, so the names of the ones we have had tend to be spread pretty thin - and misread the English sign saying, "Begin North."

But let's return to complaining about Israeli capitalization. Givat Shmuel's sign-makers are not the only ones who seem to have missed the lesson imparting the extraordinarily complicated concept that proper nouns should be capitalized.

Those who ought to know better include the university student union (and yes, they have strikes and everything – who said socialism was dead?), which its Web site declares is officially called the "National union of Israeli students." In my more insane moments I almost want to pat them on the back and say, "Good job on capitalizing 'National' AND 'Israeli'! I mean, 'Israeli' wasn't even the first word!"

But then I think, "Um, does getting into college here require finishing elementary school?" Because they just might want to Begin again.



Anonymous Yaakov said...

Not to mention the Israeli politician named אופיר פינס, whose last name is just a bit problematic when pronounced in English...

January 01, 2007  
Blogger Shoshana Kordova said...

Which is why South African Bnei Akivaniks sound like they're talking about trees when they tell parents about the Israeli program for South African girls held at Kfar Pines. (or so I've been told)

January 01, 2007  

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