January 16, 2005

Linguistic Expatriate

Amritas's second post talks about mulilinguals, he quotes Vivian Cook:

If most people, or indeed everybody, has multiple grammars in their minds, the idealisation to the monolingual native speaker is misleading, as inaccurate as saying we should study the breathing of human beings by looking at those with one lung rather than two. If the architecture of the human mind involves two languages, we are falsifying it by studying only monolingual minds ...

From my first contact with English-speaking expatriates in Israel, I was struck by how their English was infiltrated by Hebrew. These changes seem to fall into three categories:

1. Words for things not frequently encountered in the country of origin.

2. Hebrew words that are hard to translate into English, but are very useful.

3. Grammatical structures that are easier in Hebrew than in English.

In the first category would be words like eshel (אשל) - a cultured milk product like buttermilk, makolet (מכולת) - general store, qlita (קליטה) - immigration absorption, acculturation. In the second category are words like tiq (תיק) - any kind of carrying bag e.g. backpack or pocketbook, `agala (עגלה) - any kind of cart or carriage, davqa (דוקה) - a word which introduces a clause that contradicts what was previously said by another speaker.

But most interesting, to me, is the third category. Grammar is something we normally don't think about. What could entice someone to abandon the familiar structure of their native language and embrace the alien grammar of another? Let's look at an example:

זה הילד שראיתי אותו אתמול

Ze hayeled shera'iti oto etmol

That's the boy whom I saw yesterday

But among expatriates, you're likely to hear this:

That's the boy that I saw him yesterday

Which is a literal translation of the Hebrew. There are many ways in which English grammar differs from Hebrew, but only a few in which the English seems susceptible to replacement. What is special about these few instances? I would say that there is a natural grammar, if not a universal grammar, at least in the sense that some structures are easier (more natural) than others. In the English version, the object of 'saw' (him) is merged with the relative pronoun (whom) while in the Hebrew version it is still present in the surface structure. Doesn't that sound easier to you?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at January 16, 2005 02:35 PM
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My favorite story about words was from maybe 30 years ago, when we lived in Bayit V'Gan. There was a family with a few children, and they spoke only English. One day their child asked: "How do you say mepeset in Hebrew?"

Posted by: muse at January 16, 2005 09:54 PM Permalink

I understand now why some 19th century philologists thought Welsh and Hebrew were related - Welsh has exactly that structure too! Plus inflected prepositions and a few other things. (I read somewhere that despite the fact that any connection has long been dismissed as romantic fantasies, there are a couple of linguists out there now who seriously are looking into the idea that the Celtic languages have a Semitic substrate).

BTW, Welsh also borrowed a good word from Hebrew - except it's spelled Wlpan in Welsh.

Posted by: Atlantic at January 17, 2005 10:42 PM Permalink

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