Thursday, January 27, 2011

Y oh Y???

Have you ever wondered how come many names are pronounced so differently in many languages? The popular name Joseph, for example, is pronounced Yoseph in many European languages, and Hose in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Ever wonder why?

Joseph, as well as many other common names like Jacob, Joaquin, John, Jael, Jarod, Jedidiah, Joshua, Jericho and even Jesus himself are all biblical names. Originally, all these names were written using the Hebrew letter YUD, which is pronounced like the American letter Y. When the bible was translated to Greek in the 2nd century, the names that used Yud were transliterated using the letter I (Iota), and it was carried to other translations of the Bible. It was this way for hundreds of years, and I'm not sure how, exactly, it changed. I've heard several versions - one says the J was identical to the I, but people started using the J as the consonant, and the I as the vowel. Another tale says that the J was initially used just to make the longer vowel sound of the I.

The bottom line is that sometimes, probably around the 17th century, all the names that used an I in the bible were changed to use a J. They were still pronounced correctly (meaning, like the original Hebrew way of prouncing them), but at some point, the French started pronouncing it like we do today, and this has crept into the English language. The Spanish language also changed in some countries, and people started pronouncing it as the frictive J in some dialects (Argentina and Mexico, for example).

Will this ever change back? I doubt it. With today's established teaching methodology and worldwide communications, it's harder for languages to change. If you want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, start calling your friends Yosef, Yacov...and start praying to Jeshu!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

And his hooks!

I already talked a bit about the unusual way Hebrew uses vowels . One interesting result of this is a special word, which I think is unique. That word is VEVAVAV, which means "And His Hooks". For example, you might want to say "The carpenter came here with his nails and his hooks", which would be "Hanagar Ba im masmerav vevavav". When written in Hebrew, it looks even more interesting...the word is spelt like this:
Yes! this is not a joke!
Each of the horizontal bars is the letter Vav (which doubles as the consonant V and the vowels O and U), and the short bar is the letter Yud (which doubles as the consonant Y and the vowels I, E and Y).

Isn't that incredible?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don’t hate me because I’m hateful

Well, guys, this is official…the most annoying guy in the world is Israeli. This has already been discussed in countless forums ( and blogs (, but recently a local radio show in my area did an official survey, and declared him the winner. Yes, we are talking about Offer “Vince” Shlomi, who grew up in my home town of Haifa.

The ShamWOW commercial landed Vince into infamy, and I hope the tons of cash he made off it were worth it. Offer has done other things too, like some comedy movie that wasn’t too successful (trailer: Thank you, Offer, for getting the people of Israel such a world record.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Say it like you mean it!

One of the peculiarities of the Hebrew language is that it does not rely on vowels to denote pronunciation. Instead, it has a system called “Nikud”, which could be translated to “Dotting”. With Nikud, the writer adds various dot and line combinations around letters and they function as vowels. For example, a 3-dot combination under the letter is equivalent to putting an E in front of it in English.

However, Nikud is hardly ever used in real life. It is taught to kids in the 1st grade, but by the 2nd grade, they will have learned by heart how to pronounce most of the words in the Hebrew language, and no longer use it. This does mean that Hebrew words are much shorter than other languages. For example, the word Telephone is written with just 5 letters…something like TLFON. There is a vowel to denote the O sound, but the E’s are not used.

This makes writing in Hebrew more “efficient”, but is not easy for kids to get around. They have to learn to recognize the pronunciation from a written word, and it doesn’t always work out. For common, day-to-day words, this is usually no problem, because everybody uses the words, and the kid learns it sooner or later. However, some “grown-up” words can be missed and get mispronounced. For example, the word “Toner” (as in a photocopier) is written in a way that is unclear, and so many people mispronounce it as “Tooner”. A Centimeter is often pronounced like “Santimeter”. The Salmon fish is often pronounced “Solomon”. I’ve even seen a guy who likes to eat “Tona” sandwiches once.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inter- no-net

A major concern for the religious community in Israel surrounds the fact that it’s not much FUN being religious. You only read from the Bible (or other religious books), women are always covered from head-to-toe et cetera. The most frightening thing for the community is that a member will discover how much fun it is being secular, and decide to abandon religion and the community. To prevent that, it’s very important to them to keep their people from being “tried” – they close themselves off in their own neighborhoods and try to shield the residents from any clue of the outside world. As part of this, TV has traditionally been forbidden, and since the introduction of the internet, it has been a source of controversy. On one hand, they realize their businesses, which do have to sell and buy to secular businesses, need the web, but the web also provides access to everything that is forbidden – pictures, information…and even PORN!

Naturally, they started coming up with various crazy work-around “solutions”. One company will receive letters and faxes from religious people, type them into a computer and send them out as Email. Another company provides heavily censored internet connections, with proxy-servers that block 99% of the web except specific sites deemed permissible. The craziest idea, though, is something that started about 2 years ago…it’s a CD that contains cached copies of pre-approved websites, and sent to subscribers monthly via the post. The disc has about 3500 websites, and even a search component. The entrepreneur says he has about 200,000 subscribers, and that they also allow them to update their content using public terminals and a USB-drive, in case you want to be updated more than once a month. I’m wondering how come nobody thought of having a pay-per-minute search service, where someone reads out censored results to you over the phone…that way, you wouldn’t even have to have a computer (which many religious folk are extremely against even without the internet)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thou shall not cheat thy god

A few weeks back, I told you about Saturdays, which are the weekend-days (like the American Sunday). I also said that during the day of rest you cannot work, operate machinery or electronics. You can’t turn on your oven, so religious families have electric hotplates, because you can turn them on before the weekend starts, and the thermostat keeps them safe until Saturday evening. The electric hotplate is a perfect example for a major industry in Israel – products that can cheat the no-work rule. For example, riding an elevator would require you to press a button, which is “work”, so every elevator in Israel has a Shabbat mode, in which it automatically stops at every floor, so you don’t have to actively press anything. Also, dialing the phone is forbidden, because pressing the numbers is “work” too, so some company came up with a genius solution. Their phone scrolls through the digits 0-9, and you stop it on the digit you need, thereby building up the number step-by-step…like cracking a combination lock. Another company is selling pens with disappearing ink, which make them ‘legal’ to use on a Saturday. The industrial union estimates the market for such products to be at 10 million dollar a year.

So…god bless the Israeli mind for coming up with clever circumvention, but the stupid thing is that the religious folk actually think that they can outsmart their god. I mean…if you really believe that your creator wants you to rest on the weekend, what do you think will happen when you’re judged after you die? Do Smarty-pants go to heaven?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Random Congratulations

The Jewish calendar is based on the moon, as opposed to the standard calendars we use around the world. This means that the Jewish year only has 354 days a year, instead of 365, and the Jewish holidays “move” backwards in relation to the Gregorian calendar. Most of the country uses the Gregorian calendar anyway, but he orthodox community use the Hebrew calendar almost exclusively (some of them keep track of both, if they have a business need to work with civilian groups or companies). For example, my birthday moves around between Aug 26th and Sep 20th. It was on Sep 13th in 2003, and on Sep 2nd in 2004, and so every year it’s different. I have a good friend who is religious, and we were both born on the same day. I call him to congratulate him every September 13th, and he calls me to congratulate me on some random date every year…

Personally, I don’t care – I celebrate it on the Gregorian date of Sep 13th, which is when it was on my original birthday in 1973. Who DO care is pretty much the entire population of Israel…at least the secular population. The reason is that the Daylight Savings time is also affected by this, which means that on some years, they switch off DST as early as the beginning of September. Every few years, some organization or political party tries to change this so that the DST changes are set by the Gregorian calendar, but the religious politicians are always able to keep it the way it is.