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How Hebrew can complicate an English conversation: Part 2

December 11, 2010

After writing about three common ways Hebrew can complicate an English conversation back in October, significantly more conversations have been had with a whole new list of interesting issues.

Breathalyzer vs. owl

ינשוף (yanshuf, owl) vs. breathalyzer

Recent legislation about the legality of breathalyzers combined with the strict anti-drunk-driving laws in Israel means this topic can come up quite a bit in casual conversation. As someone who has never laid eyes on an actual breathalyzer, I assumed that when Israelis call a breathalyzer an owl it must be because the device resembles the bird. It turns out the resemblance is based on how the two things sound rather than how they look. So don’t be confused if people talk about police, alcohol, and owls in the same sentence more often than you’d imagine that combination of subjects would have a reason to coexist.

Hand vs. arm

יד (yad) vs. the distinction between hand and arm

This is an issue that continues to complicate conversation because no matter how clearly I understand that arm and hand are the same word in Hebrew, it’s still not as obvious as you’d think to figure out which one people are talking about. When someone says “give me your hand,” they could be asking for anything from an upper arm to a fingertip. Just the other day my husband instructed me to take his arm, so I guessed he meant hand and dutifully took his hand in mine. It turns out he thought I looked cold and therefore wanted me to hold onto his arm and had managed to say the right word. All these years of confusion between the two of us on top of living in Israel has not made this any clearer.

There is no distinction between leg or foot either; everything is רגל (regel). Additionally, while they technically have different names, fingers and toes are all called אצבעות (etzba’ot). Considering how frequently people talk about what’s ailing them, you’d think there’d be more specific words in order to make sure one’s audience can understand exactly what’s wrong and commiserate more easily.

ליפול בין הכסאות (lipol ben ha’kisa’ot, fall between the chairs) vs. fall through the cracks

Many, if not most, idioms in Hebrew seem to work well in English, probably thanks to the Old Testament providing a lot of common ground. There are a few, however, that may make sense after taking a moment to think but are surprisingly and unexpectedly different. This particular one occasionally comes up in relation to certain bureaucratic interactions with various government offices.

Come to think of it, there are several other Hebrew idioms that, when said in English, can confuse things. I wrote about three times ice cream a while back, though that was an example of Hebrew complicating a Hebrew conversation. Now that I’ve been accepted as a legal resident, I can’t wait to start going to ulpan (intensive Hebrew language courses, usually sponsored by the government for officially recognized new immigrants) and reduce all this linguistic confusion.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Omer permalink
    December 11, 2010 6:16 pm

    I’d like to make a few corrections regarding anatomical vocabulary in Hebrew. The word יד (yad) is indeed indicative of the entire limb, from shoulder to fingertip; however, there are additional words for describing sub-sections of the limb:

    זרוע (zro’a) – arm
    אמה (amah) – forearm (can also mean middle-finger)
    כף-יד (kaf-yad) – palm
    ירך (yarekh) – thigh
    שוק (shok) – shin
    בוהן (bohen) – toe

    All of these words actually appear in the Bible, meaning that they were in use long before the rejuvenation of the Hebrew language (which significantly multiplied its vocabulary). Indeed, the Hebrew vocabulary can be sparse in many areas, but in terms of human anatomy, it is surprisingly rich.

    • December 11, 2010 6:34 pm

      I’ve learned some of these but rarely hear them. While I don’t doubt the existence of more descriptive terms, do people use them generally speaking? I’ve been asking Israelis how to refer to these parts for ages and just about everyone struggles to come up with something more specific. Plus I’m afraid several anatomical references various family members have taught me are heavily saturated with Yiddish and I don’t know the difference 🙂

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