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Foreign words in foreign languages

March 28, 2011

When news of the natural disasters unfolding in Japan appeared on and in Israeli media, understanding the Japanese names and places mentioned in Hebrew was surprisingly hard. But it shouldn’t have been so surprising, given that reading a Hebrew menu at a Japanese restaurant is futile; thanks to the lack of vowels even with foreign words, it’s not just non-native Hebrew speakers who mispronounce things from time to time. Japanese restaurants in Israel are the only places where I have the opportunity to correct my husband’s Hebrew, much to my delight and his annoyance.

However, with Japanese, a much more comfortable and familiar language when it comes to reading, I didn’t think I’d have the same trouble deciphering Hebrew names and places. But when reading this article about an Israeli emergency medical team being the first foreign doctors to arrive in Japan after the disasters, realizing that ネバティム (Nebatimu) is actually Nevatim and ピンケルト・モーシェ (Pinkeruto Moushe) is Dr. Moshe Pinkert took an embarrassingly long time.

As hard as it is to read foreign words in Hebrew, once the right vowels fall into place it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s going on than with katakana’s pre-set (and often misleading) vowels. Which is tougher? I’ve been thinking about it for weeks and still can’t decide.

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