Under Fire, part 43

What’s with the K, anyway? Transliteration, the process of converting words from languages in other character sets into Latin script representation, is always problematic. Other languages often include sounds that don’t exist in English, and Hebrew is certainly no exception. Trying to duplicate the sound of a chet or resh is virtually impossible. As a technical communicator, I am always interested in clear communication, and I value consistency within a message. So it pains me that our state, in its early days, turned not to professionals who understood the intricacies of human communication, but to a group of scholarly linguists from the hallowed halls of academia. I love linguistics, and I respect intellectual achievement, but we’re talking about a group of professors who probably couldn’t order a cup of coffee in under 250 words. These eminently respectable experts (average age 102) founded Ha Akademi l’lashon ivrit (the Academy of the Hebrew Language) more than 50 years ago and established a complex codified system for transliterating Hebrew place names into Latin script. In their infinite wisdom, they decided that some K sounds should be represented with a Q, and others with a C, and that people really cared about the subtle difference in sound between an alef and an ayin.

Great, you’re thinking. Standards! A style guide! What could be so bad about that?

The problem is that as a culture, we don’t respond very well to standards and style guides. In a society with an astonishingly flat social hierarchy, it is hard to dictate spelling rules (or anything else, for that matter). Everyone knows better. Everyone is the boss. So when Yochi, the sign painter in Yavneh, gets an order for highway signs, he spells things however he wants. As does Roni in Rishon, Moshe in Ma’alot, and Haim in Herzliya. In an open contest to former students, I offered prizes for pictures of the most creative place name spellings. We collected six different spellings for Caesaria, five for S’fat, four for Akko.

On one hand, I would love to see the country update the rules and reach some level of consistency. On the other, I realize that this would be an incredibly expensive process, that we have far more serious things to worry about right now, and that cleaning up the signs would rob many tourists of the delightfully bemusing challenge of finding their way around. (It pains me when great Typo Landmarks get corrected, as did the famous Tel Aviv falafel stand that proudly sported the sign “Snake Bar” for years…)

So what can I do? I try to spell place names close to their correct pronunciation, using a K for a K sound (smart, huh?) unless the C spelling is more logical, such as the Carmel region in Haifa. (This is actually another good argument for spelling Karmiel with a K; it reduces confusion with Carmel.)

Now, back to the war…

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3 responses to “Under Fire, part 43

  1. Mamma mia. I see you took your fan club’s complaints about not posting every day extremely seriously. Good job. I hope Nadine doesn’t get insulted by being referred to as a croissant, and I hope you don’t mistake her as one amidst the disconcerting stress of “boomim.”
    Stay safe.
    Lee (displaced person)

  2. Wow, Leah! What a very impressive blog.
    You seem to be dealing very well, no wonder you’re such a mainstay of the STC.
    Hang in there and look after yourself.

    Best regards,
    Estelle (tech writer)

  3. My “favourite” highway sign spelling is of the town I would write as “Petach Tikva” but that I most often see as “PETAH TIQWA” (which I tend to mis-read as “Petah [without the gutteral] Tee-oh-wah”)

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