Jabotinsky’s Hebrew II.

I’ve gotten to another good passage on language in Halkin’s Jabotinsky (see this post); the context is Jabotinsky’s founding of the Hebrew publishing house Hasefer:

One of Hasefer’s first volumes, issued in 1923, was a slim collection of Jabotinsky’s Hebrew poetry translations. In it were selections from Poe and D’Annunzio, the whole of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, and sections of Edmond Rostan’s Cyrano de Bergerac. What made it noteworthy, however, was not its content but its use of the Sephardic diction that Jabotinsky had first heard in Basel in 1903, together with the Sephardic system of poetic scansion. Although the Hebrew spoken in twentieth-century Palestine had adopted the Sephardic pronunciation, nearly all prominent Hebrew poets of the day were still adhering to the Ashkenazi rules of composition. Jabotinsky’s translations had an impact on the younger generation of Hebrew poets and helped speed the transition to a Sephardic prosody that took in the 1920s.

A second, more radical change that he promoted never attracted many followers. This was the Latinization of the Hebrew alphabet for purposes of phonetic clarity, an idea in keeping with similar spelling reforms undertaken at the time, such as the simplification of Russian and Yiddish orthography in the Soviet Union and the Latinization under Atatürk of Turkish’s Arabic script. It was a symptom of Jabotinsky’s ambivalent attitude toward Jewish tradition that he, the ardent lover and proponent of Hebrew, had an almost dyslexic difficulty with its written characters—“those damned square letters,” he once called them—and wished to exchange them for an alien system that would have severed the language from its ancient roots. Happily, few of its users agreed with him.

(Tsk tsk, such editorializing!) The last proposal reminds me of Nabokov’s wishing that Russian were Latinized.

Comments

  1. I am no expert on Runet, but it seems to me that various forms of transliteration of Russian into Latin mostly survive in (some) private exchanges between people wishing to write Russian, but not being good typists and too lazy to Cyrillize (is there such a word?) their keyboards. What is the situation with Hebrew?

  2. For those as lazy as me: latinized Russian previously on languagehat. (Also, an interesting post about Ada, or Ardor I found while trying to find more information about Nabokov’s position.)

  3. D.O., when Russians talk to each other on Twitter, Facebook, V Kontakte, in the comment sections of newspapers and blogs, etc., they almost always use Cyrillic. I’m a native Russian speaker and transliterated Russian is harder for me to read than normal Russian.

    I think I remember reading about studies that showed that people process alphabetic text in word-sized chunks, not in letter-sized ones. And that we recognize whole words as units by their shapes. This seems plausible to me. Why is it harder for me to read transliterated Russian than normal Russian? Probably because I’m used to the Cyrillic shapes of Russian words. I’m not used to their transliterated shapes. So I have to parse transliterated text letter by letter. Which takes longer and feels like work.

    Writing Russian in the Latin alphabet isn’t difficult at all. But if I did that, I’d be slowing down and otherwise annoying potential readers. And most people want to be easily understood.

  4. Jabotinsky’s translations had an impact on the younger generation of Hebrew poets and helped speed the transition to a Sephardic prosody that took in the 1920s.

    Unfortunately much too late to influence Naftali Herz Imber, author of what would become the Israeli national anthem: to fit the melody, Hatikva has to be sung with Ashkenazi diction, which means that from a modern Hebrew perspective almost all the stresses are wrong.

  5. Glossy: studies that showed that people process alphabetic text in word-sized chunks, not in letter-sized ones.

    Some people may do so. The general claim reminds me of that fatal “sight word” craze in child education that swept America in the late 1950s (I think it was). The result was that many people who learned that way were later unable to read unfamiliar words.

    There was a discussion here several years ago about the justice of the claim, made by me, that Cyrillic letters are hard to read. Not being a native Russian speaker – or even a Russian speaker at all nowadays ! – I asked whether other people have that problem and what the reasons might be. Theoretically I was "accustomed" to the letters, having studied Russian for many years.

    One answer was that too many Cyrillic letters don't extend above and below the average letter height , unlike say "p" and "b" in English – the result being that everything seems to blur together. I have forgotten the fancy technical term for that over-extending phenomenon.

    There might be another reason for my difficulty, it just now occurs to me: Cyrillic seems often to be in monospaced font. Such a font is harder to read, in English as well, than a proportional font.

  6. Stu Clayton,

    The commonly-used Latin fonts look aesthetically better to me than the commonly-used Cyrillic ones. But I’ve never thought of Cyrillic as being inherently harder to read. You’re the first person that I’ve ever seen suggest this. English is almost a second native language to me. I read the two with equal ease.

  7. …Imber…
    Or Bialik’s early poetry, which is actually good (Hatikva isn’t bad-bad, it’s just overwrought, like most poems chosen as national anthems.)

  8. Glossy: But I’ve never thought of Cyrillic as being inherently harder to read.

    I didn’t claim that it was “inherently” harder to read for anyone, but only for an adult who was not accustomed to it from day 1.

    If we’re going to talk about “inherently”, I might put it this way: it is inherently easier to acquire an “inherently easier” ability than to acquire an “inherently more difficult” one – for adults. 🙂

    So, easily to read English letters is an ability easier to acquire, coming from an ability to read inherently more difficult Cyrillic (which is not inherently more difficult for a child). The other way around is less easy.

  9. So what you’re saying is that abilities that aren’t inherently easy can’t be easily “inherited” from abilities that are inherently easy, even if those inherently easy abilities could be inherited with ease from abilities that aren’t inherently easy?

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Just yesterday on the subway I saw someone text in Russian – in a German-based transcription, complete with sch.

    Some people may do so. The general claim reminds me of that fatal “sight word” craze in child education that swept America in the late 1950s (I think it was). The result was that many people who learned that way were later unable to read unfamiliar words.

    Imagine, this came to the German language in the 1990s, with the result that people stumble over words they haven’t encountered before and make really wild guesses.

  11. This editor clearly needs a lesson in the roots of the Latin script. Hebrew was using its precursor long before transforming to the current script, borrowed from the Assyrians.

  12. In Mongolia it’s extremely common (possibly overwhelmingly so) to use Latin letters on Facebook, in text messages, etc. That’s because Mongolian is ill served when it comes to keyboards. Before smartphones, all keyboards were in Latin letters, and even with the smartphone revolution, iPhone, for one, doesn’t offer a Mongolian Cyrillic keyboard. Russian keyboards are available but they’re unsatisfactory because they lack ү and ө.

    Of course, it’s worse in Inner Mongolia, where the traditional script is even more poorly served. There is a program for typing traditional script on Android, developed by an American living in Hohhot, but the output is in the form of a graphic. There is also a chat system that works on iPhone, but the chat service itself was lousy when I tried it and I’ve never gone back to see if it’s improved.

  13. studies that showed that people process alphabetic text in word-sized chunks, not in letter-sized ones

    This is probably true, but the downside is as Grumbly pointed out. There are times when you need to go back to basics and nut out the pronunciation. Impressionistic learning doesn’t allow you to do this. I might say that I think the same applies to Chinese characters. We may take in the character as a whole, but we still need to be conscious of the elements (radicals, etc.) that make up the character in order to remember and identify them correctly.

  14. I suspect that use of Latin characters actually helps many Mongolians to disguise their lack of spelling skills (for some reason, Mongolians are terrible at spelling their own language, even though rules for spelling Mongolian Cyrillic are quite straightforward compared to English)

  15. As a non-native speaker I found learning noun and adjective declension paradigms was more intuitive in Russian, with its matching sets of palatizing and non-palatizing Cyrillic vowels, than in Polish where the Latin alphabet means that palatization is often distinguished by hard vs soft consonants, and there are all sorts of rules about when palatalization is indicated by an “i” or by a diacritic. I have often thought Polish would be easier to write in Cyrillic.

  16. A snippet from an article on the development of Lucida type face:

    In the second half of the 20th century, tight letter spacing became common in advertising typography, not for economy but for fashion. Although tight spacing of grotesque style typefaces had occasionally been done by hand-trimming of sidebearings, photographic typesetting technology enabled much easier tightening letter spacing. At display sizes, tight letter spacing attracted attention, and this trend eventually affected text typography. A common rationale for tight, “sexy spacing” was that when letters were crammed together, they made distinctive word images that were easier to read, based on an hypothesis that reading is done word-by-word. Numerous reading studies have since shown, however, that words are read by recognizing letters, not as unitary chunks or gestalts, so the up-tight rationale is demonstrably false. The actual situation is more complex and still not fully understood.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Polish could be written in half as much space if it used more diacritics, and if it used the diacritics it has more consistently. That said…

    there are all sorts of rules about when palatalization is indicated by an “i” or by a diacritic

    I thought it’s very simple: i in front of a vowel, accent otherwise?

    That’s the same distinction Russian makes: palatalization is indicated on the following vowel if there is one, otherwise you resort to ь.

  18. Greg Pandatshang says:

    to fit the melody, Hatikva has to be sung with Ashkenazi diction, which means that from a modern Hebrew perspective almost all the stresses are wrong.

    You’d be doing the English-speaking world a service by adding something about this to the Wikipedia article on Hatikva, which is ignorant on this point so far.

  19. Polish Cyrillic:

    Пóйдзьце о дзятки, пóйдзьце вшистке разэм
    За място, подъ слупъ на взгóрэкъ,
    Тамъ пр̌едъ цудовнымъ клęкнийце образэмъ,
    Побожне змóвце пацёрэкъ.

    Тато не враца ранки и вечоры
    Вэ Лзах го чекамъ и трводзэ;
    Розлялы р̌еки, пэлнэ звер̌а боры,
    И пэлно збóйцóвъ на дродзэ;-

  20. Not that ъ at the ends of the words again.

  21. another proposal:

    Пуйдьте о дятки, пуйдьте вшистке разэм
    За място, под слуп на взгурэк,
    Там пред цудовным клѩкнийте образэм,
    Побожне змувте патëрэк.

    Тато не враца ранки и вечоры
    вэ лзах го чекам и трводзэ;
    Розлялы реки, пэлнэ зверя боры,
    И пэлно збуйцув на дродзэ;-

    but it has little yus…

  22. David Marjanović says:

    test

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Polish Cyrillic:

    Needs moar Вук Караџић.

    I found the original, but apparently can’t link to it, and am transcribing two more stanzas in order to cover more sounds:

    “Пујђће, о ђатки, пујђће вшыстќе разем
    За мьасто, под слуп на взгурек,
    Там пшед цудовным кљѧкњијће образем,
    Побожње змувће паћурек.

    Тато ње враца; ранки и вьечоры
    Ве лзах го чекам и трвоѕе;
    Розљалы жеки, пелне звьежа боры
    И пелно збујцув на дроѕе.”

    Слышѫц то ђатки бьегѫ вшыстќе разем,
    За мьасто, под слуп на взгурек,
    Там пшед цудовным кљѧкајѫ образем
    И зачынајѫ паћурек.

    Цалујѫ җемье, потем: “В имьѧ Ојца,
    Сына и Духа щвьѧтего,
    Бѫђ похваљона, пшенајщвьѧча Трујца,
    Тераз и часу вшељќего.”

    The first opportunity for ѓ occurs way down the page.

    Obviously, љ & л could be replaced by л & ў, and и & ы by і & и…

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Googling for pójdźcie o dziatki brings up the original. I have no idea why the spam filter hates its URL much.

  25. this is horrible!

    Polish looks definitely better with Latin script than with this monstrosity!

  26. I wonder why. Is it the obsolete and non-Russian letters that create the impression of monstrousness?

  27. Polish could be written in half as much space if it used more diacritics

    Inglıš kud bi rıtn ın hâf az måč speys…

  28. Inglš kd bi ritn n ivn les speys…

  29. I once replied to a Johnny One-Note who infested a technical mailing list with claims for the superiority of his preferred means of transferring information to the mechanism that list was set up to discuss by saying that he could compress his emails (standardized compression being one of the many features he touted) to a single character representing the name of the author, leaving the rest of the email to be reconstructed by the audience.

    He took it in good part, fortunately.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    I wonder why. Is it the obsolete and non-Russian letters that create the impression of monstrousness?

    ѧ is very dense graphically… which might be why it developed into я.

  31. Kazakh or Yakut are full of strange letters (and even stranger sounds), but they don’t look weird.

    Neither does Serbian Cyrillic.

    Macedonian, though, does look like an encoding error….

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