Diglossia in Israeli High Tech.

I found this post by Anatoly Vorobey (in Russian) so interesting I thought I’d translate it here (I’ve added a few links):

Ya. F. on Facebook (link) wrote well a few years ago about diglossia in Israeli high tech:

An acquaintance told me that in their office they write on Slack in Hebrew. And I was like, “What?”

Nowhere I’ve worked do they write anything in Hebrew. I mean, electronically. E-mails, instant messages, presentations, documentation — everything is in English. At the same time, they speak Hebrew, of course. At the Technion, too: lectures in Hebrew, textbooks in English. E-mail messages, too. Well, that’s understandable — just try to write in Hebrew on that scary green terminal.

I think it’s partly for technical-historical reasons (even when you could write in Hebrew, there was no guarantee that the recipient would get the text in readable form), partly (in)convenience (the terms are in English anyway), and partly that you often work with foreign countries, and then if the e-mail is in Hebrew, you can’t forward it.

And then I realized that it’s just that in high tech we have diglossia, which is when two languages are used simultaneously in society: one low (everyday), which everyone speaks, and the other high (formal), in which they write, read speeches, etc. It could be two forms of the same language, like spoken and classical Arabic in all Arab countries, or dhimotiki and katharevousa in Greece until the 1980s, or it could be two different languages, as in Catholic countries in the Middle Ages, when they wrote only in Latin and spoke in the vernacular. Or even in early medieval Rus: they wrote in Church Slavonic, which while close is a distinct language, and even from a different group, South Slavic.

And it turns out that there’s nothing awful about it — at meetings I’ve more than once seen people discussing everything in Hebrew while simultaneously writing notes or making a plan of action in English.

And yes, I think it helps you understand what it was like in the Middle Ages with Latin, for example. You might think that if you can write in the same language you speak, why not? But something prevents you from writing in Hebrew, even an e-mail sent only to people who speak Hebrew. It feels wrong, an inappropriate language for writing, but if you’re talking, no problem. That’s how it was then, apparently.

And it doesn’t even seem strange or unusual (if you don’t think about it) when a person shows a slide in English during a meeting and “reads” it in Hebrew, or conversely, speaks in Hebrew and “writes” in English. It’s okay, that’s the way it should be. It’s just diglossia.


  1. There’s often a triglossia in the subcommunity of Russian-speaking Israeli tech workers, speaking Russian with each other and embracing the majority’s diglossia elsewhere. Adding the lovely code-switching-squared conversations, which I have overheard many times, sentences in substrate Russian interlaced with terms in English and entire phrases in Hebrew, or even nested English-term-in-Hebrew-phrase-in-Russian-sentence.

    As an aside, in my NLP course I write my slides in Hebrew and introduce all terms in Hebrew form, some of which my own coining due to sheer lexical void, adding the English in parentheses and often using only that form from that point on. I’d say about 20% of students submit their homework in English.

  2. Nitpick: “messengers” meant all kinds of global or company-wide instant messaging apps (from the ancient ruins of ICQ to what’s hip among one’s peers in current year), not just Facebook Messenger specifically.

    However, this taught me that messenger.com has been Facebook’s vanity domain for quite some time. You can guess how often I touch those things.

  3. Nitpick: “messengers” meant all kinds of global or company-wide instant messaging apps

    Thanks, I’ll omit the link and change the translation.

  4. January First-of-May says

    “messengers” meant all kinds of global or company-wide instant messaging apps

    “Вы получили это письмо, потому что моя команда биг дата проанализировала ваши активности в жире, конфлюенс, гугл почте, чате, документах, дашбордах и пометила вас как невовлечные и малопродуктивные сотрудники.”

    (from a problem at the regional level of the All-Russian Olympiad in the Russian language, 2022)

  5. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Isn’t Messenger one of those product names that should be impossible to trademark? Just “messenger” for short has gone from being AIM by default to MSN/Windows Live and then Facebook. It was always fun to watch the confused look on millenials’ faces when they asked for my “Messenger” and I said I didn’t have AOL. I outgrew that, but now I can truthfully tell them I don’t have a Facebook account.

    (But I suppose they were/are all trademarked under the longer names. You don’t need a trademark to get a domain name, though it helps against squatters. Money works too).

  6. A brand-new Israeli TV series, Madrasa, is a feast of diglossia, code-switching, and loanwords, taking place in a fictional bilingual Arabic/Hebrew high school. The subtitles, alas, are in those two languages but not in English.

    Arab Labor, an earlier series written by the same author, Sayed Kashua, also plays with these linguistic themes, but not nearly to that extent.

  7. @Lars: I’m usually the one behind the curve, but even I know that FB messenger is only used by oldies nowadays. Every youngish person I know uses WhatsApp or Telegram, and the really cool kids doubtlessly have already discovered some new shiny thing.

  8. @January First-of-May: I just learned yesterday (from a local MIT applicant that I was interviewing on behalf of the admissions office) that there are Linguistics Olympiads for high school students.

    @Y: I wouldn’t say that a television series had an “author.” The usual term in the (American) television industry is “writer,” and this carries over into general usage. It just seems inapposite to talk about the “author” of a film or television script, the same way that it would be to speak of the “author” of song lyrics. However, the distinction is probably also related to most television shows in this country have a whole “writers’ room” of people who write the story and dialogue, not a single author who creates all the scripts. I don’t know about English speakers, native and nonnative, in other countries with different entertainment industries.

    @Hans: Saying “oldies” actually marks you out as an oldster. The Internet-correct term is “olds” (almost always used in plural—in singular, it sounds more like a reference to Andre Norton’s 1976 science fiction novel Outside).

  9. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Hans, you can find me on LinkedIn. Not very hip, but useful.

  10. January First-of-May says

    I just learned yesterday (from a local MIT applicant that I was interviewing on behalf of the admissions office) that there are Linguistics Olympiads for high school students.

    There are indeed! IIRC the First Traditional Linguistics & Mathematics Olympiad was held in Moscow in 1965, and all the other ones developed from that.

    I used to score pretty highly back in my high school years, though an unfortunate incident early on kept me away from the top prizes (and I never made it to the international version). My brother is also pretty good at it, though not quite to top-prize levels.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Brett: I just learned yesterday (from a local MIT applicant that I was interviewing on behalf of the admissions office) that there are Linguistics Olympiads for high school students.

    I trust that you do what you can to keep linguistics talents away from MIT.

  12. Brett: “Written by the same writer” looks clunky, and Kashua is best known as an author of novels, so I picked a not so satisfactory compromise. I could have done better, by omitting “written by”.

  13. International Linguistics Olympiad

    Yes, I think I even already mentioned them here. See

    They do have Russian roots, but we did have a good system of informal education in USSR. For researchers the goal of olympiads finding children and introducing them to each other and scientists – for children it is of course, winning.

  14. @Trond Engen: I resisted the urge to repeat my comment about Chomsky from here.

    However, I also told her about this site.

  15. I think that diglossia in tech is quite common in all but native anglophone countries.

    Most international companies have English as a corporate language, meaning that all documentation has to be in English. And it often carries over to less formal communication as well. But the main language around the coffee maker is the local vernacular.

    (As an example, I’m working in French-speaking Switzerland. We have all our documentation and about half of the ‘teams’ messaging in English. But almost nobody speaks English in the cafeteria. (On top of the French, we also have a vocal Italian contingent…) )

  16. I found the problem that J1M mentioned. I would have failed:)

    It is a letter where a billionaire informs his employees that his big data team thinks they suck. The letter looks like an interlinear translation from English: I don’t know if he thinks in English or code-switches or actually wrote letter in English and then translated it to Russian. The story.

    But it is not a linguistic olympiad, it is Russian-the-school-discipline olympiad, and unlike the former it tests skills taught in school.

  17. @Hans: Saying “oldies” actually marks you out as an oldster. The Internet-correct term is “olds”
    Well, as I said, usually I’m behind the curve. No use in trying to pretend that I’m not an Old Fart.
    @Lars: Me too. Looking for your name gives two persons in Copenhagen, both working in IT.
    I don’t know if you’re comfortable with disclosing more in this forum; if not, but if you’re still interested in connecting, Hat has my e-mail and if he has yours, I would be grateful if he’d forward my address to you.

  18. As for diglossia, avva’s usage differs from that in sociolinguistics and… I prefer avva’s.

    The things is that, dialects and then langauges vary in physical space.
    They also vary across communities in the same locality.
    Still you may think you can treat an individual speaker as an “element”, and define a variety as “a set of idiolectes”.

    But… Languages can also vary in other spaces, within the same speaker. We miss this fact, treating bilingualism as an overlap between two communities.

  19. WhatsApp is what many in Arab world have been using for ages, including illiterate people (voice messages).

    Telegram used to be government intervention-safe and gaind popularity in Russia and Iran and not only – but alas.

    When the war began and it became the main platform for news (it seems MOST young Russains read news not even on the internet but in Telegram) Durov talked with FSB and they “reached understanding”.

  20. Hat has my e-mail and if he has yours, I would be grateful if he’d forward my address to you.


  21. @Hans, that was the generic you, but I’m always open to connections! Link in link.

    In my 3rd degree network alone there are seven other Lars Mathiesen (sensu stricto) listed as being in Copenhagen, and twice that outside. That goes to show that LinkedIn only shows you what it thinks you want, like all the other social media.

    But I probably have the shortest slug of them all which gives lowkey bragging rights. (I joined very early on).

  22. About J1M’s problem again:
    One of questions to participants is what is the syntactic role of “Google” in “Google mail”. I have a question as well.

    What is the syntactic role of i-?

  23. @LH: Danke!
    @Lars: Done. And yes, you’re right about LI showing only a small selection; your profile wasn’t among those that showed up in my search.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Oldies is a 1960s loan into German, only still used by people who used it in the 60s and maybe 70s.

    Telegram used to be government intervention-safe

    It never was. That’s a widespread error. Signal is safe.

    One of questions to participants is what is the syntactic role of “Google” in “Google mail”.


  25. This kind of diglossia is also common in many larger (Greek) Cypriot businesses even outside of tech. Meetings may be held in Greek if all participants speak it, but things you write down (minutes, emails, internal announcements) can often be in English because sooner or later you need to translate them for external stakeholders anyway. It’s seen as easier to just forward the email chain, rather than write a whole new email translating or summarizing what was already said.

    Couple of years’ back I read someone’s masters’ thesis on this topic, I can’t think of the right keywords to retrieve it right now.

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