Sunday, September 28, 2008

Speaking Russian in Israel

Living in a neighborhood with many Russian immigrants and bilingual Russian/Hebrew signs everywhere, I decided it was worth my while to try and learn some Russian this last year. By now I know the alphabet, can read words reasonably well, and know the meaning of a few common words.

It seems to me that Russian speakers learning Hebrew, and vice versa, have a special advantage because those languages share more interesting characteristics than would be expected given their disparate origins. For example:

-The letter for "sh" looks exactly like a Hebrew "shin".
-The alphabet is derived from Greek, making it much more similar to Hebrew than the alphabets used in Western countries.
-The letter "B" by itself is a prefix meaning "in", just like in Hebrew.

In addition, there are many words in modern Hebrew, for example "protektziya" and the name "Netanya", that have a -ya ending. It seems to me that in pre-modern Hebrew this ending was much less common (except when referring to God's name, for example at the end of people's names). But it is very common ending in Russian.

I suspect that when the first Zionists came here from the Russian Empire, starting kibbutzim and formulating the modern Hebrew language, the new words they invented used the "-ya" ending because that was what they were familiar with. Indeed I wonder how many words like "protektziya" sound roughly like the English equivalent, but sound exactly like the Russian equivalent. I have no way of knowing, but suspect it's more than a few.

Early Reform Jews declared that the German language was the best language in which to express spiritual and moral ideas. Whatever the truth of that claim, it does seem that Russian was the most convenient language from which to begin the project of secular Zionism.

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