Thursday, September 4, 2008

Grammar and Politics

I know it's no newsflash that language and culture are inextricable, but the examples of this that come up in ulpan are still fascinating to me. The most available and ubiquitous example: Jews immigrating to Israel are called עולים/olim/"those who ascend." That's the official language and its unofficial counterpart is the term "יורדים/yordim/descenders" for Israelis who move out of the country. The textbooks are also full enough of examples which seem designed not only to teach the language but to teach Jewish-Israeli culture and Zionism. Usually I experience this as helpful but every once in a while there will be a real zinger that makes me cringe as I sit next to the Arabic-speaking girls --who, when asked where they are from, say simply "here."

So today there was a moment of "turnabout is fair play." We had a fill-in-the-blank sentence which began [I'm doing this all in translation; anyone who wants the Hebrew should ask me for it], "The protesters were blocking the road in order that...." Arij, one of the Arabic speaking students from here, who is soft-spoken and sweet and smart, shyly read her answer: "The protesters were blocking the road in order that they could destroy the government." And Doron, bless him, doesn't bat an eyelash and instead takes up the grammatical problem with the sentence: "The conjunction presented to us, in order that, works best when the two sentences it connects have different subjects. So you could either write, 'The protesters were blocking the road in order that the government will fall,' or you could change the conjunction so that it reads, 'The protesters were blocking the road in order to destroy the government.' OK? Everyone understands?"

And on we went to the next fill in the blank....

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