The evasive nature of verbal expression

I’m often awed by the abundance of alternatives for expressing a notion. I’m also appalled by my limited vocabulary and above all, I’m frustrated by the seemingly mercurial nature of verbal expression.

This subject is so complex and somewhat remote of my usual intellectual occupations, I don’t pretend to reach any conclusions nor generalizations. This post then, will be a mere reflection and wonderment on an issue of major importance for cultural activity and development, but of abysmal scope.

At least four or five times a day I find myself verbally paralyzed as I roam my mind for the correct word. The notion, the right nature of it, simmers in my mind, almost tangible, a selection of similarly meaning words buzz around, but the precise one remains unattained, lurking behind a mental veil. This deficiency of signification may bother me for long periods of time: I’ve recently bumped into a lost word after searching for years. It was an infrequently used Hebrew word for ‘bag’ that was once more common in old translations, even of children’s books. About half the people with whom I shared my happy relief haven’t heard of this word – all of them being younger than 30. Most irritating are the instances when the search remains futile and you’re left with the thwarting void of a notion destitute of suitable verbal representation.

I would guess that basic verbal communication is generated by fundamental necessities: hunger for food, warmth and other elementary needs. The ever growing specifications of these needs require larger vocabulary. If that is true, I would expect that cultures enjoying wealth would develop a larger vocabulary because its basic needs are already satisfied.

I discussed the matter with an American friend while jogging. We talked (rather gasped) about the difference between Hebrew and English vocabulary. I find the English language to be much richer than Hebrew. It is well exemplified in the vast selection of words that roughly mean the same thing, but specifically describe and define an array of variations and nuances. It also reminded me of the fact, once pointed out by a poet friend, that Hebrew still lacks ‘middle’ language. There’s the ‘high’, literary ancient Hebrew: biblical Hebrew and the styles that were used in the old writings, there’s the Sephardi Golden Age of poetry and probably more ancient literary styles of eras I’m not acquainted with. Then, there are the comparatively modern authors of the 19th century and the famous renovator of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Not surprisingly, the average contemporary Israeli teenager would risk his social life if he imprudently choose to use these anachronistic styles at school. But in fact, even the modern Hebrew literature, that of the 1950’s and on, is read as literary and rarely used as semi-formal quotidian language.

The daily, ‘low’ Hebrew is miserably meager or heavily flavored with slang. I like slang: it renders verbal communication with new and accurate words. There are some brilliantly appropriate words that no formal Hebrew word can replace. But when it seeps into the mainstream media, the low Hebrew now properly stripped and devoid of slang, is left miserably poor. I’m referring mainly to extempore television and radio broadcast, but it can be found everywhere, including well prepared text.

I suspect that the reason for this decline does not lie in paucity of vocabulary: Hebrew is rich and diverse as any ancient language. It is rather the combination of lack of true profound cultural leadership and charisma and the lack of a genuine necessity for rich language. Due to many factors into which I dare not delve in this humble post, a rich language had long seized to be revered and aspired. Quite the contrary: a speaker of articulate and affluent language, grammatically efficient and correct is most likely sneered at or regarded as unfashionable, pretentious or even condescending.

  1. #1 by Yuval Nov on September 8, 2010 - 4:58 pm

    So what is the Hebrew synonym for “bag” you were groping for? Now I’m curious.

    A thought that crossed my mind while reading your fifth paragraph: English has indeed much richer vocabulary than Hebrew, but ironically, it lacks a precise equivalent for the Hebrew word “mishlav”, in its linguistic sense (a “level” of a language); one sense of the word “register” is a close, but not perfect, translation.

  2. #2 by Ittai on September 8, 2010 - 6:02 pm

    The word is צקלון. I think I remember reading it in the Hebrew translation of Till Ullenspiegel, but I’m sure it appeared in many more instances of wanderers in the old children’s literature.

    Let me check about MISHLAV.

  3. #3 by Ruti on October 3, 2010 - 2:08 pm

    נראה לי שהמילה מופיעה ב’חנלה ושמלת השבת’ – היא שואלת אותו ‘מה יש בצילונך?’ ועוזרת לו לסחוב אותו

  4. #4 by Ruti on October 3, 2010 - 2:09 pm

    ציקלונך התכוונתי…

    • #5 by Ittai on October 3, 2010 - 7:13 pm

      נחמד! שכחתי מזה לגמרי. ראיתי את ההצגה כשהייתי בכיתה א’ או בגן. אני משוכנע שאם היום היו משתמשים במילה הזו ילדים היו פשוט מבינים את ההקשר או שואלים את הוריהם ולומדים בקלות מילה חדשה

  5. #6 by Ron on November 28, 2010 - 9:23 pm

    Arabic is a very rich langauage.
    People who teach Arabic say as a joke that every word has its meaning, the opposite meaning and a body part of a camel.
    It is indeed very rich, and very often you find a number of meanings to a certain word and also a number of words for the same (or probably almost the same) meaning.
    I believe that the reason for Hebrew’s lack of richness compared to other languages is mainly due to the fact it was hardly in use for so many years.
    Just think of Hebrew (and also Israel itself, although I’m not a great patroit) as an unbelievable phenomena. A language being revived to be used as a daily means of communication is not something you see everyday…

  6. #7 by Ittai on November 30, 2010 - 12:10 am

    Ha, nice!

    Yes, I absolutely agree with you. I just hope that Hebrew SPEAKERS will develop and not forsake the language to slang or the highbrows of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

(will not be published)