My new kind of bad language

By Julie Burchill, November 11, 2010

I never much saw the point of learning languages at school. But at the age of 51, I find myself learning Hebrew - along with my equally philosemitic friend Nadia.

Slowly but surely, I have achieved a reading age of two after a whole six months, but I have every intention of sticking at it. And I can't remember, with the exception of my current marriage, ever feeling that way about anything, from stamp-collecting to Sapphism.

It helps that we have a great teacher - Mrs Yael Breuer of Rehovot, Israel, now happily resident in Brighton.

Yael has the face of a Madonna (the kind, first one reproduced in a million paintings, not the scary second one) and the patience of a saint as - week in, week out - she listens to Nadia and me commit GBH on her beautiful native language.

"Isn't it, seriously, quite offensive to you the way we mangle it?" I emailed her.

I’m not above playing the flakey old lady card to get through security

"No!" she wrote back. "I've been touched and impressed by your enthusiasm and commitment to learn Hebrew. Even though most people in Israel speak English to a degree, and one can definitely get by with English when visiting Israel, the process of learning the language will gradually give you a real insight to so many aspects of Israeli characteristics, temperament and milieu.

"Hebrew is also a fascinating language that combines its biblical basis with invented modern-day living terms in a way that no other language does.

"You will come across the origins of words which so often reflect the nature and outlook of the people who speak it. Did you know, for example, that the word for a person who emigrates to Israel - only to Israel - is Oleh, which also means to "go up, to rise", whereas people who leave Israel for other countries are still called Yored, meaning "going down"! Thirty or forty years ago the word Yored had a real pejorative sense - How could they??! - but not so much these days…"

I've got to say - ever the menopausal brat - that learning ever-changing and fast-evolving Hebrew slang is one of my favourite aspects. Yael says that it is influenced massively by both Arabic and by Israeli military life -bittersweet irony, anyone? And indeed my planned boycott-busting word-fest SABABA TEL AVIV! is named for the Israeli Arabic word meaning "cool, fun, having a good time".

In our defence, Yael says that Nadia and I are still just beginning and that once we have covered all the letters and vowels, by the end of the year we'll be able to start reading short dialogues and act out real-life situations and conversations in Ivrit. (How cool is that to use the Hebrew word for "Hebrew"!)

"But even though you haven't finished the Alef Bet just yet, you have already excelled at mastering the art of requesting, very fluently, yayin and bira [wine and beer]!"

She's not wrong; when I asked Nadia which bit of our lessons lingered strongest in her mind, she immediately replied: "Ani rotsa shampania, steak veh chips!"

Ani rotsa, meaning "I want", highlights the impatience and, to the unfamiliar ear, the apparent insolence of Israelis. On my first visit there eight years ago, when I had the last echo of my good looks, I well remember the baffled Israeli boy who hit on me with the words, "I want - you want!"

When I protested that I was married, he retorted: "He no here! I want -You want!" Thankfully, my decrepit state means that this part-engaging, part-aggravating, carnal push-and-shove that is so much a part of Israeli life is now just a memory.

These days, I am not above playing the flakey old lady card to get through security sharpish. I always pack my Hebrew textbook at the top of my hand luggage, and when the fierce young operative seizes it and asks: "Do you speak Hebrew?" I answer, in my rustic child's voice: Ani ohev catule veh kelev! ("I love cats and dogs".) The effect is nothing short of miraculous, as the stern Semitic face breaks into a smile and a cry of whatever the Ivrit is for "Here, come and listen to this freak, you won't believe it!" rings out across the El Al check-in area.

Hebrew is difficult, beautiful, rebellious and, most importantly, the sensible choice for me, as I can't imagine a time when I won't want to keep going back to the land where they speak it. No matter how rude they are.

Last updated: 4:15pm, November 11 2010