Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Changing Israel's road signs

Language can be a political weapon. Show me how you use language, and I'll tell you who you are. This is particularly true in the sensitive context of Israel.

Israel's Transportation Minister, Israel Katz, has proposed changing the road signs, which are all written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, so that the Arabic and English will just be transliterations of the Hebrew place names. Until now, in cases where the place had a different name in Arabic or English, this was what was used on the signs.

For example: At the moment, the Hebrew says "Yerushalayim", the Arabic says "Ursalim al-Kuds" (which is the official Israeli-Arabic version of the city's name, while Palestinians themselves prefer just "al-Kuds"), and the English says "Jerusalem". The new signs would transliterate "Yerushalayim" into the Arabic and Latin alphabets. The local Arabic names of Arab towns such as Nazareth would disappear, being replaced by a transliteration of their Hebrew names (so instead of "Nassar" it would say "Nazrat"), and the English versions of place names familiar from the Bible and other sources would be replaced with the modern Hebrew names (so "Tiberias" would become "Tverya" and "Caesarea" would become "Qesarya").

Minister Katz is quoted as saying:

"If someone wants to turn Jewish Jerusalem into Palestinian 'al-Kuds,' it won't happen with the aid of road signs, not with this government and definitely not with this minister," Katz told Yediot Aharonot.

"Almost every Israeli town has a former name," Katz said. "There are Palestinian maps where Israeli towns have Arabic names from before 1948. They refer to these places as settlements. I will not lend a hand to it on our signs."

The political bias behind this idea is obvious from his own statements. This sort of one-sided, intolerant and insensitive thinking will do little to help peace and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Not even allowing the Arabic names of Arab towns to be displayed in public seems like another attempt to deny their very existence.

As a language professional involved in the usage of English, I think they should also keep the familiar English forms, and where necessary, the English should transliterate the way a Hebrew name is pronounced, rather than the way it is spelled.

This is also my opinion regarding transliterations on road signs and English language maps in Greece, where they seem to use a transliteration of the Greek spelling, which doesn't help English speakers unfamiliar with Greek letter combinations (like "mp" = "b").

Road signs should help people find their way around, in the language they are familiar with. I object to the introduction of political considerations into this area of life, and hope that this idea is dropped.

Note: Please forgive any mistakes in my transliterations of the Arabic place names, as I am not an expert and based them on my best guess of how to write these words. If anyone wishes to correct me, please leave a comment.

1 comment:

Ian said...

You've opened a whole can of worms with this topic....
Go to Europe and see how the same place has different names in different languages - the roads signs invariably use only local language name for where the sign is, not the name by which the city is best known - made worse as some places have different English language names too - Antwerpen, Anvers, Antwerp in Belguim, or try driving to Lille in France from Belguim and all you'll see is Rijsel - the Flemish name for same city. Or in parts of Ireland, where the authorities have removed English language names from many road signs, leaving just the Irish language version.

It is a source of amusement how the place names are spelt in English too - Sefed, Zefat, comes to mind, or why the letter 'Q' is used instead of 'K' as in Qesarya not Kesarya. (in English ‘Q’ is always followed by ‘U’).

As to whether to use Jerusalem or Yerushalyim, etc, then decide the aim of the road sign - if the aim is solely to direct to a destination, use the name by which it is known in the selected language - copy the example from other countries - Finland where in the south Swedish is widely spoken, Helsingfors - Helsinki, or Wales where Cardiff is also known in Welsh as Caerdydd.

If the aim is a political statement too, then use Yerushalyim, and the Arabic language version must read as the same.

There is one benefit, it gets rid of the Anglo slant on the place names, after all, as the biblical places have many different names in the Latin script world, what hope is there for Israel where this script and all the languages are foreign.