Monday, December 13, 2010


Recently I was reminded of a case study I saw in the book Language Contact, by Yaron Matras. The first chapter describes the language acquisition of a child growing up trilingual in Hebrew, German, and English. There's a lot of interesting analysis of how he juggles the languages at different points of development and in different settings.

On page 18 Matras brings a particularly interesting example. The child, two years old at this point, is playing in the back garden with his father, to whom he normally speaks in Hebrew. The boy remarks:
  • mistakel ob xilazon da ist
  • look.SG.M whether snail there is
  • 'I am looking to see whether [a] snail is there'
where he italicized words are from German. Matras argues that this case of code-switching is motivated by the child trying to express himself most effectively. He has just learned the 'ob' optional clause construction in German, a construction which he does not possess in Hebrew (and in fact is lumped together with conditionals, cf. אם). Then German grammar dictates that an 'ob' clause requires the verb to be postponed, but Hebrew does not possess an explicit present tense copula, so the German expression 'da ist' is selected.

Although superficially one might try to compare this case to the development of Yiddish, really the situation is in many ways the opposite. With Yiddish a widely-used language (a German variety) was influenced by a prestige language (Hebrew) which the average person did not command as well. In this case the native language is being influenced by another language precisely because it is spoken better. It's telling that in this case the inserted words were function words (e.g. ob 'whether') while Yiddish loanwords tend to be content words (e.g. חתונה 'wedding').

In any case, I'm curious about how bilingual native English/Hebrew speakers code-switch when speaking in Hebrew. In general it seems that Modern Hebrew is more amenable to accepting foreign nouns than verbs. Looking at loan words, which I presume develop from code-switching, Hebrew has got plenty of English nouns (do I really need to give you an example?) but few verbs (cf. the clumsy examples לטלפן, לטרפד). Open question: What does one do to insert an English verb into Hebrew conversation? Is it possible?

On that note, I recommend reading the short article Creative Uses of English Words in Hebrew, by Liora Machauf, available here.