Sexing the Answering Machine

When Paula Hyman recently was having translated into Hebrew her new book, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish Life {see review, page 37), she hit a glitch: there’s no word for “gender” in Hebrew. Migdar is a newly created word being bandied about in Israel today, and while she used it in the text, she stuck with nashim, women, in the title. Tipped off by Hyman’s dilemma, LILITH asked an Israeli writer to update us on other changes along that active interface of language and sexism.

How do you say “telephone answering machine” in the language of the Bible? How, without contorting the language, do you avoid bias when Hebrew grammar divides everything into masculine and feminine?

These are among the tricky questions addressed daily by Israeli linguists and journalists; by the Academy of the Hebrew language, the official arbiter of which words and constructions are in or out; by anyone aware that language makes and breaks stereotypes.

Take “telephone answering machine.” Many call it mazkira elektronit—literally, “electronic secretary”—with the grammatical form of mazkira indicating that the secretary can only be a woman. Also heard, though less frequently, is meshivon—literally, “answerer”—and grammatically masculine.

At a recent discussion of the word at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, author Shulamit Hareven made a strong case for meshivon. “It’s getting a little ridiculous that all the service-providing words are feminine,” she said, citing an example of a judge calling someone a kadanit (typist, feminine) even though he was a man. The upshot: officially at least, meshivon is in, mazkira electronit is out.

Hareven, the only woman in the Academy’s 30-member plenum, describes another revealing change. A prevalent word for menopause is blut (rhymes with suit), which also connotes “worn out, used up, depleted.” Blut is the biblical word used by Sarah when she learns at age 90 that she is going to have a child: “After my blut am I to have pleasure, my husband also being old?” (Genesis 18:12). The Academy has suggested the biologically accurate and judgmentally neutral hedlon veset, cessation of menstruation. This is even more precise than the English “menopause,” notes Hareven, “pause” indicating only a temporary stop.

Also problematic is the Hebrew word for husband, ba’al, which also means “owner, master, ruler” (especially in the sexual sense). Here the Bible suggests an alternative. Metaphorically describing the future ideal relations between God and the people, the prophet Hosea records the divinity as saying “On that day you shall call me ishi (my man, my spouse) and not call me ba’ali (my master).” And ishi it is for a growing number of women.

The Academy has also addressed grammatical issues, if anything even more slippery than vocabulary. In response to queries from the public, the Academy has directed the Education Ministry to word all textbook and exam instructions (answer, analyze, compare, explain, etc.) in the inclusive imperative plural rather than the masculine singular that still appears with surprising frequency.

Hebrew—especially army Hebrew—likes acronyms, and the words for Knesset member, general director, first sergeant, second lieutenant, etc. are all such compound terms. The Academy voted for the feminine suffix on the acronym if a woman is doing the job: mankal is a man general director, mankalit a woman.

Ultimately, even the respected Academy of the Hebrew Language can’t legislate what people say or write, and language is a slick and fast-moving target. Whether Israelis will leave messages for the sexual masters on the electronic woman secretary or choose less biased terms still remains to be seen.