Language and identity in the Holy Land

Jan. 29, 2018, 8:36 p.m.
Language and identity in the Holy Land
Courtesy of Stanford University

During finals last quarter, as backpacks and bikes stormed Green Library, most students walked straight past the exhibition on the second floor of Green Library and right into the Lane Reading Room. It was finals, after all. But if they did stop and look around, they would have come across a strange script, a combination of Hebrew and Arabic called “Aravrit” that is attracting a lot of attention. Featured on media outlets such as the BBC and New York Public Radio, one of the Aravrit videos has 1.6 million views, and its designer was even invited to present the project to Israeli President Rivlin.

The new writing system was developed by Israeli designer Liron Lavi Turkenich and is featured as part of Green Library’s current exhibition (until May 14) titled “Facing The World: Type Design in Global Perspective.” Turkenich first developed the script six years ago as her final project for her bachelor’s degree in design.

The project was inspired by street signs in Israel which are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, the three official languages of the country. However, in practice, many Israelis cannot read Arabic and end up ignoring the language and it fades into the background. “My mind was blown when I realized I was ignoring the Arabic,” admits Turkenich, a native of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa. So she did something about it.

It turns out that in Arabic, readers only need the top half of the word to understand it while in Hebrew readers need only the bottom half. As the exhibition poster shows in the case of the word “water,” Liron used this idea to combine the two languages into a new script which is legible in both languages.

And while it hasn’t made it onto street signs yet, it has entered classrooms. “I showed it to my students,” said Ronny Barda, who has been teaching Arabic in Israel for more than twenty years, “and I think most of the Arabic teachers in Israel showed it to the students.” This is progress, but it should not be overstated. Arabic is not a mandatory subject in Israeli high schools.

So when will we see Aravrit in public spaces? While Turkenich’s hybrid script is innovative and simple, it strikes a sensitive political nerve. According to Stanford history professor Thomas Mullaney, who organized the exhibition, writing and typefaces have always been viscerally political.

Part of the reason it is so political is that writing and print tie into national identity. According to a 2016 Pew poll, language was found to be the most important requisite for national identity in all of the 14 countries that it polled including the U.S.

According to Benedict Anderson, one of the most influential scholars of nationalism, this idea goes back to the advent of the printing press, an innovation which allowed people who would never meet each other to build an imagined community (or nation) through a linguistic connection with others who read their language. Countries and provinces go to great lengths to “protect” their national treasures. Take the French and their fierce linguistic pride, French language laws in Quebec or the Catalonian desire to gain linguistic rights from Spain.

We see “our” language as part of who we are. And this is what makes Aravrit so interesting. While Arabic and Hebrew are sister Semitic languages, both are root-based and have very similar grammar, politically, many see them as completely separate.

These political and national linguistic boundaries are painfully visible in a video by AP in which Palestinians and Israelis were asked what they thought about Aravrit. Ehab Iwidat, a resident of Ramallah, said,” I think it looks nice, but I’m simply against it, it’s kind of shameful to have a real language mixed with a stolen language.” One Israeli from Jerusalem said that it could cause incitement. “People will not respond to this in a good way. It doesn’t look good to the eye.”

Unfortunately for those interviewed, linguistic identity in the Holy Land does not fall into neat national categories. Indeed, Arabic is the mother tongue of Palestinian Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank, but it is also the mother tongue of Arab-Israelis like Bedouins and Druze, who have Israeli citizenship, and of the 850,000 Jews who immigrated from Arab countries.

But how set in stone are group definitions? In recent decades, social psychology has shown that similarity is a state of mind and that we are more flexible in defining shared identities than we give ourselves credit for. In an experiment by Levine and colleagues, Manchester United fans were primed with a questionnaire about team allegiance and then encountered a jogger who had hurt his ankle and needed help. When the jogger wore a Manchester United shirt, 93 percent of participants did something to help, but only 30 percent of participants helped when the person was wearing a Liverpool or an unmarked shirt. This changed when participants were primed with a survey emphasizing their overall love of soccer. While 80 percent still did something to help the Manchester fan, this time 70 percent did something to help the Liverpool fan and only 22 percent helped the unmarked shirt.

Social psychologist Andrew Luttrell sums up the experiment findings in an article: “Our notion of a common bond is flexible. With a slight change in perception, someone that once seemed like an outsider becomes a member of your own group.” Can everyday street signs in Aravrit serve as the same kind of subconscious primer?

Avrarit will not magically solve the conflict. But perhaps when the language of the “other” is uncomfortably mixed with your “own” language to make something beautiful, you will look at it differently. As Turkenich puts it, “Hey! Reality! We are here together. And this is what I also wanted to say beyond the political message, we are here whether you like it or not. We are here together … don’t ignore it.”


Contact Anat Peled at anatpel ‘at’


Login or create an account