Language is the Furniture of the Mind


Jan 16

This is a very important concept, because the language we use, the words that float though our minds like letters in alphabet soup, really do determine how we see the world. And if you want to redecorate your world, you change the furniture.

We all have a “vocabulary;” words that we know. However, just because you know words, doesn’t mean you use them very often, if ever. How many times have you used the word quotidian or ennui?

Additionally, some words we use a lot, common words: articles, conjunctions, simple adjectives, etcetera — oh yes, we use the word etcetera quite a bit, though lately it has gotten some competition from “yada yada yada” and “blah blah blah.”

But then there are those words that define our world. Words that show others who we are, and even color our view of the world.

For example: take your average misogynist. Common words swirling around in a misogynists’ head are bitch, whore, slut, skank, and cunt, but those are patently obvious. There are very subtle terms that often fly under the radar such as, bossy, feisty, bubbly, chatty, or even “working mother,” all that contribute to a culture that undervalues women.

Just watch the news; watch how they refer to women, talking about their hairstyle or handbag, when that person is running for office. Men aren’t zoned in on like that. You’ve never heard the term “working father.” Just listen to the words, the subtle terms used when referring to a female candidate.

Words punish women for behaviors that are not only acceptable in men, but are lauded.

He’s tough! Assertive!

Whereas a woman is abrasive, a ball-buster, shrill, aggressive, forward, or mannish.

Yes, it’s subtle at times, but words are the furniture of our minds, and this furniture is old, shabby, and not becoming of upright, forward thinking citizens.

Change the words you use and you will change your world.

I have learned to really stop and think when the word “bitch” comes into my mind, about to run across my tongue. It simply is not an appropriate word and even used in a joking sense it can deprecate women in general.

But I’m not here to scold you. I’m here to tell you about learning a foreign language. If memory serves me.


Now I don’t give a toot about your “views” on Israel. They’re most likely all fucked up with prejudices anyway, because the Middle East is way too great a concept for most Americans to understand. I lived there for 4 years and I still don’t understand it all. Some say they’ve been battling for ages so . . .

But they haven’t been battling for ages. We’ve been battling for ages. Humanity has been at war for ages. War is the way we take what we want from groups too weak to fend us off. People hate war, right? Then why haven’t we put a stop to it?

I’m bringing up Israel because of my experiences there. I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) in a very poor neighborhood. It was an “absorption” neighborhood. The people there came from the old “far and wide,” in fact, over 130 nations were represented in my neighborhood, and while I was there, we absorbed the Falashim, or Ethiopians.

In America, by high school, kids are encouraged to study a language.

In Ashkelon, Israel, elementary school kids learn three languages in school (Hebrew, English, and Arabic), and one more when they get home, their original tongue. In the larger cities, it’s hard to find anyone from high school age to 50 who can’t speak fluent English (and often fluent Arabic).

You just don’t see that in America. Though there are the occasional families who raise their children bilingually. And studies show they grow up to be better citizens, more sociable, and often more intelligent than their monolingual counterparts.

And here I am to tell you that learning a new language not only replaces the furniture of your mind, it rips up the carpeting and pulls down the drapes. I learned right away that there was a whole nother world out there that I had stepped into. And believe me, there’s no goin’ back.


One of the best ways to learn a language is to immerse yourself into the nation that speaks it. If you go to live in Switzerland, you’ll immerse yourself into French, Italian, German, and Romansh (that last one I’ve never heard of).

Have you ever heard the biblical phrase “Except ye . . . become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”?

It’s the same with languages. You must become as a child to learn and absorb a language. Kids don’t go to school to learn their mother tongue. They learn by listening to their mothers, their fathers, their siblings, the TV, their smart phones (really, do kids really need smartphones?).

High Intensity Language Training (HILT)

To kick off your immersion, it’s even more helpful to step into one of these schools. You will eat, sleep, and start to dream in your new language.

In Israel, their high intensity language training takes place in an Ulpan, or loosely translated an instruction studio.

I remember that about my third week there, I found myself dreaming in Hebrew, and I woke up looking for a translator.

The thing is, when I arrived in Israel, I knew basically two words in Hebrew: Shalom and Menachem. I was hoping to run into a Menachem soon so I could wish him Shalom.

But I first had to navigate about, visit friends of friends, see the sights, find a place to stay, etc etc etc, and I didn’t speak the language. But I soon discovered that everyone there speaks at least two languages. And then there’s Yiddish, which is Hebrew and German mixed. So, having taken a bit of French in College, and having slept through four years of German in high school, mixed in with a bit of pantomime I picked up in theater classes, I think I did pretty well. When I met a Moroccan, the French came in handy. Yiddish speakers understood my German. And many knew bits of broken English. I just didn’t know then that those born in Israel, in the larger cities, were fluent in English . . . I’d find that out long after I began my fluency in Hebrew.

It was a mind opening experience.

Oh, and accent. I worked on my accent. It really pissed me off when the group I was with, Americans and Brits who’d been to Hebrew school for years, sounded American and British when they spoke Hebrew.

For some reason I was a stickler about accents. I felt that one did not honor the language if they spoke it sounding like John Wayne. (Shalom, pardner!)

And getting down some of the sounds is very difficult for someone aged 30, because our throats are pretty much fashioned for our own language’s sounds by the age of 18. So this was no easy task. The standing joke among Israelis about American speakers is the sound of the following letters:

כ ח ה

“Hay, het, huff,” says the American.

When actually, ה is pronounced “hay,” but ח is deeper than glottal; it comes from deep in the throat as air is restricted, and is spelled (transliterated) “ch” so “chet.” The last, is glottal, formed by the tongue up against the back of the throat, grinding out another sound represented by “ch”, so it’s “chuff.”

I worked on these sounds plus the letter “ion,” which, again, is deep in the throat, for hours. The letter that gave me the most difficulty, even to today, is the “r” or resh, which most who try to form it can only get the French “r” which is a fricative rolling at the tip of your tongue. The Hebrew resh is a “uvular r,” that rolls with the tongue against the back in the throat. It took a long time to get it down.

However, after I’d been there about 9 months, I took a little trip up north to skinny dip in the Jordan, and met some Druze picnicking. We chatted, they invited me to have something to eat with them, and they were shocked when I told them I was an American. They said I sounded like I’d been born in Israel.

But in France, well, it was a different story. I worked a week and a half on a Kibbutz picking oranges, and one time an American I’d made friends with, who was a regular there during the picking season, had been talking to a tiny group of members of the Kibbutz, turned and came toward me giggling. I asked, “What’s up?”

He says, “They think you’re retarded.”

I said, “Huh?”

“They think you’re re—”

“Yeah, I get that. But why the fu— “

“Your grammar,” he tried to explain. “Your accent is perfect, but the words you use, the order, your verbs. They think you’re French, and retarded.”

(I’ve not told this story very often. And you can see why.)

Learning Hebrew and living in the Middle East (not to mention taking time out to travel through Europe) was, for me, the perfect ending to my formal education at universities around America and one in Jerusalem.

” Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness.”

Mark Twain

Travel is one of the best educations you can get, if you remember to be a student, and not an ugly American. In France they call us “Ricans” from “ameRican.” Especially since the Bush administration, when they refused to sign on with us to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. I have friends who now travel through Europe who are from Nashville, but tell everyone they’re Canadian.

That period was the icing on my cake. I studied the Old Testament in Hebrew with a rabbi, the New Testament in Greek with a Greek Orthodox priest, and the Koran in Arabic with a Muslim Mullah. One of my jobs was working with street gangs and I had to learn how to curse in Arabic because Hebrew just didn’t cut it when it came to foul language. In fact, I’m going to present for you this piece I wrote that I’ve shared with Muslim comedians, and PLEASE BE AWARE THAT IT IS NOT FOR SENSITIVE EYES, EARS, OR MINDS.

So, be forewarned.

Cursing in Hebrew

By David Bonello
Copyright © 2014

If I ever write the story of my life (which I never will because the temptation to lie would be overwhelming), the chapter in which I lived in Israel would be entitled, “Cursing in Hebrew.”

You see, Hebrew is a “nice” language. You can’t really curse in Hebrew. You can’t say, “Hey, this is really fucked up,” because “fucking” is a good thing, it brings about children and is even a “mitzva.” (Look it up.)

So if something is fucked up, they say it’s “shitted up,” because shit isn’t nice in any form except fertilizer.

The worst thing you can call someone in Hebrew is “Mumzer” or bastard. You can’t even call a person an asshole because the only term Hebrew has for that part of the anatomy is two words and five syllables and just doesn’t have the same punch as “asshole.” Besides, it’s merely a part of the anatomy. It would be like calling someone an “ankle.”

This is why I had to learn slang (I still own a copy of the first Hebrew slang dictionary). I worked with street gangs there, and I had to learn slang to understand what they were calling me. And, of course, to be respected, I had to be able to fire back at them in kind.

Hebrew slang is mostly Arabic with a touch of English thrown in.

Now in Arabic you can curse. Arabic curses flow off the tongue so freely they’re just part of everyday conversation by men and women alike. In fact, while there in Israel, I had adopted a poor Moroccan family whom I would visit with some irregularity. One day, I came to see them and the mother asked me, while rolling up some fish guts in a newspaper, why I hadn’t been around for some time. I told her that’d I’d been really busy with work and all. She tossed the garbage out the window while saying, “Your sister’s cunt! You need to stop in for a meal more often. Sarah misses you.” (She had been trying to marry off her 14 year old niece to me for some time.)

Here in America, when I watch CNN and hear them interviewing an Arabic speaking individual, the English translation never does the speaker any justice.

For example, a Palestinian was interviewed about the Israeli action of bulldozing his neighbor’s home because he (the neighbor) had been suspected of being a terrorist. Here is the CNN translation of his response:

“They come in here with no humanity and kill us, take our homes, our livelihood, and leave us nothing. There will be no peace ever in this land.”

The actual, literal translation is much more colorful:

“Your sister’s cunt! Animals, shitty animals, kill, rob us, of shitting-fucking, mother/brother/sister-fucking everything. I say fuck them and their god for eternity.”

I picture in my mind an Israeli responding to this: “Oh, don’t listen to him, he’s just a part of the body that’s tiny and hidden from sight that poop comes out of.”

Within my first few days at the Ulpan, I came up with this joke:

Hebrew is really difficult, because he is she, me is who, and who is he, upside down is inside out, dog is fish, and God is plural.

Probably the first thing I learned about the semitic languages was how sexist they were. They’re the only languages in which you can listen to your friend on the phone, and without hearing the voice or name of the person on the other end, you know the sex of that person because one speaks to a woman differently than one speaks to a man. We use different verbs and different pronouns.

Sure, most languages have feminine and masculine (some have neuter) nouns, but a verb uses different endings depending on whether you are speaking to a man or a woman, and the speaker uses different verbs depending on their sex.

In fact we really had this brought home to us when I began building a humane society in Askelon. You see, I had one of the most famous dogs in southern Israel. We’d put on shows, made a TV commercial for the Clean Up Israel campaign, and she even had a Dear Abby column in our local paper, an advice column for pet owners. Actually, instead of doing a dissertation for my PhD in Journalism, I chose to write a column, the odds of actually getting to do that were infinitesimal, except that I was friends with the Mayor and his American wife, and since he would someday be running for the highest office in the country, we finagled a column that would be ghost written by me, but in the name of his wife Linda Dyan. So, I guess some things really do depend on “who you know.” Oh, and my proofreader loved my Hebrew. She said it was perfect for a dog.

What you don’t know is that Hebrew is two languages (so is Arabic). The spoken is less formal than the written. And as mentioned above, in that little piece “Cursing in Hebrew,” spoken Hebrew now has its very own slang.

But I did not learn the formal, written Hebrew. So when I wrote, it was a bit slangish, though my grammar was pretty impeccable (I was often correcting native Hebrew speakers during formal meetings, and no, I wasn’t being an anal retentive pedant, because the class of people I worked with [in the government agencies] wanted to speak properly. And who else would know proper Hebrew but someone who had freshly learned the language?)

This is the only copy of my column I saved. You’ll notice my name, in bold, at the bottom left (in Hebrew).

Now back to our subject of sexism and how it was painfully brought home.

My dog was rescued from the street. She was quite famous, so putting her on a poster to promote the humane society seemed pretty natural. And then we decided to put a speech balloon coming out of her mouth saying, “I used to be a stray.”

At the top reads the slogan of the Israeli Humane Society, right out of the bible: The pain of living creatures.

After putting up about a thousand in our city and other close cities, we found we were getting a few laughs. You see, it’s the sexist nature of the language. Had my dog been male, we would have used a different word for stray; the same word, but a different ending. But since it had the feminine ending, the meaning of the word was slightly different.

It turned out that we’d hung up a thousand posters with my dog saying, “I used to be a hooker (streetwalker).”

Learning the semitic languages was an eye-opener. At first it had hit me how primitive the language was: the word for lion is a roar. Many words were onomatopoeic, coming from sounds (like the lion’s roar).

  • To sweep: le-tah-TEY (the sound of a broom across the floor).
  • To scrape: le-shaf-SHEF (the sound of leaves scraping against your window).
  • Bottle: BAHK-bok (bahk-bok-bahk-bok-bahk-bok the sound made pouring water out of a bottle.
Something like this.

But after we’d gotten a grasp on the language, some of us got interested in the evolution of the letters, which began as hieroglyphics, and this turned into one of the highlights of my trip: a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We took along a sheet that translated the modern Hebrew letters to the ancient Hebrew letters (from which we got the Greek Letters which gave us our alphabet). Friends and I spent hours translating the scrolls, and calling out, “Hey, look at this!”

Yes, language is the furniture of the mind and travel broadens one’s perspectives, and one huge problem we have in these United States is a drastic lack of “intergroup contact.” Many people don’t venture far from their homes and the only place they see blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, etc is on TV, and they fear them. Fear of the unknown is one of the most common fears on our planet, and people everywhere must learn that when we get to know others who are not like us, we learn that they actually are like us, and that we have nothing to fear.

Everyone should try to find two documentaries: White Right: Meeting the Enemy and Jihad: A Story of the Others. They teach us the above; that once we get to know people, we don’t fear them, and better still, we can get along and work together. Even Sarah Silverman on her show (Hulu) does this, and it works, folks. It works every time. Sit with your enemies and soon they are your friends.

And that’s about it, except I have a cute little story that my proofreader would take a stick to me should I not include it. So, here goes.

This meme has made a few tours on the internet.

Maybe you’ve seen it, maybe not.

But one day it hit me where I’d seen it before.

But first: When you learn Hebrew, you learn pronunciation by listening. However, when you are reading, you learn to pronounce the words by reading the vowels. As you progress in your education, the vowels suddenly vanish and you are left with word recognition only.

Here is an example of the words with vowels from the Old Testament:

Example of biblical Hebrew trope.svg

The vowels, or niqqud, are in red. They tell the reader how to pronounce the letters, hence how to pronounce the word.

And here is that phrase without the vowels.

ויאמר אלוהים יהי מים

Allow me: “And God said, Let there be water.” (Not for nuttin, but that first image of the Hebrew with vowels, is incorrect. I have no idea where Wikipedia got it, but it’s not the line from the Bible. The third word [from the right] is incorrect.)

I learned from my teacher that the management of the Ulpan was (were, in British English) somewhat embarrassed that the best student at the school wasn’t Jewish, and then she rapped her knuckles on my shoulder, saying, “Col ha cavod,” which literally means, “all the honors” but colloquially translates to “well done.” (By the way, you can consider yourself fluent when you stop translating the literal meanings in your head and simply accept the “meaning” of the phrases you hear.)

Those at the Ulpan had had years of Hebrew school, and I’m sure they were just bored to death. On the other hand, it was totally new to me, and I loved learning. I’d graduated with a BA (some three years earlier) in the top 2% of my class. So there was that. (High school? not so good. It wasn’t so much a graduation as it was a parting of ways.)

While at the Ulpan, I visited the library and got a library card, and I took out children’s books, I found newspapers for “new arrivals” that had the vowels, and I often got the comic strips, cut them out, and pasted them into my note books. All these had the vowels.

I fell in love with Peanuts in Hebrew, and to this day I still remember this sage advice from Charlie Brown.

שום בעיה אינה גדולה או מורכבת עד כדי כך שלא נוכל לחמוק ממנה

Allow me: No problem is so big or complex that we cannot run away from it.

And now I can tell you that it was in Israel where I first saw that image above (the little boy showing us his butthole).

I had a friend who owned a book store and she’d often bring home new books before putting them on her shelf. I’d purchased quite a few children’s books from her, practiced reading them, and then I’d stop by one of the daycare centers during reading time and I’d read the books to the kids, so, in a way, we were all learning Hebrew together. Besides, the teachers really let me in because of my pup, Vivis who went nearly everywhere with me. The kids got a kick out of her. I’d taught Vivis to talk to me and even whisper at times, and that was pretty special to the kids.

One day, my friend brings me a book that she’s crazy excited about. She tells me, “It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.”

The title was, Pot of Pots. The English version is Once Upon a Potty, which saddens me because it really misses the pun, the allusion to the Song of Songs. But then again, there’s always that Italian saying: Translator/Traitor.

The story goes like this: One day Avi gets a gift. It’s a new pot. But he’s confused. He doesn’t know what to do with it. Is it a hat? So he puts it on his head. Then he decides it must be a pot to grow flowers. Finally, Imma (Mama) explains to Avi that it’s for his poopies.


Yes, those brown things that come out of your butt.

Out of my butt?

Yes, you have a little hole there that poopies pop out of.

So Avi bends over to show us his butthole. And this is the image from the book, and that was the moment I learned butthole in Hebrew.

English version.

פִּי הַטַבַּעַת

It’s pronounced, Pee Aht-a BHA-aht, and means, literally, “tiny ring opening.”

And that my friends, is my story of learning a foreign language and learning the word “anus” in Hebrew, and discovering why calling someone an “asshole” in Hebrew really doesn’t cut it.