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Why Do We Use the Geresh in Hebrew?

A graphic

Hebrew Revival Struggles

A photo of Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix

By the end of the 19th century, those working on the revival of the Hebrew language had a problem. There were certain sounds that were hard to write down in in Hebrew so they had to try different methods. In Yiddish, the common practice was to try and emulate the foreign sound with a combination of letters. For example the English name ‘Jim’ was turned into ‘דזשים’. But some did not like this convoluted method and opted for graphical signs over the letters, like a dot or a line.

The Eliezer Solution

A photo of Eliezer Ben Yehuda
Eliezer Ben Yehuda

Some people, among them Eliezer Ben Yehuda (who is often credited as the creator of modern Hebrew) opted for the humble Geresh (׳), which was an already known and accepted sign. The Geresh appeared  first in the Mikrah (with a different look but same usage) and  it was already used in modern Hebrew as a quotation mark or a sign of abbreviation. However, not everyone liked this method, since it  comes with some obvious flaws.

What the Hebrew Geresh is Going On?!

What if for example one would come across a quotation combined with a foreign name, like this sentence:

 תגיד את זה לג'ורג’

You receive this unpleasant looking repetition. The Geresh was also already being used to help pronounce sounds from other foreign languages like French. For example in Hebrew the musketeer d'Artagnan would be: 


A statue of d'Artagnan
Charles de Batz de Castelmore d'Artagnan

How will the poor readers know if Geresh is used for English or French pronunciations? For people writing and translating for a living, these kinds of problems occupy much of their time. 

Zionists Do What Zionists Do

None of these issues are especially problematic and they can easily be overcome (as we all know, since this is the reality today). In most cases, the reader can figure things out without much hassle. In other cases, some simple creative solutions could be found. In the end Ben Yehuda settled the matter like Zionists often do, he just disregarded everyone else and started using the Geresh in the Hebrew papers he owned. Readers got used to it, and this  is  how 150 years ago this tumultuous dispute was settled. Today the Geresh is a staple of the Hebrew language and people use it daily most frequently with: 

ג’, ז’ וצ’.

A textbook

The Connection to the Non-Binary Hebrew Movement 

These days, many people are experimenting with different methods to make the very gendered Hebrew language more inclusive. This is important for women who want to be represented in the language, as the standard form for plural today used the male pronoun (גדולים over גדולות for example). It is particularly necessary for non-binary people, who need other pronouns that are not male or female. They started using signs like the dot(.) to create a non gendered pronoun. For example: הולך (male), הולכת (female), הולכ.ת (non binary).

Unhappy Bigots 

Conservatives and other bigoted people are up in arms protesting this “desecration of the language” and complaining this is just “unreadable”. Some would even suggest this is offensive for dyslexic people or the visually impaired, as if they ever cared about them before. One can only wonder, why these self proclaimed guardians of the language are not continuing the  good  fight against the humble Geresh, since they care so much  for  the purity of the language.

Language is for… WHOEVER IS USING IT

In the end, those who hate everyone who does not share their religious or nationalist ideology will use every excuse in the book to try and stop changes. It is doubtful any of them really care that much, since most of them don’t really bother with all the proper rules of the Hebrew language (like almost any other native speaker). Like Ben Yehuda, changes will become permanent as more and more people just start using it. No one should feel excluded from their language, and just like Jim found his way with the Geresh, non binary 

people will find their way too. 


Thank you

This post was adapted from a Facebook post published by Vered Tochterman, who is a translator and a writer. We liked it so much, we asked her if we can use it to make something for our own community of language learners. Vered gave her permission and we thank her a lot.

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