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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Of Active and Passive Verbs... and Frogs

There is an old saw that posits that if you place a frog in a pot of hot water, it will instinctively jump out. But if you place the same frog in a pot of cool water and heat it gradually... that the frog will remain in the water until it dies, par-boiled. *

The reason I've mentioned this old story will become clear in a few minutes. But for now, put it aside and read on.

I was never much of a grammarian in English. I grew up speaking and writing fairly well because I was raised by well educated parents who took pains to speak and write correctly. Had I been born and raised within earshot of the Bow Bells, for example, I suspect that my command and usage of the English language would have been somewhat different.

However, even though I intuitively know what is correct and incorrect in English... I'm ashamed to admit that with a gun pressed to my head, I couldn't explain the the definition of a participle (or why it might be a bad thing to leave one dangling)... the difference between a metaphor and a simile... or any of the rules governing the various parts of speech used to build a proper English sentence.

In short, thank G-d I was provided with a good example by my parents, and that from them, I developed a good ear and instincts about language. Because after having willfully resisted the best efforts of a generation of English teachers, that example and the resulting instincts have had to serve me for much of my adult life.

But my relationship with the Hebrew language is more rooted in knowledge. I learned Hebrew as an adult, and was forced to learn the different parts of speech and the various verb forms and tenses contained in this condensed language... if for no other reason than to avoid sounding like a complete lunatic in casual conversation.

The problem is, once you learn the rules of grammar and how the underpinnings of a language work, you become keenly aware of when people are playing fast and loose with the rules (often deliberately... and even to your detriment).

Such was the case with a recent encounter which, for various reasons, will have to remain mostly obscured by the cloak of discretion. I hope you'll forgive me for being deliberately vague in describing the following:

A person in a position of authority did/said something to me which I found to be very insulting. Objectively, this person's actions/words were rude. Subjectively, they were sufficiently disgusting that in another time and place, they would have demanded swords or pistols at dawn to satisfy the insult to my honor.

Fortunately, we don't live in such a time or place, and the bureaucracy within which this person exists was adequately equipped to allow me to demand a hearing with the person who insulted me... as well as the participation of an interested functionary of the state.

At this meeting I described the events surrounding the insult I had received. And in addition to openly questioning the judgement of the person who had insulted me... I demanded an apology.

Sadly, when faced with an immigrant making a formal complaint about a perceived insult (even when the insult can't possibly be open to perception and/or interpretation), the default response of many people in this country is, "You must not have understood...", or "That was not my intention...".

This is doubly frustrating for a non-native Hebrew speaker because even in cases where the insult is so glaring as to be beyond misinterpretation, the immigrant is often expected to feign difficulty with the language in order to allow the insulter to climb down from their tree and save face.

In the old country, this would be called 'Not making a federal case out of it'. In other words, 'Yes, you're right, but is being right important enough to justify burning this particular bridges?'.

In a country the size of Delaware, many Israelis prefer this more pragmatic approach, and are unwilling to burn bridges so quickly because, hey, you never know when you will have to deal with this person again on a business or personal level.

During the hearing with the person who had insulted me, he indeed tried to go the 'you didn't understand...' route. And when that didn't work, he dutifully played the 'that wasn't my intention...' card.

But when I refused to accept either of these gambits, he finally began dusting off something resembling an apology. His first attempt went like this:

"אני תצטער שנפגעת" (I'm sorry that your feelings were hurt)

But to the ears of an immigrant who'd been forced to conjugate countless verb forms, the passive nature of the verb 'נפגעת' (you were hurt) rang false to my ears. What he was literally saying was that my hurt feelings were somehow the issue, and not the fact that he had hurt them.

When I pointed this out to him, he seemed genuinely puzzled. Either he wasn't used to having the sincerity of his apologies questioned... or he didn't apologize frequently enough to have become very good at it.

Whatever the case, I demanded that he make another attempt.

After much hemming and hawing (actually, the Hebrew equivalent; emmming and aaahing), he finally managed the active form of the verb, along with an appropriate accompanying verb to describe what he was actually doing:

"אני מתנצל שפגעתי בך" (I apologize for hurting your feelings)
Now, this may seem a small, maybe even petty, thing about which to quibble. But like the proverbial frog* I mentioned at the start of this essay, the insults which immigrants are forced to endure as part of their absorption process are so varied and frequent, that it often becomes difficult to recognize when any single offense is really too much to let pass.

In short, we risk being burned because we're never quite sure when to jump.

Yes, I probably burned a bridge there... and yes, maybe one day I will regret not letting the insult - or the luke-warm apology - pass. In fact, I'm still not sure if this person's insult rose to the level that should objectively have justified the level of anger it elicited in me.

But for some reason I felt that if didn't respond this time, that I would lose all sense of proportion, and would condemn myself to remaining indefinitely in the pot with my damaged pride... until the water finally boiled.

* Yes, I am aware this theory has been debunked. It still makes an apt metaphor... or simile... or analogy. Whatever, you know what I meant!

Posted by David Bogner on November 3, 2010 | Permalink


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The part that I have the hardest part understanding is why you think you've burned bridges. Forcing somebody to apologize when he clearly knows he was in the wrong shouldn't be an issue unless he was needlessly embarrassed. His first "apology" clearly wasn't one - it was more "I'm sorry I got caught" than "I'm sorry I did wrong."

Posted by: Russell Gold | Nov 3, 2010 1:40:12 PM

Russell Gold... Sadly, many people forget just how much of a middle eastern country this is. If you force someone to apologize, you can expect a settling of scores if they ever get the chance. Not always, mind you... but often enough to make many people rethink the value of forcing a confrontation rather then letting the insult pass.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 3, 2010 2:02:37 PM

You read the situation entirely correctly...I once had a pig of a patient who was horrendous and then had the nerve to write a complaint letter about me to the ombudsman of the hospital. I was told I had to write an apology in order to mollify the B#$%^, as she was threatening lawsuit. I told them the most I was willing to write was the passive form "אני מתנצלת שנפגעתה , לא היה כוונתי לפגוע בך" The hospital tried to make me use the active verb and I refused. And then the hospital further mollified the patient by pointing out that as a new immigrant, my grasp of grammar was spotty (implying that I would have been more apologetic if I knew how to use active tenses!!!)

But I am glad you held your ground...you deserved the full, active-tense apology

Posted by: Noa | Nov 3, 2010 2:51:14 PM

A stiff apology is a second insult... The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt. G. K. Chesterton (Author: The New Jerusalem)

Posted by: Rami | Nov 3, 2010 3:05:06 PM

I totally agree with your opinion here. As someone who's learning Hebrew, I find it incomprehensible when native Hebrew speakers screw up "eleh" (those) and "elu" (which, plural). It boggles my mind that they don't know the difference.

(And because I'm an incorrigible pedant: "prepositions" are not meant to be dangling, not "participles." But from a linguistic standpoint, leaving dangling prepositions is totally fine, so don't worry.)

Posted by: Bryan | Nov 3, 2010 3:05:32 PM

1776, Stage version:Sherman: Mr. Adams, Dear Mr. Adams, I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette, I don't know a preposition from a predicate, I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut

1776, Film version: Sherman: Mr. Adams, Dear Mr. Adams, I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette, I don't know a participle from a predicate, I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Nov 3, 2010 3:55:40 PM

Sorry to be "that guy" but as one who also learned English as an adult I have to point out that

אני תצטער שנפגעתה

Should read:

אני מצטער שנפגעת

(no hey after נפגעת even though it's pronounced "nifga'ata" and present tense for the verb להצטער)

Posted by: alex | Nov 3, 2010 7:25:26 PM

Nice linguistic post. And you do have a way with blog titles.

Posted by: Ilana-Davitata | Nov 3, 2010 9:05:19 PM

I applaud you action. The last time someone told me "I'm sorry your feelings were hurt", I told them that I was the one who actually was sorry. Then I indeed made a federal case out it.

Posted by: At The back of the Hill | Nov 3, 2010 10:51:31 PM

Ah, yes, the non-apology. Back here in your ancestral home we seem to make rather an art of it; you'd hardly be immune if you hadn't made aliyah, although here you'd be missing out on the delightful secondary layer of impugning your comprehension. We were all doomed once the first "Mistakes were made" was uttered by whichever interchangeable politician did so...

Posted by: bratschegirl | Nov 3, 2010 11:26:42 PM

It was not an interchangeable politician. The non denial denial and the non apology apology were the work of the Nixon White House. The terms come from "All The Presidents Men."

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Nov 4, 2010 3:05:56 AM

You didn't just get your apology, you gave a little push to the rest of us. Thanks.

Posted by: a Living Nadneyda | Nov 7, 2010 9:56:56 PM

Err Bryan, it's participles that should not be dangling, not prepositions. And David, perhaps I can help with the metaphor/simile problem. Both are comparisons; however, when you use a metaphor you are saying one thing is exactly and completely another thing--"She is a witch." A simile uses like or as and usually some type of modifier as well to say what particular point or trait you are comparing--"She looks like a witch," "She's as scary as a witch."

As for standing up for yourself and demanding a proper apology, good for you. Turning the other cheek only gets you paatched on the other cheek.

Posted by: ProfK | Nov 7, 2010 11:29:19 PM

As an English teacher in Israel, part of the job when teaching English is teaching how to complain and apologize correctly and tactfully. This is something that Israelis don't have any clue about in Hebrew. It is very cultural.

Also - one thing that drives me nuts about Israelis is their failure to use the correct conjugation for 1st person future.
For example: אני יגיע instead of אני אגיע.

I can totally identify with your story. Great post!

Posted by: settlersofsamaria | Nov 8, 2010 12:15:58 PM

Good job!

Just this week I had a similar thing happen with my neighbors (why is it always the elderly neighbors who pick fights in this country?!) and I told the guy and his family that I wasn't going to accept their apology as they worded it - they used the exact same "לא הבנת אותי/אני מצטער שנפגעת" wording! - and they had better try again if they didn't want me calling the police (let's just say the guy did something very illegal that in the US would have warranted me calling the police). They backed down only after I said to the guy in Arabic that I speak Arabic as well and that I understand much more than they think I do.

And yes, Israelis have a great deal of ignorance about their own language. Take it from a linguist, they don't like it when you point out mistakes they make, especially if you sound American.

Posted by: Zvika | Nov 21, 2010 10:29:55 AM

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