Forward Thinking

Saving Polari

By Nathan Jeffay

A push in underway to save a most unusual language.

Polari is a language — or to be exact a lexicon of 500 words approaching a language — used over the years in Britain by sailors, criminals, circus performers, prostitutes, immigrant Jews and Italians, and the gay community. In short, a bunch of people that didn’t have much in common except for being on the fringe of society and wishing to be able to converse on certain topics without being understood by the mainstream.

And given that each group that used it contributed to its vocabulary, it had Jews using criminal slang, Italians using terms contributed by prostitutes and — you guessed it, everyone using words in, or adapted from, our great mamaloshen Yiddish. For example, ugly became meese from the Yiddish meeiskeit, and crazy became meshigener. Yiddish is responsible for 5% to 10% of Polari words.

There are indications that the language has been around for as long as five centuries. But it thrived in the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries, during which time Yiddish had its influence. In the communities that made use of it, including among Jews, it has been forgotten for several decades — yet it lingered for longer in the LGBT community.

This is why gay Manchester artists Jez Dolan and Joseph Richardson are on a “mission” to save it.

They developed an iPhone app that provides English to Polari translation, and have held educational events that have attracted about 500 people. Last year they held a small exhibition at the University of Manchester’s John Ryland’s Library, viewed by 30,000 people and today the open a much larger exhibition which they expect to be seen by 50,000.

Why are they so keen to “save” Polari? It was, in their view, “a bold yet secretive part of gay history,” and they think that in the age of increasing GLBT equality, it’s important for their community to remember the past — and the ad-hoc connections that it made with other marginalized groups, Jews among them. “I don’t think we expect people to start using it massively but we want people to know about it, and know about this heritage shared with others,” said Dolan.

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Britain's U-Turn on Teaching Hebrew

By Liam Hoare

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The British Department for Education (DfE) today announced a U-turn on its previously-proposed policy that would have limited the scope of Jewish elementary schools in the United Kingdom to teach Hebrew as a modern foreign language.

As The Forward previously reported, under controversial plans released last December as part of an overall reform of the national curriculum, the DfE mandated that beginning in September 2014, pupils aged 7 to 11 would only be allowed to learn one of either French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin, or ancient Greek as their second language in state-run schools.

The DfE stated that the aim of this policy was to prevent “any potential proliferation of very low take-up languages, and would focus schools’ attention on a sample of important languages.” A spokesperson for the Department told the Forward at the time that, “We want to give young people the skills they need to compete in a global jobs market.”

Such a policy, however, would have been destructive for the proliferation of Hebrew in government-aided Jewish day schools. The teaching of either classical or modern Hebrew would have been pushed to the margins in order to allow for the obligatory teaching of one of the seven permitted languages. The teaching of foreign languages in British schools is already compromised by the amount of time allocated to other subjects, including literary, numeracy, science, and the humanities.

Under the altered proposals which follow a public consultation, the DfE now states that in primary education, “teaching may be of any modern or ancient foreign language and should focus on enabling pupils to make substantial progress in one language.” This same policy also applies to the teaching of modern foreign languages up until the age of 14.

The DfE adds that, “If an ancient language is chosen the focus will be to provide a linguistic foundation for reading comprehension and an appreciation of classical civilisation.”

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Greek and Latin, Yes. Hebrew, No.

By Liam Hoare

Ancient Greek and Latin, yes. Hebrew, no.

That’s the headline from a new British government proposal that excludes Hebrew from plans to encourage primary school children to learn a second language. The plan, which remains under discussion and would come into effect in September 2014 if implemented, would mandate that pupils aged 7 to 11 learn one of either French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin or ancient Greek, as to “make foreign languages a key part of every child’s education, and to stop the slide in standards and take-up.”

In response to further enquires, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) told the Forward: “We want to give young people the skills they need to compete in a global jobs market. This is why we introduced the Foreign Languages Plan, which will ensure that every primary school child has a good grasp of a language by age 11.

“Whilst French, German and Spanish were the modern languages identified by respondents to the consultation as the most popular choices, we have been clear that primary schools will be free to teach any other language.”

The DfE’s consultation document indicates the government hopes the latter is not the case and aims to prevent “any potential proliferation of very low take-up languages, and would focus schools’ attention on a sample of important languages.”

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