Is there a difference between when I should use "אוטו" vs "רכב"?
I speak Hebrew as a second language, and probably worse than most people expect - I live in Israel, but my Hebrew is still not that great.
I ride with a cycling team, and one thing that we do is to shout if there's a car on the road, to alert the other riders to be careful. I have at times shouted אוטו and then been told I should have used רכב instead.
Is there a functional difference between these two words? I'm aware that רכב is an ancient Hebrew word that meant "chariot", and that אוטו comes from the English "automobile", but as far as I know they both meant the same thing. Is it that one is more formal (e.g. "car" vs "automobile"), or do they have slightly different nuances, or what?
@msh210 is correct that רכב is the more general term for all types of vehicles while אוטו refers specifically to cars. Two other terms for 'car' are רכב פרטי which means 'private vehicle' and מכונית which comes from מכונה which comes from 'machine'.
רכב פרטי is a very formal term, usually used for documentation or other offical things.
מכונית or plain רכב are more formal than אוטו (which, in my opinion, has developed a child-like connotation over the years, perhaps because of children's songs that use the word, such as "האוטו שלנו גדול וירוק". Oddly enough, the similar word for bus, אוטובוס, hasn't had any change in connotation).
While it's more common for people over a certain age (twelve and above, roughly) to use רכב or מכונית, the word אוטו is still quite common, though, as I said, much less formal. In other words, as long as the vehicle you're referring to is a car and not a bus, truck, motorcycle, etc, there's no real problem in calling it an אוטו (and if you think about it, while both רכב and אוטו have two vowels, it's quicker to say אוטו, so if a car is coming by quickly, the faster warning call would be אוטו, which is, of course, preferable for the safety of all).
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From my experience as a speaker of Modern Hebrew as first language, the term רכב generally means "a vehicle" whilst the terms מכונית/אוטו generally mean "a car";
If I would relate to a car, I would say מכונית/אוטו because it's more accurate.
Many Modern Hebrew speakers tend to say רכב to describe just cars perhaps because in Israel (in which I don't reside) cars are a main method of transportation, a "prototype" for "vehicles" if you will and might keep be such until generally all currently developed metro lines would be completed until about year 2030.
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