26 May 2016

Hebrew Gender Part 2

The stumbling block of Hebrew, the Shibboleth (please excuse the racist reference from Judges Chapter 12), that separates those who know, from those that don't - is of course gender. All Hebrew nouns and verbs have gender. The number, adjective and verb associated with the noun must take on the gender of the noun. There are lots of confusing twists and turns. In a previous posting I gave you 5 simple rules for choosing gender in Hebrew - OK sort of simple rules, well maybe actually quite complicated. (If you know those rules you will catch the glaring error at bostonlanguage.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/gender-in-languages-across-the-world.)

Let's do some gender studies.

Lots of attempts have been made to make some sense of masculine and feminine in Hebrew but the rules are really quite irrational. Why should breastsשדיים  and hips מותניים, such obviously feminine body parts, take a masculine gender whereas so many other body parts are feminine? Why do mothers and mistresses and she-asses have masculine looking words? Confused? Frustrated? Don't read any more, it just gets worse.

http://www.galim.org.il/pools/files/GalimGifs/GalimGifPicture/8655.jpgPeople have noted the צדק versus צדקה contrast ie that the Jewish Biblical concept is that they are masculine and feminine versions of the same thing, צדקה  meaning social justice as opposed to צדק legal justice. This is a nice idea but I have not found any more examples of this (love to hear if you do). פרש and פרשה, horseman and episode, or, מניע and מניעה, motivation and prevention,נמל  and נמלה port and ant – are completely not masculine and feminine versions of the same thing. Even stranger there are words that have two totally different meanings depending on whether they are masculine or feminine: אות is signal and letter, עצם is one or item, respectively feminine and masculine.

Maybe, just maybe, we can sort things out a little?

http://ministryofbritishcomedy.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/blog-mobc-featuredimage-nudgenudge.pngCountries and towns, without exception, are all feminine perhaps because they are the mothers or protectors of their citizens (think מולדת mother land). Gesenius Kautzsch Cowley (in "Hebrew Grammar")  (page 389) gives a better rule. Nouns which denote "circumscribed space" country, world, hell, (town) square, city, state, well, are all feminine ארץ, תבל, שאול, ככר, עיר, מדינה, באר. Also דרך way or trek חצר  courtyard . Is it because they are receptacles of objects or people (nudge nudge wink wink )?

Feminine words usually take the ת plural and masculine words theם  plural but there are too many exceptions to this to make it a useful guideline (חלונות (windows) and אבות    (fathers) are masculine words with feminine plurals and פעמים (occurrences) and אבנים (stones) are feminine words with masculine endings. This is a common mistake amongst Israeli children but they always work it out at a later age.

There seems to be no connection with the meaning of the word and its gender. Masculine (= harsh, tough) things like bricks (לבנים) or swordsחרבות) ) are feminine; and female (= pretty, soft) things like smile  (חיוך) and beauty (יופי) are masculine! But, strong and courageous animals are usually masculine – דוב, זאב, כלב bear, wolf, dog – and weak and small animals are often feminine even when they are actually masculine – ארנבת, יונה, חסידה, דבורה, נמלה rabbit, dove, stork, bee, ant – but I wouldn't call the giraffe גירפה  a weak or small animal.

Sorry the best we can do is the five difficult to remember, not so logical, rules from my previous post hebrew100words/hebrew-gender-part-1.

saul davis

01 September 2015

10 words that exist in Hebrew, not in other languages

10 words that exist in Hebrew, but not in (most) other languages

Often we hear that Hebrew is limited, has a small vocabulary, has many borrowed words from English, Russian, Arabic or Yiddish and other such snooty, disparaging comments. Yes there is טלביזיה television, היפופטם hippopotamus, פרלמנט parliament etc. And I say "so what?!"

Listen to this real story. Someone expressed hilarity that the Hebrew word for sandal is סנדל sandal. "Why," she sniggered in a superior way "is there no Hebrew word for this piece of Middle Eastern footwear"? Her implication being that we have stolen a word from English (again). This is of course nonsense; there are no pure languages, least of all English. I always assumed that Sandal is a Greek word, but according to the great lexicographer, Marcus Jastrow, it might have Persian origins. Either way it is a loanword in both Hebrew and in English. Just as Hebrew has borrowed from many other languages, so others have borrowed from us (but that would be an entirely different post in this blog).

English is of course a great and varied language that has innumerable words in its vocabulary. But even English has limitations. I came across these delightful web sites that have lists of words in languages from all over the world, words that do not exist in English.

My favourites from that list are:
gigil a Filipino word for the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute;  

luftmensch one of several Yiddish words to describe social misfits, this one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense; 

the reflection of the moonlight on water is mangata in Swedish and yakamoz in Turkish. 

What I have here to today are words that only exist in Hebrew and have no clear, direct translation into English. Hurray for Hebrew!


Israeli army slang for customizing equipment, root is both שפצ renovate and שפר improve.

Here are two particular words for harvesting:
Harvest the dates
Harvest the olives

These are many special words for different types of branches in Hebrew:
A vine that has spread over the ground, as opposed to being trained to grow up a frame. (A word more commonly used for the part of a device which is like a leg eg the stand of a bicycle).
זַלְזַל and שָׂרִיג
Thin branches. Not sure what the difference is between זלזל and שריג.
Shoot, but seems to be only for the shoots of the olive or sycamore trees
Tree top
No, not a pig. The stalks that return every year at the bottom of the tree, Root is חזר  return.

Two of the many words for precipitation.

First rain of the season.
Last rain of the season. 

עלול  means could or might, but strictly should only be used in a negative context. עלול להכיל גלוטן might contain gluten. 

The parents of your child's spouse (use liberally with derogatory adjectives). Doubt if a word exists for that in any other language. 
חותן חותנת חם חמות
Even Shushan חותן חותנת
Both these sets of words mean father-in-law and mother-in-law but according to Even Shushan חותן  and חותנת  are the parents-in-law who are the parents of the wife  and חם and חמות  the parents of the husband. Remember in the Book of Ruth: "ותשק ערפה לחמתה" Orpah kissed her חמות, Naomi, who was her husband's mother. חם is an interesting word in itself, the singular feminine looks like the plural feminine just like אחות, the plural feminines of these words are חמיות  and  אחיות but I have really digressed now.

Even Shushan חם
Even Shushan חמות

A woman, a mother, who has recently given birth.
  I would love to hear from you if you have a Hebrew word that does not exist in English. It just has to be a single Hebrew word that cannot be expressed in English in a single word. 

100 Hebrew Words 
saul davis

05 January 2011

Hebrew Gender – Part 1

Hebrew is a not a difficult language, everything is nicely sorted out with three letter roots, there are not too many tenses, what you see is what you read and rules are mostly kept. Most languages are far more complex, for example French has about 18 tenses and the rules of grammar in English have more exceptions than not.

The stumbling block, the Achilles' heel, of Hebrew is the gender. Nouns have gender and the number, adjective and verb associated with the noun must take on that gender. Although lots of us, including native born Israelis, constantly err on gender, if you just learn FIVE simple rules then you will at least make fewer mistakes. Here they are.

Rule One. If in doubt, the word is masculine! This is a good, simple and useful rule. Use it liberally, but very carefully.

Rule Two. All words ending in qamats heh are feminine. One EXCEPTION is לילָה night. I once heard that לילָה is really לֵיל (which is the older or poetic word), which is not much of an excuse but will help you remember the exception to the rule.

Rule Three. All words ending in tav – where the ת is not part of the root, ie the ת is a suffix – are feminine. Amazingly there are no exceptions to this rule (wow): חיילת, דיסקית, התנהגות, פנטסטית etc. Note a few difficult words: צומת (crossroad) is masculine because the root is צמת; מחבת (frying pan) is feminine even though the root is חבת (as in חביתה  omelette).

Rule Four. This is my favourite and where many Hebrew speakers really fall down. Hebrew has an unusual feature, which I think is unique: dual plurals. Lots of things come in pairs and these take a special plural יַם מספריים, אופניים, אוזניים, רגליים. Remember these 2 easy rules with "just" 6 exceptions to them.

If the word is an object that is not part of the body then it is masculine. One EXCEPTION only here, and it is shoes נעליים. No idea why but this word is feminine – not מכנסיים  trousers, מגפיים boots, or גרביים socks ie no object near or far from the shoes, just the shoes. Please, please stop feminizing every dual word, it is just wrong. True this is a very widespread mistake but it is a mistake and if you make this mistake I might personally take my מספריים ארוכים and come and chop off your גרביים יפים before you escape on your אופניים חדשים.

BUT, if the word is for an object which is a body limb (legs and hands and such like) then it is feminine. Five EXCEPTIONS here: eyelids, nostrils, breasts, hips, ankles – עפעפיים יפים, נחיריים נוחים, שדיים שמימיים, מותניים אימתניים, קרסוליים קורסים (tried dismally for some alliteration there). If you are confused keep all your dual body parts feminine and your non-body parts masculine.

Rule Five. There are about 20 or 30 words that look masculine but are feminine. Note in particular the five annoying "women" that have very masculine looking names: אם, בת, עז, אתון, פילגש mother, daughter, goat, she-ass and mistress/concubine. And there are lots more words that look masculine but are feminine אבן, גדר, גפן, כוס, מחט, נפש, פעם, תבל to name but a few but push me way over my 10 word limit per posting for this blog.

I know I promised 100 Hebrew words, 10 words each blog, but I needed some more leg room this time!

Second part of this chapter on gender will be in a future posting. Which has finally arrived.

saul davis

25 November 2010

10 Israeli words you think are English but are not

Israelis are naturally anglocentric. Especially me, being born in Britain. But be careful there are lots of words in Israel that you might think are English are really from other languages.

Balagan and bardak are not English but you probably knew that. According to he.wikipedia balagan is from the same Persian source as the English balcony (balkon), and from there in Slavic languages to a state of chaos or disarray. The synonymous word, bardak, means whorehouse in Russian бардак. Pity because I love a good bardak.

"Crackerim" is another awful "Hebrew word". It is probably not from English. (Anyway you should say מציות matsioth). True that crackers are crackers in English but my online dictionary tells me that crackers are crackers in German too! This together with a bunch of other food words are from  German: סלט salat and not the English "salad", (in good Hebrew "שאר ירקות" from the מה נשתנה), or אומלט omelette (OK that is French originally, they cook better) or אננס ananas (pineapple).

Some building terms are from German and have no Hebrew equivalent: cuntim (skirting board, literally lips, well you certainly knew that), spachtel (palette knife) are German. But בֶּטוֹן beton is a French word, the German is konkrete.

Lastly my favourite - סוודר sveder. This word is similar to the English "sweater" looks like it - סווטר - and sounds like it, but, IMHO, is from the Hebrew סודר, a Mishnaic word. I have a feeling, that I need to check, that when Eliezer Ben Yehuda (or whoever) introduced this word he had both the English sweater and the Hebrew סודר in mind and combined them. Here is the catch: according to the Oxford English Dictionary the origin of "sweat" is "Old English ... from an Indo-European root shared by Latin sudor"! So, it could be that the Latin is from the Hebrew, or the Hebrew is from the Latin, either way the Hebrew סודר was closely connected to sweat 2,000 years ago just as סוודר is close to sweater today!

If you have not heard of Ben Yehuda or the Mishnah or do not own a sweater, then this blog is not for you.

saul davis