Glamour of Grammar: I have a question

Asking a question in Hebrew can be complicated. The most basic question word is 'ma' - "what?" - and it has no synonyms.

June 4, 2009 15:09
3 minute read.
Glamour of Grammar: I have a question

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Asking a question in Hebrew can be complicated. The most basic question word is 'ma' - "what?" - and it has no synonyms. At the other end of the spectrum, Hebrew sports at least eight words for "where?" (How many can you think of?) The word 'ma' stands on its own when it's the subject of a verb. For example, 'ma kara', "what happened?" Or it can come after a preposition: for example, 'al ma ata yoshev', "what are you sitting on?" However, when the irksome 'et' is involved, you have a choice. "What do you want?" is usually the more common 'ma ata rotzeh', but it can also be 'et ma ata rotzeh'. Related to 'ma' is 'lama', "why?" The word is formed from the prefix 'l'- (for) and the word 'ma', so it's like the English "what for?" However, Hebrew also has a fancier word for "why?": 'madu'a'. They mean exactly the same thing, but 'lama' is part of daily speech, while 'madu'a' is reserved for loftier discourse. Among the prepositions that can come before ma is 'l'' (to), creating the word 'l'ma', spelled the same way as 'lama'. 'L'ma' means "to what?" or "for what?" as in, 'l'ma ata m'hakeh', "what are you waiting for?" 'Lama ata m'hakeh' - "why are you waiting?" - is spelled the same way. (We have the same underlying ambiguity in English. The answer to "what did you buy the car for?" might be "so I wouldn't have to take the bus" but it also might be "for 50 grand.") Parallel to 'ma' is 'mi', "who?" Like 'ma', it has no synonyms, and also like 'ma', it can be preceded by prepositions. So we have 'l'mi' (for whom?), 'mimi' (from whom?) and so forth. Unlike 'et ma', 'et mi' for "whom?" is more common than just 'mi'. And parallel to the two words for "why?" we have two words for "how?" The more common is 'eich'. Use it in everyday conversation. The formal word 'keitzad' is just like 'madu'a'. It means the same thing as its more colloquial counterpart, 'eich' in this case, but it's reserved for special occasions. There's essentially only one word for "when?" in Hebrew: 'matai'. But it has a rare and formal variant, 'eimatai', that is all but dead in modern Hebrew. The same prefix 'ei'- turns 'zeh', "this," into 'eizeh', "which?" (as in, for example, 'eizeh iton ata koreh', "which newspaper do you read?"); and similarly 'zo', the feminine adjective "this," into 'eizo', the feminine interrogative "which?" The plural adjective "these" is 'eilu', and the corresponding question is also 'eilu', not 'ei-eilu': 'eilu itonim ata koreh'? But in colloquial speech, 'eizeh' is fine for girl things and plural things in addition to boy things: 'eizeh itonim ata koreh', while technically ungrammatical, is more common than purists would like. All of which brings us to "where?" The most common spatial interrogative (to coin a term) is 'eifo', built from the same prefix 'ei'- and the word 'po', "here." (Though we don't see it here, 'ei'- is often akin to the English "some-." 'Ei-sham' means "somewhere," though literally it means "somethere.") Like "why?" and "how?" "where?" has a formal sibling: 'heichan'. But the real complication is that the English word "where?" represents three distinct ideas: location, direction to and direction from. (We have very formal English words for the last two: "whither?" and "whence?") But in Hebrew, these nuances cannot be ignored. "Where are you?" is 'eifo ata' (or, more formally, 'heichan ata'). But 'eifo ata holech' is simply wrong. Instead of "where?" here, Hebrew demands "whither?" The obvious choice for "to where?" is 'l'eifo', and that's one common option: 'l'eifo ata holech'? But there's a certain boorish sound to that. The real word is 'l'an', from the archaic word 'an', "where?" Similarly, 'mei'eifo ata ba', "from where are you coming?" is more properly 'mei'ayin ata ba', from the even more obscure 'ayin', "where?" spelled with an 'alef', just like the word 'ayin' that means "nothing." So we have the common words 'eifo' (where), 'l'an' (whither), and 'mei'ayin' (whence). It doesn't stop there. The archaic 'an' (where) can also take the directional suffix -'a' to become 'ana' (whither). And there's a word 'ayeh' that also means "where?" but it doesn't take prefixes. So not counting the dubious 'l'eifo' and 'mei'eifo', we have seven words for "where?" so far. The eighth, largely obsolete but common in the Bible, is the simple 'ei': "where?" So that's one what, two whys, one who, two hows, about one when, three-ish whichs and eight wheres. Any questions? The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

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