Glamour of Grammar: Resumption presumption

Most of the time, Hebrew not only allows but actually requires a resumptive pronoun.

May 7, 2009 11:58
3 minute read.
Glamour of Grammar: Resumption presumption

Hebrew Hear-Say logo. (photo credit: )

Pronouns are tricky. For example, it might be true that "the problem with not having a hat is that you can't take it off to show respect," but when you read that sentence it's easy to miss the subtlety that "it" refers to a hat, even though you don't have a hat. Similarly, if you have a hat and you like it, you might combine the two simple sentences "I have a hat" and "I like it" into the deceptively simple, "I have a hat that I like." Even though you "like it," there's no "it" in the combined version. At least not in English. But in Hebrew there can be. The most simple translation of that English sentence is the straightforward 'yesh li kova she-ani ohev' (or 'ohevet', depending on who you are). Literally, "there-is to-me (which is how to say "I have" in Hebrew) hat that-I like." It's just like the English. But another way to say the same thing in Hebrew is 'yesh li kova she-ani ohev oto', essentially, "I have a hat that I like it." What's going on? Linguists generally assume that the objects of verbs like "like" - 'oto' or "it" in this case - are always there, even though they're not always pronounced. In other words, there are silent pronouns, like the "" in English that you don't hear after "like" in our sample sentence. So the difference between Hebrew and English is just when the pronoun is pronounced. And, in fact, even in English there are times when it must be: "Everyone has a book that if they'd only read it more often..." is better than "everyone has a book that if they'd only read more often..." In Hebrew: 'Yesh l'chulam sefer she-im hem rak hayu kor'im oto yoter'... These phrases like "that I like (it)" and "that if they'd only read (it)" that describe a noun (or pronoun) are called relative clauses. When the pronoun in them that refers back to the noun gets pronounced, it's called a resumptive pronoun. So we might say that Hebrew uses more resumptive pronouns than English. Most of the time, Hebrew not only allows but actually requires a resumptive pronoun. The most common case is when the pronoun is not the direct object of a verb but rather of a preposition. So the Hebrew equivalent of "this [is] the book that I read about" is 'ze ha-sefer she-karati alav', literally, "this [is] the-book that-I read about it." The direct Hebrew translation 'ze ha-sefer she-ani karati al' is wildly ungrammatical. (I know. The preposition at the end of the sentence in English is frowned upon, too, but only because someone decided once upon a time that English would sound better if it were more like Latin.) In addition to the silent - and resumptive - pronoun options, Hebrew offers a third variety of relative clause. The combination of the preposition and the resumptive pronoun can actually replace the word 'she'-. So you might find 'ze ha-sefer alav karati', literally, "this [is] the-book about-it I read." This third option is remarkably similar to the English, "this is the book about which I read," only instead of the word "which" we find the resumptive pronoun. Like its English equivalent, this phrasing in Hebrew is more formal than the others, so you should only use it if you know what you're doing. But you'll probably read it a lot. In fact, now that you know what to look for, you'll see resumptive pronouns popping up all over the place. An old jingle for the Tempo brand of drinks serves as a wonderful summary of resumptive pronouns. To understand it, remember that 'yesh lo' means "he has" and 'ein lo' means "he doesn't have." The advertisement gleefully suggested: 'l-mi she-ein lo ten lo Tempo', literally, "to-whom that-there is not to-him give to-him Tempo." (In other words, give Tempo to those who don't have any.) Both times in Hebrew, "him" is resumptive. It may seem like a lot of work in Hebrew, but resumptive pronouns are the sort of thing that if you're going to understand Hebrew, you're going have to get used to them. If you'll pardon my grammar. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

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