The Glamour of Grammar: I have an answer

A little while ago we looked at how to ask questions in Hebrew. This week we learn how to answer.

July 16, 2009 11:26
3 minute read.
The Glamour of Grammar: I have an answer

Hebrew Hear-Say logo. (photo credit: )

A little while ago we looked at how to ask questions in Hebrew. This week we learn how to answer. By way of a segue, we consider a question word that we didn't have room for last time: 'kama'. It means "how much?" or "how many?" and is perhaps most famous among tourists from the phrase 'kama ze oleh', "How much does that cost?" (Tourists frequently learn the phrase, not realizing until they get an answer that they haven't yet learned the Hebrew numbers.) The reason 'kama' makes a good transition for us is that it has the curious quality of sometimes being its own answer. In addition to meaning "how much/many?" it also means "some." 'Kama shkalim' means "some shekels," for example. The answer to 'kama'? can be 'kama'. But 'kama' as an answer, unlike 'kama' as a question, applies only to discrete nouns, commonly called count nouns. These are things that you can have one, two, etc. of, like "jelly beans" or "shekels," but unlike "candy" or "money." So as an answer 'kama shkalim' makes sense, but 'kama kesef' ('kesef' means "money") does not, even though both 'kama shkalim' ("how many shekels?") and 'kama kesef' ("how much money?") are both grammatical questions. So perhaps a better translation of 'kama' is "a few." When we looked at the other question words, we saw that Hebrew is careful to distinguish among "where" ('eifo' or 'heichan'), "to where" (a.k.a. "whither?" in English; 'l'an' and 'ana', among others, in Hebrew), and "from where?" ("whence?" in English; 'mei'ayin' in Hebrew). The answers to these questions are similarly threefold in nature. Corresponding to the English "there" we have three Hebrew words. 'Sham' means simply "there." It's the answer to 'eifo'. The answer to 'l'an', "to where," is either 'l'sham' (literally, "to there") or 'shama', which for fun we might translate as "thither." (It's a real English word, but the Hebrew 'shama' is common, while the same cannot be said for thither.) Putting the directional suffix -'a' at the end of 'sham' to form 'shama' is exactly like putting it at the end of 'an' (a rare word for "where?") to form 'ana' (a slightly less rare word for "whither?") or, for that matter, putting it on the end of 'habayit' ("the home") to make 'habayta': "homeward." All of these directional words answer the question "to where?" For example: "Where are you going?" "Home." In Hebrew, that's 'l'an' and 'habayta'. But some Israelis commonly use 'shama' dialectally for 'sham', that is to say, they use 'shama' as the answer to 'eifo'. In this dialect, the answer to 'l'eifo' ("to where?") is, of course, 'l'shama', sort of like "to thither" in English, but not nearly so absurd. (We do have "whence?" and "from whence?" though.) The third form of 'sham', answering 'mei-ayin', is just 'misham', "from there." If the answer is not "there" but rather "here," we again have a categorical trifurcation. The answer to 'eifo' is either 'kan' or 'po'. They both mean "here," the former roughly matching the fanciness of 'heichan' and the latter matching 'eifo'. (The astute reader will also note the similarities of the words themselves.) The answer to 'mei-ayin' is either 'mikan' or 'mipo' ("from here," a.k.a. "hence"). But we have a slew of options for "to here" ("hither"). The most common way of saying "to here" is to put the directional suffix -'a' on the otherwise very rare word hen meaning "here": 'hena', as in the expression 'bo hena', "come here." ('Hen' is rare as a word that means "here." It's more common with other meanings.) The other options involve putting the prefix 'l'- on the two more common words for "here." But both of those words begin with 'beged kefet' letters (remember 'beged kefet'?), so in formal speech the prefix 'l'- changes the way the words are pronounced. That's why the two other formal ways of saying "to here" are 'l'chan' and 'l'fo'. But, frankly, 'l'chan' and especially 'l'fo' sound a little silly in everyday speech, the putatively ungrammatical but nonetheless more common 'l'kan' and 'l'po' being used in their stead. So you have five ways of saying "hither" in Hebrew, representing the gamut of formality levels in the spoken language. (And a note to speakers of English as a second language: Don't use the word "hither" unless you know what you're doing.) So corresponding to the nice if archaic English pattern of where/whither/whence, there/thither/thence, and here/hither/hence, we have even more complexity in Hebrew. Is it any wonder that people answer questions with more questions? The writer is author of the forthcoming And God Said.

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