The Glamour of the Grammar: Yeah, yeah

In Hebrew either the whole clause is positive or the whole clause is negative.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit:)
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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In Hebrew, as in English, many words come in both positive and negative varieties. For example, "someone" and "anyone" (both mishehu in Hebrew) are positive while "no one" (af ehad) is negative. "Anything" and "something" (mashehu) are positive and "nothing" (klum) is negative. More generally, "yes" (ken) is positive and "no" (lo) is negative. These aren't value judgments, of course, but merely grammatical terms. In English, negation is expressed by exactly one negative term. So two possible negative sentences are "I didn't see anyone" and "nobody saw me." In the first case, the negation is on the verb ("didn't see"), in the second, on the pronoun ("nobody"). In Hebrew, by contrast, either the whole clause is positive or the whole clause is negative. The Hebrew equivalents of the two sentences we just saw are ani lo ra'iti af ehad ("I didn't see no one") and af ehad lo ra'a oti ("No one didn't see me"). In other words a negative verb ("didn't," etc.) requires a negative pronoun ("no one," etc.), and vice versa. This "double negation" is often a source of confusion, because in English a double negative is either slang or ungrammatical, while in Hebrew, a double negative is simply negative. And most of the time, a single negative in Hebrew is ungrammatical. For example, af ehad ra'a oti, literally "no one saw me," doesn't mean anything in Hebrew, and neither does ani lo ra'iti mishehu, "I didn't see someone." Negative adverbs, like "never" (af pa'am) also require uniform negation in Hebrew: af pa'am lo amarti zot means "I never said that" even though the literal words are "I never didn't say that." Joseph Heller would have loved it. In general, negation and double negation are troublesome, because the negative of a negative ought to be a positive. In fact, there's even a name for the literary device of negating a negative: litotes. For example, "he's not unintelligent," which means "he's very intelligent." That's litotes. It works the same in Hebrew, even though it's harder to find, because Hebrew doesn't have an "un-" prefix. Hu lo namuch ("he's not short") to mean "he's very tall" is the right idea, but to really match the English, we need rarer prefixes like bilti ("not"). Ze lo b'diyuk bilti-huki, literally "it's not exactly illegal," is a nice lawyer's litotes. Perhaps oddest of all is when negation in Hebrew is pleonastic. (Readers will remember from several weeks ago that "pleonastic" refers to something that doesn't contribute any meaning, as in the "it" in "it's raining.") Sometimes lo in Hebrew doesn't make a sentence negative at all! For example, tahneh efo she-timtza hanaya means "park where you find a spot." Bizarrely, tahneh efo she-LO timtza hanaya, literally "park where you don't find a spot," means exactly the same thing. While the lo adds a sense of the unknown, roughly akin to the difference between "park where..." and "park anywhere...," the sentence doesn't mean what it sounds like it should. Tikneh ma she-lo tirtzeh, "buy what you don't want," works the same way. It means "buy whatever you want." Before winding up, it's worth pointing out that negation in Hebrew needn't stop at two words. "Nobody saw anything," with only one negative word in English, requires three in Hebrew: af ehad lo ra'a klum, literally, "no one didn't see nothing." "Nobody ever saw a thing" has four negatives in Hebrew. It's also worth pointing out that these rules are different in formal Hebrew, generally limited to the news and writing. "I didn't see anything" is either lo ra'iti klum ("I didn't see nothing") or, more formally, lo ra'iti davar ("I didn't see a thing"). "No one was hurt" is either af ehad lo nifga (with the expected two negatives) or, in formal reports, ish lo nifga, that is "a person wasn't hurt." Any discussion of this sort must end with the probably apocryphal story of Bertrand Russell, who - so goes the tale - heard a lecture about the world's languages in which the presenter explained that in some languages a double negative is a negative, and in some it's a positive, but a double positive can never be a negative. Russell's ironic answer? "Yeah, yeah..." The writer teaches at HUC- JIR in New York City.