Glamour of the Grammar: The birds and the bees

Unlike in English, Hebrew nouns, verbs, and adjectives come in two varieties, commonly called masculine and feminine.

bee 88 (photo credit: )
bee 88
(photo credit: )
Unlike in English, Hebrew nouns, verbs, and adjectives come in two varieties, commonly called masculine and feminine. The endings -a (singular) and -ot (plural) frequently mark the feminine, and while the masculine nouns have no particular ending in the singular, typically their plural marker is -im. So "man" is ish and "woman" is isha. Adjectives (which in Hebrew follow the nouns they describe) match - ish tov is a "good man" and isha tova is a "good woman." But that's just the beginning of the story. Some words, like even ("rock"; plural, avanim) are feminine even though they don't end in -a or -ot. So we have avanim tovot, "good stones." Others, like me'onot ("dormitories"), take ot in the plural even though they are masculine. A few words, like ru'ah ("wind") or shemesh ("sun") are both masculine and feminine. Animal terms are even more complicated. While we find para ("cow") to match par ("bull"), an "ant" is a n'mala, and even though the plural is n'malim, they're always girls. Bees (d'vora; plural, d'vorim), at least in common parlance, are always feminine, as are birds (e.g., tzipor tova, "a good bird"). Specific species like the eagle (ayit), though, can be masculine. The zebra (zehbra) is always feminine; there is no zabar for her to marry. But in polite company, dogs in Hebrew (kelev; plural, k'lavim), like in English, are always masculine. Some words for people, like "teacher," have different versions for men (moreh) and women (mora). Others are unisex: A parent is horeh, whether it be a man or a woman; there is no word hora. Though it's sometimes surprising for English speakers, this means that a masculine adjective can be required even for women. "Sarah is a good parent" is Sarah horeh tov (not tova). It works the other way around, too. The word for "character" or "personality" (dmut) is always feminine, so if David is an interesting TV personality, he gets the feminine version of "interesting." Things get really interesting when we start to consider the plural words more carefully. Two male teachers are morim (with the masculine ending) and two female teachers are morot (with the feminine ending). But what about one man and one women? Collectively, they, too, are morim. Students learning Hebrew frequently ask if the ratio of men to women is of any importance: "What if there are 100 women and only one man?" It doesn't matter; they're still morim. At first glance, it doesn't seem fair, an objection often raised with some vigor by both new and veteran speakers of Hebrew. But the perceived inequity is a result of a misunderstanding of how language works and of what we mean by "masculine" and "feminine." In fact, we do ourselves a disservice by using those charged terms to begin with. We all know that rocks aren't really feminine (despite their grammatical gender), that women can be parents ("parent" is masculine) and that men can be characters ("character" is feminine). Mismatches between grammatical gender and what we might call real-world gender are common. There are two biblical Hebrew words for "person." One, ish, is masculine, and the other, nefesh, is feminine. (Nefesh is a fascinating word. We'll cover it another time.) Both can refer to men and women. It's hard to find similar examples in English, but the British cast term "lord" comes pretty close. We think of "lord" as referring to a man, married, perhaps, to a "lady." But in 1983 when Mary Donaldson (that's Dame Mary Donaldson to you and me) was elected the first female mayor of London, she was the "Right Honourable Lord Mayor." She insisted on it. Language is complex, and - like it or not - sometimes arbitrary. Had we recognized this basic fact sooner, we might have used "type I" and "type II" instead of the ultimately misleading masculine/feminine. We're stuck with those terms, but we err when we confuse arbitrary features of language with physical traits in the real world. After all, even though Hebrew grammar admits of no male zebras, they must be around to help create little zebras. And we know for sure that there are male birds and bees lurking around somewhere. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.