Glamour of Grammar: Between you and me

Last time we learned a little about the pronouns. This time we'll look at the prepositions, that is, words like "in," "with," "from" and so forth.

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Last time we learned a little about the pronouns. This time we'll look at the prepositions, that is, words like "in," "with," "from" and so forth that come before nouns and pronouns. Both pronouns and prepositions tend to be comprised of short words, often prefixes or suffixes, so it's a reasonable follow-up. But it's also important, because they don't get along so well. The prepositions come in four varieties. The simplest are the one-letter prefixes, like 'b'-, which means "in." 'B'yisrael' means "in Israel," for example. Similarly, 'l'- means "to" and 'k'- means "like": 'L'yisrael' is "to Israel," and 'k'yisrael' is "like Israel." The second group comes from the letter-vowel prefixes, one of which is a preposition: 'mi'-. It means "from." (The other letter-vowel prefixes are the complementizer "that," 'she'-, and the determiner "the," 'ha'-.) These all induce a 'dagesh' in letter they precede. So "from Israel" is 'mi-yisrael', with a 'dagesh' in the 'yud'. The third group contains the prepositions that are their own words, like 'al', which means "on," 'tahat', which means "under," or 'min', which, like 'mi'-, means "from." And the fourth group is made up of combinations of propositions and nouns that serve as propositions. For example, 'lifnei' means "before," which functions as a preposition, but the word itself comes from 'l'- (to) and 'pnei' (faces of). "Before 3:00" in Hebrew, 'lifnei shalosh', is literally, "to the faces of three." (Look through past columns to see why the 'peh' of 'pnei' loses its 'dagesh', and why 'l'- becomes 'li'- here.) A prepositional prefix and a pronominal suffix seem like a perfect match. And sometimes they are. The preposition 'b'- (in) combines with the pronoun -'i' (me) to form 'bi', "in me." The preposition 'l'-, not surprisingly, works just the same way as 'b'-, and the suffixes -'cha' and -'ach' (you, masculine and feminine) work like -'i'. So "in you," "to me" and "to you," are 'b'cha', 'bach', 'li', 'l'cha' and 'lach'. So far so good. But in the same class as 'b'- and 'l'- is 'k'- (like). However, "like me" is not 'ki'. ('Ki' happens to mean "because.") Rather, "like me" is 'kamoni'. So 'k'- forms its own little class of one, the set of prefixes that change into 'kamo'- before a preposition. The prefix 'kamo'- is almost but not quite the same as the stand-alone preposition 'kmo'. Where'd the extra /'a'/ come from? Prepositional prefixes are like that. With 'kamo'-, we always see an extra /'a'/, but 'l'- and 'b'- do the same thing only with plural suffixes. While "in me" is 'bi' and "in her" is 'ba', "to us" isn't 'b'nu', it's 'banu'. And "in them" is 'bahem' or 'bahen'. Except that "in them" can also be 'bam' and 'ban', just for variety. 'L'- works almost the same way. "To us" is 'lanu', not 'l'nu'. The only difference between 'l'- and 'b'- is that there's no 'lam' and 'lan' to match 'bam' and 'ban'. The prefix 'mi'- is a mess, too. "From me" isn't just 'mi', it's 'mimeni'. Similarly, "from him" is 'mimenu'. But "from you" isn't 'mika' or 'mimeka'. It's 'mim'cha'. 'Mimenu' can also mean "from us," but to avoid confusion, most Israelis use 'me'itanu'. Get the pattern? No. Because there is no obvious pattern. That's why "from y'all" isn't 'mimekem' or 'mim'chem'. It's 'mikem', plain and simple. The oddities don't end there. 'Al' means "on." But the seemingly-singular word pretends it's plural when it gets a suffix. That's why "on me" is 'alay' (rhymes with why) and "on him" is 'alav'. The opposite of 'al', 'tahat', works the same way. "Under her" is 'tahteha', for example. But 'tahat' isn't as fussy as 'al'. "Under them" is either 'tahtehem' or 'tahtam', while 'alam' isn't a word. Just in case you thought you saw a pattern developing, other stand-alone prepositions are always singular. There are two words for "with," 'im' and 'et' (yes, 'et' is also something else), and neither ever pretends to be plural. So "with him" is either 'ito' or 'imo'. The trick with these two is knowing when to use which. So there's a lot of chaos behind all of these seemingly simple prefixes and suffixes. All of which is why 'ad' (to or until) gives up and flatly rejects suffixes. "Until him" is 'ad elav' (until to-him), never 'adav'. Unless you're Isaiah. 'The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.'