Glamour of Grammar: Just a few of my favorite words

New nouns enter Hebrew in multiple ways. This article looks at three of them.

New nouns enter Hebrew in multiple ways. Today we'll look at three of them. The first, onomatopoeia (literally, word making) is when a word reflects the sound associated with what it represents. Nearly every language has this process. In antiquity, it produced one of my favorite Hebrew words: bakbuk. It means bottle, and it sounds like what happens when liquid is poured from it: bakBUKbakBUK.... Other examples include ra'am (thunder) and the almost-cruel m'gam'g'man (stutterer - an equally unfair English example of onomatopoeia). A fly in Hebrew is a zvuv, reflective of the zvzvzvzvzv sound the insect makes. (People who think they don't let small things bother them haven't spent time in a room with one zvuv.) Perhaps in recognition of the subtle insipid squeaking of the fly, one name for the devil is ba'al-zvuv, that is fly-lord. When William Golding chose a slight variation of this translation - Lord of the Flies - for the title of his book, he used a classic combination of Hebrew imagery and onomatopoeia to allude to the devil's presence. A second way to make words in Hebrew is more modern: Two words are crammed together to create a third. From remez (hint) and or (light) we get ramzor, traffic light. (Hopefully the traffic light is more than a hint, though, sadly, traffic statistics in Israel suggest otherwise.) Vowels in Hebrew change to fit their linguistic circumstances, so remez becomes ramz here. In a similar vein, zarak is threw, and zarkor is a spotlight. Kaspomat, that is ATM or automated teller machine, but really "money vending machine," comes from kesef (money) and otomat (automat or vending machine). In future weeks we'll address why and how the vowels change, and why the "f" of kesef becomes a "p." When the end of the first word matches the start of the second, the overlapping sections appear only once. A particularly clever word-coiner melded rechev (vehicle) with kevel (cable) to mean "cable car" (or ski lift, etc.). The words share two letters - "ch" and "k" are the same letter - and together form rakevel or, more popularly, rachbal. A third way to create new nouns is almost unique to Hebrew, which is classically based on roots of three, four or two letters. (I put three first not to confuse the counting but because triliteral roots are the commonest.) The usual observation that roots have meanings is almost right. More accurately, the roots contribute to the meanings of the words that are formed from them when the roots are merged into word patterns. For example, the root G-D-L doesn't actually mean big, but verbs from that root frequently have to do with big: gadal (grew), higdil (enlarged), etc. Nouns are similar: Godel is "bigness," which in English we call "size." While some patterns are general, being used for almost any sort of noun, others are more specific. Put a mem in front of a root and adjust the vowels accordingly, and you get a tool. A boreg is a screw. Take the root letters (B-R-G), add a mem, adjust the vowels and you get mavreg: screwdriver. (Once again, "b" and "v" alternate.) Gihetz is "he ironed" and a maghetz is the noun "iron." The reader may wish to guess the tools that come from H-Sh-V (think), K-R-R (cool), P-T-H (open), and Sh-P-Ch (pour), that is mahshev, makrer, maftei'ah and mashpech. The answers appear at the end of the column. Another noun pattern, consisting of the root plus a final tav, with two /e/ vowels toward the end of the word, is used for diseases. A kelev is a dog, and kalevet is rabies. Ademet, from A-D-M (red) is rubella, while tzahevet, from Tz-H-V (yellow) is jaundice. Sukar is sugar; sukeret is diabetes. Katzeret (from K-Tz-R, short) is not dwarfism but rather asthma, that is, shortness of breath. Another of my favorite Hebrew words comes from niyar (paper) in the disease-pattern: nayeret. Before turning to what that word means, here are English translations of the tools from two paragraphs ago. They are, respectively, computer, refrigerator, key and, the hardest of the lot, funnel. And what about the paper-disease? Nayeret means bureaucracy. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.