Glamour of the Grammar: Have it your way

Hebrew doesn't have a verb "to have," using, in its place, a construction involving yesh or ein.

Recently we discussed the Hebrew word et. In response, many readers wrote me impassioned notes about how that word interacts with the word yesh, which literally means "there is/are" and more generally is used to express possession in Hebrew. So let's tackle that word, and its partner, ein ("there isn't/aren't"). The word yesh expresses existence. Yesh b'aya means "there is a problem." (Hebrew doesn't have a word for "a" or "an," simplifying matters in this case.) Because the word doesn't decline for number, "there are four problems" uses the same word yesh: yesh arba b'ayot. The opposite of yesh is ein, as in the colloquial ein b'aya, which literally means "there is no problem" and which deserves the chattier translation "no problem!" "There aren't four problems" is ein arba b'ayot. Hebrew doesn't have a verb "to have," using, in its place, a construction involving yesh or ein. For example, "I have a problem" is yesh li b'aya. Li means "to me," so the phrase literally means "there is to me a problem," a wording that Russian speakers find intuitive (because it nicely matches their u menja problema). But the phrase sounds so odd to English speakers that they are frequently tempted to imbue the Hebrew with more depth than it has. However, it just means "I have a problem." No more, no less. The opposite, ein li b'aya, simply means "I don't have a problem." So why did so many people write me about yesh and et? Et, you may recall, comes before a definite direct object. In English, which has a verb "to have," that which is had is the direct object (if you'll pardon my phrasing). In "I have the book," "the book" is the direct object. But in the Hebrew equivalent, hasefer ("the book") is technically the subject, not the object, and subjects in Hebrew don't get et. So yesh li hasefer should be grammatical in modern Hebrew. But it's not. Speakers who use that phrase may as well wear a lapel button, "I'm following the rules I learned, but I don't speak the language." In Israeli Hebrew, there's only one way to say, "I have the book": yesh li et hasefer. Purists object. They disapprove of this seeming Americanization or, at least, foreignization of Hebrew. They long for the days when subjects were subjects and objects were objects. They fear that the misuse of et will prove to be the loose thread that inevitably leads to the unraveling of the very fabric of civilized discourse. But these are the same purists who knock on a door and in response to the English question "Who's there?" insist on, "It's only we" for their English answer. (The rest of us use "It's only us.") Despite appearances, and the logic of the situation notwithstanding, yesh takes a direct object. And so does ein. "I don't have the book" is ein li et hasefer. While there are still people - mostly foreigners - who try not to mix et with yesh and ein, even the most snooty of speakers recognize that - in a love song, perhaps - "I have you" can only be yesh li otach. It's just how Hebrew works. While we're on the topic, it's worth pointing out that yesh and ein have a second meaning in Hebrew: "one should/must" and "one shouldn't/ must not." Yesh l'daber b'sheket, literally, "there-is to-speak in-quiet," is a nice formal way of saying "you should speak softly." It would be appropriate for a sign in a library. Ein l'hachnis ochel lakitot, literally "there-is-not to-bring-in food to-the-classes," means "don't bring food to class." Yesh enjoys a third, colloquial use in modern Hebrew. It's the exclamatory equivalent of "yes!" in English. Students who learn that a test is canceled or soccer fans who discover that their team has made it to the finals all shout yesh! in Hebrew. (Though it unfortunately breaks the symmetry, ein! cannot be used similarly to express disappointment.) So it may not be to everyone's liking, but that's the story. Yesh and ein sometimes act as verbs, at least in the present tense. Another week, we'll cover the future and past. For now, we add another pair of words, and another topic, to the list of those we have mastered. Yesh!