Glamour of the Grammar: It's like this

The Hebrew word for "like" - that is "akin to," not "hold in endearment" - is the prefix k'-, written as a single letter kaf.

The Hebrew word for "like" - that is "akin to," not "hold in endearment" - is the prefix k'-, written as a single letter kaf. Like a handful of other Hebrew words, it never stands by itself, and therefore enjoys the technical name "clitic." The two-word English phrase "like Miriam," for example, is the one-word k'miryam in Hebrew. Another way of expressing the same thing is k'mo miryam, in which we see the clitic k'- attached to an archaic pleonastic. "Archaic" means no longer used, and "pleonastic" refers to a word that doesn't contribute any meaning. (And we add "archaic pleonastic" to our growing list of words and phrases you might use in a conversation to get an interlocutor to stop talking to you.) The usual example of a pleonastic in English is the "it" in "it is raining." The word sits in the sentence for grammatical reasons but doesn't mean anything. Mo is an archaic form of the word ma ("what"), so k'mo literally means "like what," and it's a stand-alone form of the prefix k'-. In English, we use "like" to express similarity ("the Technion is like MIT") but also, at least for some speakers, either pleonastically or to express general fuzziness of thought: "To go to the Technion, you have to be, like, smart." The Hebrew kazeh, literally, "like this" - zeh is pleonastic, too - works the same way, for roughly the same kinds of speakers. "He's smart" is hu hacham. "He's, like, smart" is hu hacham kazeh. (Another week we'll discuss why the word isn't the shorter k'zeh.) As chance would have it, that Hebrew phrase enjoys a second meaning as well: "He's sort of smart." That is, kazeh can be purely pleonastic or it can have a moderating effect. Interestingly, the word order is important here. Putting kazeh after an adjective moderates it, as we just saw, but before an adjective the word has exactly the opposite effect. Hu kazeh hacham means not "he's a little smart" but rather "he's so smart." That the same word has opposite effects before and after an adjective is one more example of the arbitrariness of language. The dialects in which this phraseology is popular are frequently termed "slang," but they're in widespread use, at least in Hebrew. You won't find radio newscasters populating their sentences with kazeh, but you will hear it on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, even among well-educated adults. Another surprising slang phrase of intensification is ma zeh, literally, "what is it?" So instead of hu kazeh hacham, literally "he's like-it smart" but really "he's so smart," a speaker might try, hu ma zeh hacham. In spite of the literal translation ("he's what-is-it smart") it, too, means "he's so smart." (The ma-zeh modifier can't fall after the adjective. Hu hacham ma-zeh doesn't mean anything in Hebrew.) The Hebrew kazeh and ma zeh only latch on to adjectives. In other contexts, we find k'ilu, literally, "like if," or, more colloquially in English, "as if." So "Uri is, like, a student" is Uri k'ilu student. Like the English "like," this construction is frowned upon in adult society, though it's certainly popular among teenagers. Curious things happen when these "like" phrases interact with negation. The opposite of hu hacham ("he is smart") is simply hu lo hacham ("he is not smart"). Simple enough. By and large, though, the pleonastic k'ilu and kazeh mix with "not" only in questions: Uri lo student kazeh? ("Isn't Uri, like, a student?") The declarative forms, in Hebrew and English, don't quite sound right. Uri lo student kazeh is as strange as "Uri's not, like, a student." But the intensifier ma zeh has its own unique negative form. The opposite of ma zeh isn't lo ma zeh, but rather the truly bizarre lo mi yode'a ma, literally, "not who knows what." So a nice colloquial way of saying "Uri's not so smart" is not the impossible Uri lo ma zeh hacham but rather Uri lo mi yode'a ma hacham. Why? Who knows? But language is like that.