The Glamour of Grammar: It's the little things

It is not unusual to hear Israelis yelling "die!" at each other. That's because, in Hebrew, 'dai' literally means "enough."

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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It is not unusual to hear Israelis yelling "die!" at each other. That's because, in Hebrew, 'dai' literally means "enough," and it's a common way of telling someone "that's enough already; now please quit it." (Two American parents took their children to Israel for the year. One day the five-year-old daughter came home from her new Israeli school and reported that she'd learned a Hebrew word: 'dai'. She reported "it means 'stop fighting.'") The word 'dai' may be most familiar to non-Hebrew speakers from the Pessah Seder: 'dayeinu' is the word 'dai' with the ending -'nu', "us," and it's a fancy way of saying "enough for us." Although 'dai' does have a literal meaning, it's really an interjection, that is, a word that stands on its own, frequently expressing an emotion. While interjections normally seem self-evident to native speakers, they are words like any others, and they vary from language to language. The most common interjection in Hebrew is 'em'. Best translated as the English "um," it usually means something like "I'm thinking...." (Curiously, "'um'" also has another meaning, essentially: "What are you, a moron?" For example, if someone tells you that the first prime minister of Israel was named after an airport, you might reply, "um... the airport was named after the prime minister," perhaps with a question-like rise in intonation at the end of the sentence. You start with "'um'" to show how ignorant you consider your interlocutor.) Perhaps in second place is the interjection ah, spelled 'alef-het'. Homophonous with the Hebrew word for "brother," the word is a general expression of displeasure: 'ah', it's raining again. It's like the Yiddish "oy." A nice slangy synonym for 'ah' is 'wye', spelled 'vav-yud' or 'vav-vav-yud' or 'vav-yud-yud' or 'vav-vav-yud-yud', but, really, almost never spelled at all because it's seldom used in writing. As if reflecting the tradition that bad news comes in threes, the word is often repeated: 'wye-wye-wye'.... is a familiar response to an unexpected minor misfortune. Younger, hipper speakers of Hebrew sometimes use 'oof' instead of 'wye'. Perhaps relatedly, 'oof' may imply that the speaker has some way of fixing the unfortunate situation that led to the interjection, while 'wye' is often more of a powerless lament. This is why 'oof' can be used instead of 'dai'. The medium for conveying displeasure with 'oof' or 'wye' is frequently Facebook or some other electronic forum, which raises the interesting question of how to yell on-line in Hebrew. There are, after all, no capital letters. Instead, the new generation of Hebrew speakers doubles or trebles random letters in a word. In the case of 'oof', normally 'alef-vav-peh (sofit)', we might find 'alef-vav-vav-vav-peh (sofit)' in Hebrew, conveying approximately the same effect as the capitalized 'OOF'. This multiple-letter scheme is also used the way misspellings and numbers are in English. Roughly equivalent to the English teen-speak "i miss u" is the one word 'mitga'age'a', with random double and triple letters - three 'gimels' a row, say, or three 'ayins'. Leave it to Hebrew to have a short form that's longer than the regular form. The Hebrew for "ow" and "ouch" is 'ay' and 'aya', respectively, though 'ah' can be used, too. When you hit your thumb with a hammer in Israel, the first word you utter is 'ah' or 'ay'. (We can't print the word that usually follows, though it's worth pointing out that the Hebrew 'shin-yud-tet' is milder than its English counterpart, sort of like "darn it.") 'Aya', like "ouch" in English, is a little less severe than 'ay' ("ow!") Unlike English, though, the Hebrew 'aya' is also a children's noun. Instead of having a boo-boo, an Israeli might have an 'aya'. Borrowed from English, the Hebrew word 'oops' is also a slang interjection and noun. Like the English word, it expresses regret about something done inadvertently. And like the Hebrew 'aya', it can be a noun as well as an interjection. So it also means "minor mishap," as in 'zeh haya oops', literally "that was an oops." "Oops" isn't the only interjection that Hebrew borrowed. It took "wow," too. And it took a great little word from Russian: 'nu'. But we don't have nearly enough space this week to do justice to that little gem. It will have to wait. 'Oof'. 'The writer is author of the forthcoming 'And God Said.