The Glamour of the Grammar

Today we'll look at the pronouns, and save the prepositions for next time.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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Pronouns are the words like "I," "me," "you," "it," etc. that substitute for nouns. In Hebrew, they tend to be short words, frequently suffixes, and in this regard they complement the prepositions nicely. Today we'll look at the pronouns, and save the prepositions for next time. Pronouns come in two varieties. The first kind of pronoun stands on its own, like 'ani' (I), 'ata' (you), 'hu' (he) or 'anahnu' (we), which is simple enough, except that two of the pronouns have two forms (each). 'Ani' is the common word for "I." The longer 'anochi' means the same thing; it's just a fancier word. The longer 'anahnu' is the common word for "we," and its shorter cousin 'anu' is fancier and means the same thing. The second and more interesting kind of pronouns are suffixes. Parallel to 'ani', 'ata', 'hu' and 'anahnu' are the suffixes -'i', -'cha', -'o' and -'nu'. The suffixes can, rarely, indicate a subject (I) and are more commonly used for possession (mine) or a grammatical object (me). For example, 'shir' is "song" and 'shiri', 'shircha', 'shiro' and 'shirenu' mean "my song," "your song," "his song" and "our song," respectively. This possessive use of the pronominal suffixes is a little bit fancy, but still widespread in modern Hebrew. It is particularly common with kinship terms. The most natural way to say "my brother" in modern Hebrew is 'ahi', for example. (But look out, "his brother" is 'ahiv', not 'aho'.) A little more formal than the possessive use is the object use of the suffixes. "To write it" is most naturally 'lichtov oto', but it can also be 'lichtovo' in modern Hebrew. In this case, the suffix is the object of an infinitive verb, which is a bit more common than adding a suffix to a conjugated verb. 'Eshlah'cha' means "I will send you," but you've got to be in a really formal mood to use such a verb. And even more formal yet is the use of the suffixes as subjects. 'Shivti' means "I sit," - some will say "my sitting," but it's essentially the same thing. The best way to use this highly stylized form of Hebrew is to be an ancient prophet. Of course, it's not so simple, for two reasons. First, the pronominal suffixes sometimes have more than one form, and secondly, they play games with singular and plural nouns. If we're going to understand the variations, we may as well have all of the forms. So here they are, with their respective full pronouns. 'Ani': -'i', -'ni' (I). 'Ata': -'cha' (you). 'At': -'ach' (you). 'Hu': -'o', -'u', -'hu', -'v' (he). 'Hi': -'a', -'ha' (she). 'Anahnu': -'nu' (we). 'Atem': -'chem' (y'all). 'Aten': -'chen' (y'all). 'Hem': -'am', -'hem' (they). 'Hen': -'an', -'hen' (they). At least, these are the forms used today. Biblical Hebrew allows for the option of putting a 'nun' before any of these suffixes. And then, to double the confusion, sometimes this extra 'nun' drops out - as nuns frequently do - and becomes a 'dagesh'. This is where the verb 'y'huneka' (he will favor you) comes from, and why the final 'kaf' has a 'dagesh'. But things are hard enough with just the modern forms. The astute reader may notice that many of the variations are changes in sound that need not be accompanied by changes in spelling. Most clearly, we see -'o', -'u' and -'v' - all just the letter 'vav' - for the suffix form of 'hu'. Of the changes that do necessitate spelling changes, one option is usually closer to the full pronoun, as with -'hem', which complements -'am' and sounds like hem. After a plural noun, the suffixes have a 'yud' before before them, with a variety of sound effects. So 'telefona' is "her phone," spelled 'nun-heh' at the end, but "her phones" are 'telefoneha', with a 'yud' between the 'nun' and final 'heh'. For masculine nouns, that makes perfect sense. The 'yud' is part of the plural form. But, curiously, feminine nouns also get an extra 'yud'. 'Ahot' means "sister." "Her sister" is 'ahota'. But "her sisters" is 'ahyoteha'. When this 'yud' comes before a 'vav', the 'vav' becomes a consonant, as in 'ahyotav' (his sisters). Most of the confusion can be avoided if you don't pronounce the words, and the good news is that the suffixes are mostly used in writing anyway. You should also know that you can't always mix and match these forms. 'K'tavtam' is "you wrote them." 'K'tavtem' is "y'all wrote." But there's no word "y'all wrote them" - 'k'tavtemtam'. And things get really hard when the suffixes mix with prepositional prefixes, as we'll see next time. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.