The Glamour of the Grammar: As easy as one, two, three

"Why are the numbers backwards?" asks a reader, by which she means, why do "masculine" numbers like shlosha end in -a.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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'Why are the numbers backwards?" asks a reader, by which she means, why do "masculine" numbers like shlosha end in -a, when usually the -a ending is reserved for feminine words? Let's find out. Words, in any language, come in two varieties: "open class" and "closed class." Open-class words include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The class is called "open" because it's easy to add new words to it. For example, if you invent something and call it a "majab," even if others don't know what it is you can tell them, "I've invented a majab" and they'll know that "majab" is a thing. If you invent two kinds, you can call them a "percoled majab" and a "non-percoled majab." People will follow. Similarly, in Hebrew, hemtzeti majab (I've invented a majab), hemtzeti majab m'furkal, etc., all work just fine. By contrast, closed-class words are ones you can't make up new ones of (if you'll pardon my grammar): prepositions, pronouns, articles, etc. You may have noticed, for example, that in English there's a word for "above and touching" (on) and a word for "above and not touching" (over). Not only is there no specific word for "under and touching," you can't make one up. "I put the majab findle the desk" just doesn't work. You can't make "findle" into a preposition. Hebrew works the same way: samti et hamajab findal hashulhan is just nonsense. Why should we care? Because in Hebrew the ending -a marks the feminine only for open-class words. It marks the masculine for closed-class words. A "good boy" in Hebrew is a yeled tov, and a "good girl" is a yalda tova. Both feminine words, being open-class, end in -a. But there are two singular words for "you," and, because "you" is closed-class, it's the masculine that ends in -a: ata is masculine and at is feminine. Similarly, lach and l'cha both mean "to you," but the ending -a marks the masculine variety here. This brings us to the Hebrew numbers. Shalosh and shlosha both mean three, but, as with other closed-class words, it's the masculine term that earns an -a ending. So, "three boys" is shlosha banim, with the masculine -a ending on the closed-class number. "Three girls" is shalosh banot. It's no different than if you were talking to a boy or a girl: ata yeled is "you are a boy," with the ending -a on the closed-class masculine word, and at yalda works the other way around. The numbers four (arba/arba'a) through 10 (eser/asara) work identically. "One" and "two," though, have internal changes rather than endings to mark gender. Ehad and ahat both mean one; shnayim and shtayim both mean two. In these instances, the typically feminine tav ("t") marks the feminine. While we're on the topic of numbers, let's clear up one other matter. Sometimes the numbers are used just as they are (ehad/ahat, shnayim/shtayim, shalosh/shlosha, etc.), but other times they appear in smichut, called the "construct case" in English. Smichut, usually reserved for possession, is often formed by changing a final -a into -at, or a final -im in -ei. For example, yaldat Moshe is "Moshe's girl." B'nei Yisrael are the banim of Yisrael, the "children of Israel." It's relevant because sometimes the numbers must be used in smichut. Ordinary counting never involves smichut, but when the numbers are used before a noun to indicate quantity, two rules apply: the number two always appears in smichut, and the numbers three to 10 appear in the smichut before definite nouns. (We covered definite nouns some months ago.) So, "two boys" is not shnayim banim, but shnei banim. "Two girls" is shtei banot; that's the first rule. Because of the second rule, "three boys" is shlosha banim, but "the three boys" requires smichut: shloshet habanim. "Three girls" is shalosh banot, but "the three girls" requires the feminine smichut. Most Israelis get this wrong. It's shlosh habanot, shlosh being the smichut of shalosh. Shloshet habanot is popular but wrong. Finally, just so we're clear, the number one only appears before definite nouns in the sense of "one of," as in ahat habanot, "one of the girls." When it indicates quantity, it comes after the noun: "one boy" is ben ehad, and "one girl" is bat ahat. It's as easy as one, two, three. The writer teaches at HUC- JIR in New York City.