The Glamour of the Grammar: Girl people and boy people

It's hard to talk about people in Hebrew. What gets in the way is gender.

men women 88 (photo credit: )
men women 88
(photo credit: )
It's hard to talk about people in Hebrew. What gets in the way is gender. Even though all Hebrew nouns are either masculine or feminine, most of the time that distinction is purely a matter of grammar. (We went through this in December: "The birds and the bees.") But some grammatical gender corresponds to real-world gender, and then things start to get interesting, because there are in fact two different ways a word in Hebrew can refer to human gender. The gender can be incidental or inherent. We see an example of the incidental sort of gender in the Hebrew words for "actor" (and "actress," though actors I know tell me that actor is now the preferred term in English for both men and women). A male actor is a sahkan and a female is a sahkanit. But even though two different words are used, one for women and one for men, both words mean essentially the same thing. We use ellipsis, that is, leaving out part of a sentence, to demonstrate the point. Something like Dan sahkan tov v'gam ruti - "Dan is a good actor and so is Ruti" - puts ellipsis in the second half of the sentence: " is Ruti." It's elliptical, that is, short for " is Ruti a good actor." Even though Ruti is a sahkanit, not a sahkan, we can put sahkan in the first part of the sentence and use it elliptically, even for a woman, in the second. The sentence paraphrases dan sahkan tov v'ruti sahkanit tova - "Dan is a good actor and Ruti is a good actress" without ever using the word sahkanit. It works because the gender in sahkan/sahkanit is incidental. By contrast, the gender in abba and ima ("father" and "mother") is inherent. Whereas sahkan and sahkanit both mean essentially the same thing, abba is not just a male version of ima, and ima is not a female version of abba. The same ellipsis test shows us this: Dan abba tov v'gam ruti does not mean "Dan is a good father and Ruti is a good mother." It means that Ruti is a good father, too (whatever that might mean). The gender-incidental word is horeh, "parent." Both Dan and Ruti can be a horeh tov. Similar to the English parent/father/mother trio, in which the second two words are gender-inherent subclasses of the first word, we have, in English, person/man/woman and the plurals people/men/women. The problem is that these words are a mess in Hebrew. We start with two words, ish and isha. The former means man and the latter woman. But their plurals are not only irregular - anashim and nashim - their meanings are asymmetrical. (We're going to ignore ishim, roughly "persons," today.) Anashim means "people" and nashim means "women." The word for "men," the male-version of nashim, is g'varim. So, really, the plural of the pair ish/isha is g'varim/nashim. Those are the gender-inherent terms. But there's also the word "person," a gender-incidental term. Naomi Shemer's song "Anashim Tovim" (Good People) refers to men and women alike. But unlike most gender-incidental terms, anashim comes only in the masculine. (Horim, "parents," also comes only in the masculine, but it matches its singular. Remember that a mother can be a horeh tov, a "good parent.") Nashim is not the gender-incidental feminine version of anashim, it's the gender-inherent feminine version of g'varim. Why do we care? Because there's no way to talk about women as people in Hebrew. For example, "I saw four people" in Hebrew only works if the people aren't all women: Ra'iti arba'a anashim. The feminine version - ra'iti arba nashim - necessarily stresses their gender in a way that the masculine does not, and it means, "I saw four women." Shahar from Neveh Monosson has a simple and lovely solution. We need a new Hebrew word, and the word is anashot. "People" in Hebrew would then be anashim and anashot, just like actors are sahkanim and sahkaniot. See four female people? They're arba anashot. Go ahead. Use the word at parties. Try it at school. Sure, you'll get some bizarre looks. But isn't that a small price to pay for helping to create a new word? So tell your friends. Women can be people too. The writer teaches at HUC- JIR in New York City.