The Glamour of the Grammar: Side by side

What do apples, oranges and tomatoes have in common in Hebrew, as opposed to mangoes, bananas and carrots? Let's find out.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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What do apples, oranges and tomatoes have in common in Hebrew, as opposed to mangoes, bananas and carrots? Let's find out. (Here's a hint that won't surprise you: The difference between the two groups has nothing to do with the foods themselves; it's a matter of grammar.) To get started, we look at a construction called smichut in Hebrew - literally, "closeness" - translated as "the construct" in English (creating the unfortunately alliterative phrase "construct construction"). 'Smichut' is one way of expressing "of" in Hebrew, and it consists of two words side by side that are essentially pronounced as one word. For example, "house of Israel" in Hebrew is 'beit-Yisrael'. 'Beit' is spelled like 'bayit' (house), but the vowels change because the whole phrase, beit-Yisrael', is pronounced as though it were one long word, and the now-unstressed vowel between the /'b'/ and the /'t'/ changes. (We saw a similar change in the two ways of pronouncing the Israeli city of Haifa: HAI-fa and hei-FA. The word 'beit' is the one in 'smichut', or "construct." Another way to think of 'smichut' is as Hebrew's way of making compounds. In English we have something called the "car door." It's a kind of door, not a kind of car; the first word describes the second. Hebrew reverses the word order, using the 'smichut' for the first word: 'delet m'chonit', literally, "door car." It, too, is a kind of 'delet', not a kind of 'm'chonit'. The second word describes the first. We also learn from this example that sometimes the 'smichut' form of a word is identical to the non-'smichut' one. As in English, the exact connection between the words in a compound is left to context and custom. (My favorite example in English is the "drive through window," which isn't what it might at first seem.) 'Beit-sefer', literally "book-house," is a school, even if it has no books. 'Beged-yam', literally, "clothing-sea," is a bathing suit. 'Kochav-yam', literally, "star-sea," is a starfish. 'Beged-kochav', literally, "clothing star," is not a standard expression like the examples we've seen so far; it's what a superstar might wear. An additional purpose of the 'smichut' is to use a noun adjectivally. While we have the "holy ark" in English, in Hebrew it's the 'aron-kodesh', literally, "ark-holiness." The pattern of 'smichut' is not limited to doublets. A school student is 'talmid beit sefer', literally "student house book," and his friend's mother might be 'ima haver talmid beit-sefer', "mother friend student house book." The 'smichut' has traditionally been a source of grammatical confusion, for two reasons. The first is that the word "the," even when it applies to the whole compound, is supposed to sit at the front of the last word. For example, "the school" is supposed to be "'beit ha-sefer'," literally, "house the-book." Similarly, "the bathing suit" is 'beged hayam'. Modern Hebrew, however, has strayed from this rule, and many Israelis report that it's just too much trouble to move the word 'ha'- (the). So instead of 'beit-hasefer', they prefer just 'habeit-sefer'. Other Israelis vehemently disagree, putting the utterance of such a phrase in the same category as other acts of moral turpitude. The second source of confusion is what to do with plurals. In general, the rule is that if the compound is plural, the first word gets the plural marking. So "schools" are 'batei-sefer', literally, "houses-book," and bathing suits are 'bigdei-yam', "clothings-sea." (While modern violations of this rule sound odd to almost every native speaker - 'beit-s'farim' cannot mean "schools" - sometimes in mishnaic Hebrew both words got the plural marking: 'batei-knesiyot' were synagogues.) However, unlike most English cases, in Hebrew the singular form of a compound can include a plural noun. So the English "old-age home" becomes 'beit-avot' in Hebrew, literally "house of ancestors." The plural word 'avot' indicates that the house houses more than one person. A window-fixer in Hebrew is 'm'taken-halonot' (fixer windows), with the plural "windows," because, presumably, the fixer fixes more than one window. Alas, even this rule is unreliable, and students of Hebrew have to memorize when which words are plural in the second half of 'smichut'. For example, apple juice is 'mitz-tapuhim' (juice-apples), but mango juice is 'mitz-mango', even if you use two mangoes to make it. And that's how apples, oranges and tomatoes (which are plural in 'smichut') differ from mangoes, bananas and carrots. The writer is author of the forthcoming And God Said.