The Glamour of the Grammar: What the et?

'Can you explain the purpose and origin of et?" asks a reader.

grammar 88 (photo credit: )
grammar 88
(photo credit: )
'Can you explain the purpose and origin of et?" asks a reader. I can (and I will), but a short word is often a sign of complexity in language, and the answer will meander through the nature of nouns and four varieties of verb. The issue is this: Whereas in English we content ourselves with, "I drew the flower," Hebrew requires an extra word - "I drew et the flower." (tziyarti et haperah) But why? The traditional explanation, that "et is a direct object marker," is only partly right and often even less helpful. Verbs come in varying complexity. Some, like "rain," are self-contained. The "it" in "it's raining" doesn't refer to anything in particular, perhaps not even to "rain." (It can "rain confetti.") Other verbs, like "walk," need a doer. There's no walking going on without a walk-er. Moving up the ladder, we find verbs that involve two parties, someone to do the verb, and someone to whom the verb is done: "I gave" is incomplete. "I gave an example" is better. By and large, these verbs that involve two external parties are called "transitive." The first external party (technically called an "argument" of the verb) is called the "subject" and the second is called the "object." There are two kinds of objects. Some are so closely connected with the verb that they earn the designation "direct object." The "flower" in "I drew a flower" is a direct object. So is "the article" in "I read the article." Other objects complement the verb in more indirect ways. In "I wrote a letter of praise to The Jerusalem Post," we find one direct object ("a letter of praise") and one indirect object ("to The Jerusalem Post"). Usually indirect objects are marked by "to," "for," etc., but by a quirk of English (though not of Hebrew), some verbs offer the option of switching the order of the direct and indirect objects and omitting the word "to": "I wrote The Jerusalem Post a letter of praise." Only direct objects in Hebrew get the word et, but not all direct objects. So we turn to the objects themselves. Sometimes a noun refers to a particular place or person or object. Other times the reference is to something yet to be identified. For example, when I use "Tel Aviv," the reader knows what I mean, while I use "a city" for an unknown locale. We call the first kind of noun "definite" and the second "indefinite." In English, we generally use "the" for the first type ("the city") and "a/an" for the second ("a city"). (We have to be careful. The word "the" in English is used for other purposes, too, such as a "generic" reading. When I lament that "the wild cat is disappearing from the Negev," I do not have in mind one wild cat slinking off and hiding. I mean all of the wild cats.) Though there is no indefinite marker parallel to the English "a/an" in Hebrew, definite nouns are often marked by the prefix ha- ("the"). With all of this background, we can formulate the rule for et: Et precedes definite direct objects. That is, when a verb has at least two external arguments - the subject and the object - and when the object is a direct object, and when that direct object is definite, it gets et before it. In our original example, "I drew et the flower," we get an et before "the flower" because "the flower," which is the object, is definite. By contrast, in "I drew a flower," we do not find the word et. The Hebrew equivalent of "I love Jerusalem" requires et, because "Jerusalem," too, is definite. (Bonus question for Hebrew speakers: Two verbs in Hebrew are doubly transitive, taking two objects, each potentially with an et before it. Can you identify them?) Two important facts about et remain. The word is optional in biblical Hebrew. The famous line from Psalm 23, "You have anointed my head with oil," ought to have the word et before "my head," but, perhaps for the sake of the poetry, the text omits it. And in modern spoken Hebrew, while the word is not optional, in casual speech it tends to become part of the ha that it precedes. So rather than tziyarti et haperah, we tend to hear tziyarti ta-perah. Next question? The writer teaches at HUC- JIR in New York City.