I’ve been corresponding with an Israeli friend, Itai Fiat, for quite a few years now. (I say “friend” because “co-conspirator in the conquest of the world” takes too long to say.) We’ve discussed many topics, of which the one most pivotal to this blog post is the Hebrew language itself. But the language discussion did not occur in a vacuum, and influence of other topics – politics, philosophy, music, etc – will be evident herein. (It also didn’t occur recently: most of this stuff is taken from emails dated 2005 or even earlier.)
I approached the discussion of Hebrew linguistics not out of a desire to learn the language, but to play with it and collect trivia about it. Not too seriously, in other words. Sometimes I asked for a translation of a particular phrase in order to explore/clarify points of grammar, and other times I made attempts at translating phrases of my own in order to elicit corrections.
This blog post presents an abridged transcript of the discussion, which actually consisted of several concurrent threads — full of splits dividing them and cross-references connecting them — so to summarise it in a blog post I’ve had to squeeze it into an artificially linear form. I believe this will be of interest to the linguo-geeks among my readers, as a case study in what a conversation about a language can be like.
Excerpts from my emails are in this colour, and excerpts from Itai’s emails are in this colour. Notes are in black. Don’t even try to read this in black & white.
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The first translations occurred as by-products of other conversations, and my memory about them is patchy (my email archive doesn’t go all the way back), but I’ll share what I can. The three Hebrew words for cockroach (tikan, makak, & jook – the first being the most formal and the third the least so) came up through a derogatory term for philosophy that Itai had invented: tikanetics, literally the building of robotic cockroaches, and metaphorically referring to philosophy as something of as much use. (I feel obliged to point out that philosophy does have its uses, and so in fact do robotic cockroaches.) Another word to be translated early on – though I don’t remember why – was mikledet [keyboard]. All I remember is noticing that if you exchange the first and last letters you get “tikledem”, or as I would have it, ticked ’em.
This brings us to the part of the conversation where I asked for a translation of the sentence, “There’s a cockroach on my keyboard“, which turned out to be “Yesh makak al mikledet sheli” (using “makak” rather than “tikan” for cockroach this time – that was Itai’s choice). Shortly afterwards, I tried my first original Hebrew sentence: Yesh makakim al knesset, an attempt at “There are cockroaches on the Knesset (i.e. the Israeli House of Parliament, the first hint of our discussion of Hebrew intersecting with our discussion of political satire). Itai responded: Very good, although the correct phrasing would be “yesh makakim al ha’knesset” – there’s roaches on _the_ Knesset (that’s just the way it is). You might also want to consider “yesh makakim ba’knesset” – there’s roaches _in the_ Knesset. On a side note, this is not a typical first sentence in Hebrew. I’m so very proud.
Meanwhile, in another thread, Itai had sent me a selection of Hebrew songs, as well as translations and tranliterations where I requested them (songs are excellent introductions to languages). Among these was the song Sha’ar Ha’Rakhamim [The Gate of Mercy] by Meir Banai (I later bought a copy of the entire album with my own money). The title lead us into a discussion of the Hebrew construction X Ha’Y (meaning The X of Y), which is how I came to ask: So how do you write, “the colour of the roof of the house of the neighbour of the grandfather of the keeper of the gate of mercy”, for example? Itai replied: You could say, if you were to use as few words as possible, “tzeva gag beit shken sav shomer sha’ar ha’rakhamim.” (The order of the words is the same, so you can guess what each word means, although the words, as I will soon fail to explain, are not in their original form.) Alternatively, you could use the combination “shel ha'” – roughly “of the” – and thus create a sentence entirely identical to English syntactically – “ha’tzeva shel ha’gag shel ha’bait shel ha’shakhen shel ha’sav shel ha’shomer shel ha’sha’ar shel ha’rakhamim.”
In response to the above, I wrote: I’m assuming that “shel” (of) is closely related to “sheli” (of me). Itai responded: Definitely. The “i” suffix is always, by the way, indicative of personal possesion – “sha’ari” means “my gate”, “shomri” – my keeper. (Why you say “shomri” rather than “shomeri” is really quite complicated, and is something even most Israelis don’t know.) There are other suffixes – “sha’arkha” – “your gate” (the other person being male); “sha’arekh” – “your gate” (the other person being female); “sha’arenu” – our gate; and several more.
Itai also supplied me with the following translations, after I suggested the dragon/hoard template:
- A hoard of a dragon: “matmon shel drakon”, “matmon drakon”
- A hoard of the dragon: “matmon shel ha’drakon”
- The hoard of a dragon: “ha’matmon shel drakon”
- The hoard of the dragon: “ha’matmon shel ha’dragon”, “matmon ha’drakon” (I think.)
Meanwhile, Itai continued: If you’re paying close attention, and I got the transliteration right, you’ll note that “shken” metamorphed into “shakhen” and “beit” into “bait”. Why is this so will not be explained at the moment, although I might at some other time explain why such changes are really not a problem, and are consistent. When I pressed for more information, he wrote: Same thing as “shomri” and “shomer”, by the way. It’s called “khituf”, and I honestly don’t know the English term for it. It happens when the stress (always placed on the last syllable or the one preceding it in Hebrew) is shifted, mostly through the addition of syllables, and also in “tzerufei smikhut” (I’m not entirely acquainted with English linguistic terms). This results in vowel changes. It’s not something we talk about much.
There were two main branches of the discussion about the X Ha’Y construction, of which everything I have described so far is from the first. In the other, Itai wrote: As far as adjectives are concerned, by the way, the situation is different. If I were to translate “the tall gate”, I would say “ha’sha’ar ha’gavo’a” (_gavo’a_, obviously, “tall”). Me: The gate the tall … ? Itai: I believe there is a reason for this. Hebrew does not use the verb “be” and its various inflictions (“is”, “are” and “am”) as English does. Thus, an English speaker can say “the tall gate is broken”, and not mistake this for “the tall broken gate”. In Hebrew, on the other hand, you would say “ha’sha’ar ha’gavo’a shavur” (the “tall gate is broken” – they really should have gotten it fixed by now) – note how there’s no “ha” before “shavur” (broken), allowing one to tell this apart from “ha’sha’ar ha’gavo’a ha’shavur” – “the tall broken gate”. I have no idea who broke it, however; it was fine a paragraph ago. Me: OK. How about, “The tall broken gate is the big unsolved problem”? Itai: “Ha’sha’ar ha’gavo’a hashavur hu ha’be’aya ha’gdola ha’lo ptura.” (“Be’aya” – probelm, “gdola” – big, “lo ptura” – lit., “not solved”.) We might want to get the gate fixed before the dragon stops by, assuming the Knesset roaches don’t get it. (Notice the cross-referencing that is happening here.)
In response to this, I asked a question about the word “hu”, to which Itai replied: There is no strictly “be” (“is”, “are”, “am”) in Hebrew. “Hu” (Hebrew) means “he” (English). As above, however, it can occasionally function as a verb, meaning “to be”. (“Hu” is for masculine (he), “hi” for feminine (she), “hem” for plural masculine (they), “hen” for plural female (they), and many more.) I also asked: How does the above work for *indefinite* noun phrases, i.e. how do you distinguish between “a big unsolved problem” versus “a big problem is unsolved”? Itai replied: You can’t, really. If you were to add “yet”, however – “a big problem is yet unsolved” – there would be no difficulty: “be’aya gdola od lo ptura”, or “be’aya gdola oda (=od hi, a more stylstic phrasing) lo ptura”. (Actually, “gdola” was spelt “gdula” here, but that is surely a typo. I haven’t confirmed this, though, having only just noticed it.)
Another question I asked at this point was: Are the following correct?
- The dragon is the problem = Ha’drakon hu ha’be’aya
- The dragon is a problem = Ha’drakon hu be’aya
- A dragon is the problem = Drakon hu ha’be’aya
- A dragon is a problem = Drakon hu be’aya
Here, Itai responded: Very good. For those not facing dragons, that is.
Yet another question: And what about “sheli”? How do you distinguish between “my big unsolved problem” versus “the big unsolved problem is mine”? I think that “ha’be’aya ha’gdola ha’lo ptura sheli” is the former, right? Itai’s response to that was: Right. This _can_ also be used to mean “the big unsolved problem is mine”, in a dialogue such as this:
– Shell mi ha’be’aya ha’dgla ha’lo ptura? (Who has the big unsolved problem?)
– Ha’be’aya ha’gdola ha’lo ptura sheli. (The big unsolved is mine.)
– Khaval. (Shame.)
Generally, however, and usually also in the above dialogue, you would add the word “hi” (“she”, as you’ll recall; I’m sticking to mostly phonetic spelling, so this is pronounced like the English word “he”), acting in this case not unlike the English “is”, thus coming up with:
– Ha’be’aya ha’gdola ha’lo ptura *hi* sheli.
– Lekh le’azazel. (Go to hell, but don’t go telling I’m teaching you such expressions. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve taught you nothing but the names of flowers and butterflies.)
As a variation on “go to hell”, I tried: Lekh le’ha’Knesset. Itai corrected me slightly, saying: Actually, this should be “lekh la’knesset” – “le” (to) + “ha” (the) become “la” (to the). Similarly, “be” (in) + “ha” become “ba” (in the).
At roughly this point in the conversation, I tried filling in the following table, asking for corrections and additions:
- A big problem is unsolved. [Itai: Be’aya gdola lo ptura. Although I wouldn’t say that. What I would say is: Be’aya gdola eyna ptura. But where “eyn” is more appropriate is to remain a mystery for the time being.]
- A cockroach is a problem. Makak hu be’aya.
- A cockroach is the problem. Makak hu ha’be’aya.
- The big problem is unsolved. Ha’be’aya ha’gdola lo ptura.
- A big unsolved problem. Be’aya gdola lo ptura.
- The big unsolved problem. Ha’be’aya ha’gdola ha’lo ptura.
- Mine is big. Sheli gadol.
- Mine is a problem. Sheli hu be’aya.
- Mine is the problem. Sheli hu ha’be’aya.
- Mine is not yours. Sheli hu lo shelkha.
- An unsolved problem. Be’aya lo ptura.
- The unsolved problem. Ha’be’aya ha’lo ptura.
- A problem of a dragon. Be’aya shel drakon.
- A problem of the dragon. Be’aya shel ha’drakon.
- The problem of a dragon. Ha’be’aya shel drakon.
- The problem of the dragon. Ha’be’aya shel ha’drakon. (== Be’aya ha’drakon.) [Itai: Nearly. Be’ayat hadrakon. (Or, as you said, “Ha’be’aya shel ha’drakon.”) The problem, of course, is that we’re using English letters. The letter Hey (fifth Hebrew letter, look it up) turns into Tav (last letter) in certain situations. Of course, you have to see how things are written to be able to use this. A good rule of the thumb is that virtually everything that ends with “a” or “e” (souffl?) ends with Hey.]
- A problem of yours. Be’aya shelkha.
- The problem of yours. Ha’be’aya shelkha. [Itai: Be’ayatkha.]
- The problem is yours. Ha’be’aya hu shelkha.
Itai: Some common swearwords and you can get a job driving a taxi around Tel Aviv. And elsewhere, Itai added: This may be a good time to introduce you to a very useful Israeli colloquial term, “zabaskha”, sort-of initials for “zot be’aya shelkha” – “this is your (male) problem.” “Zabaskha” (second person, singular, male), “zabashekh” (female), “zabasho” (third person, singular, male), “zabasha” (female), and so on, but never “zabashi”.
Concurrently with all of the above, in a continuation of the thread where cockroaches were last seen inhabiting the Knesset, I wrote: Ha’makakim ba’knesset hu ha’be’aya shelkha. Ha’be’ayakha lo ptura. Ha’be’aya shel ha’knesset hu ha’drakon. Ha’drakon gdola. [My attempt at: “The cockroaches in the knesset are your problem. Your problem is unsolved. The problem of the knesset is the dragon. The dragon is big.”] Itai: Nice try. I’m going to assume that “Ha’be’ayakha” means “your problem”. Thus, some minor points (which you really couldn’t have known, but which are worth noting): Ha’makakim ba’knesset *hem* ha’be’aya shelkha. *Be’ayatkha* lo ptura. Ha’be’aya shel ha’knesset *hi* ha’drakon. Ha’drakon *gadol*.
- “Hem” – multiple, masculine (“makak” is masculine in Hebrew) “is”.
- “Be’aya’tkha” – the process by which a “t” is added is too complicated and awkward to be explained. A very similar thing happens in Arabic, and presumably other Semitic languages.
- “Hi” – for “be’aya”, problem, is a feminine noun. (I agree that the division between masculine and feminine nouns often sounds like a joke, but that’s the way it is.)
- “Gadol” – rather than “gdola”, because “drakon” is masculine.
At some point, we returned to the lyrics of the song Sha’ar Ha’Rakhamim, in particular the line that reads, “Be’tokh libi yesh tze’aka ve’i gdola” [“In my heart there is a cry, and it is loud”]. I by now recognised “gdola” and “yesh”, and Itai helped me break the whole sentence down into: be’ = in, tokh = insides, libi = my heart, yesh = there is, tze’aka = a cry, ve’i = and it is, gdola = big. (This was actually presented as a table, so my punctation is really a paraphrase.) He continued: “Libi” means “ha’lev sheli” (note that here, as in “be’ayatkha”, the “ha” – “the” – drops), hence, “my heart”. Never mind the vowels (vowel changes have to do with structure and all sorts of things) – why does “v” turn into “b”? Because the two are connected. Some consonants in Hebrew share a letter, and may turn into each other on certain conditions. These are: B and V; K and Kh; P an F. (There used to be an added distinction between two types of each of G, D and T, each pair sharing a letter, but this is no longer audible in Hebrew as spoken today. A distinction for some does exist in Arabic. Arabic, having been spoken continuously, preserves many features that were not introduced into Hebrew when it was revived.)
Also in reference to the song, I asked: How do you translate adjective forms of mercy, i.e. merciful and merciless? Itai told me: Using what is known as structures – you take a root and place it inside a patter. For “rakhamim”, the root is R.Kh.M, and merciful is “rakhum”. For merciless, I would use “khasar rakhamim” – lacks mercy (compassion). There is no way to combine this into one word, as done in English. In the next paragraph: This is a curious example, by the way, because Allah’s arabic designation (“ar-rahm?n ar-rah?m”, translated to English as the “most kind, the most merciful”), is often translated to Hebrew as “Allah ha’rakhman ve’ha’rakhum”. There is no real difference between “rakhman” and “rakhum”, in Hebrew. The two different forms are used only to mark the different forms (differing in meaning as well as form) used in Arabic.
Another Meir Banai song, on the same album as Sha’ar Ha’Rakhamim, is Ubeyneihem, which makes frequent use of the phrase yesh li [I have; lit: there is to me]. Before I learned better, I misheard this as “yeshi” (I never did ask for a transliteration of that song, but have only a translation), and wrote: Yeshi matmon gadol for “I have a big treasure”. Itai supplied: Yesh li matmon gadol. (I have a big treasure.) Yesh lo matmon gadol. (He has a big treasure.) Yesh la agevet. (She has syphilis, but we don’t talk about it much.) In a curious convergence, I elsewhere said: It occurs to me that I need a word for “for”/”to” so that I can say, “The dragon (is merciless to / lacks mercy for) the Knesset”. Ha’drakon khasar rakhamim something ha’knesset. Itai: Right. “To”=”le”. (“To the”=”la”, “to me”=”li”, “to him”=”lo”, “to her”=”la”, “to them (male)”=”lahem”, “to them (female)”=”lahen”. Another word for “to”, this time a real word rather than a prefix, is “el”, but we won’t at this point dwell on the differences.) Thus, “ha’drakon khasar rakhamim la’knesset”. I wouldn’t say that, however, grammatically sound though it may be. What I would say, had a dragon attacked the knesset (“bimhera ubeyameinu, amen” – “soon and in our days [=times], amen”), is “ha’drakon lo mar’e rakhamim la’knesset” – literally, “the dragon doesn’t show mercy to the Knesset”, better translated as “the dragon shows no mercy to the Knesset”, but that’s English’s fault. (Cf., “I think you’re not a camel”, better phrased as “I don’t think you’re a camel.”)
At some point, tried my hand at: Yesh shomer sha’ar be’tokh ha’drakon ve’u delicious. [My attempt at: “There is a gatekeeper in the interior of the dragon and he is . . . “] I guessed correctly that ve’i/ve’u is gendered, as per hi/hu. “Delicious” is, obviously, not Hebrew. It is, however, an important word when talking about the opinion that dragons have of humans (including gatekeepers). Itai: Yesh shomer sha’ar be’tokh ha’drakon ve’hu me’ule. (Me’ule means “superb”, but it’s close.)
There was more, but then my head exploded, so I think this is a good place to stop.