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The Little Words

So what are we learning in ulpan??? 

Well, mainly, I’m NOT learning what the other people in my class are learning – namely, words.  I know all the words. 

If that sounds like hubris, it’s not; Ulpan Alef is designed to introduce a rudimentary vocabulary, including some 200 verbs and a whole lot of useful nouns and adjectives.  Most of which I know already.

Also, because of the way Hebrew is based around a system of roots which are then drawn out and conjugated in various forms, even if I don’t know a word, I can often figure it out based on the root.

Sure, there are some new words:  I can now announce how disappointed (me’uchzevet) I am or that I prefer (ma’adifa) bananas or life in the big city.  And in many cases, though I knew the words, I wasn’t entirely confident about the vowels or pronunciation and now I am way more confident.

image But the main challenge, as far as I’m concerned, are the LITTLE words.  My teacher calls them prepositions, but I’ve never known what those are in English, either (my sister Abigail would know; she’s book-smart that way).  The little words are the glue that links sentences together – they are the reason I have never been able to speak sensibly, even though I knew a lot of words all along.

Some of the little words come easily:  the two kinds of “eem” (עם  and אם), one of which means “if” and one of which means “with.”  My main problem is the CONNECTING words.  In English, we are very casual about connecting words, in most cases, dropping them altogether.  Not so in Hebrew; most Hebrew verbs automatically come with a connecting word which must be used to connect it to the rest of the sentence.

In English, we say things like “I threw the ball” without worrying about how the throwing transfers itself TO the ball.  It just works – magic!  In other cases, we do use connecting words:  “I waited FOR Naomi.”  But even this doesn’t help, because in most cases, the connecting words don’t translate.

Like the phrase “I’m afraid of dogs.”  First of all, “afraid” isn’t exactly a verb (you could say “I fear dogs,” but nobody does unless they’re being needlessly melodramatic), but anyway, in Hebrew, it becomes a verb, l’fached (לפחד).  But the little connecting word is more like “from” than “of” – “I am afraid from dogs” (אני פוחד מכלבים).  Sure helps you understand why Israelis speak English so clumsily. 

Some translations  are fairly close - “I waited for Naomi” translates to “I waited TO Naomi” (חיכיתי לנעמי), and the little word “l” often does double-duty this way, so it’s kind of predictable.  Others are not close at all.  “I’m mad at Naomi” translates to “I’m mad ON Naomi” (אני כועס על נעמי), which just makes me giggle every time.

And what about those cases where we don’t have a connecting word in English?  Then, you have to remember which of the three or four main connecting words (prepositions, milot yachas - מילות יחס) that verb takes. 

Like “to guard.”  In English, you just say you “guarded the safe,” or “guarded the schoolyard” (okay, in English-speaking countries, maybe it’s not necessary to guard a schoolyard.  Stay with me here anyway.  In Hebrew, you don’t just guard something… you guard ON it (לשמור על בית הספר).  You don’t just play a sport… you play IN it (לשחק בכדורגל).

Of course, as with all things grammatical, there’s a loophole.  If you follow a verb with an infinitive (the “to” form of a verb, like “to eat”), then you don’t need a connecting word.  “I forgot the backpack” needs the word “את” (becoming שכחתי את התיק) but if you say I forgot TO EAT (שכחתי לאכול), you don’t.  However, working around the connecting words is an awkward and only partial solution. 

What it comes down to is that these little words simply don’t translate word for word, and there’s no use trying to make any sense of them whatsoever.  The only way through it, as they say, is to do it, memorizing long lists of verbs, practicing them in sentences, and remembering which connecting word goes with which. 

There are some “memory tricks,” for example, many, many directional verbs use the word “el” (אל)– words like run, walk, climb etc.  However, some of the words my teacher sees as clearly “directional” are not really, in English, like “to get used to” (להתרגל) and “to miss” (as in the people you miss back in Canada) – לְהִתגַעגֵעַ.  Those also use the word “el” even though they don’t seem to have a particular direction.

All of these tricks and traps are, I fear, ruining my perfectly good English. 

I’m not imageslipping up just yet, but I’m afraid from the fact that there may well come to me a time when I tell to somebody that I miss to them or that I will watch on their backpack while they go play in the piano.

Ah, just a few humdrum thoughts on these little words I’m mad on cuz they’re currently breaking my brain.


  1. Lovely Hebrew lesson. When I was an English teacher, teaching prepositions were always hard, because it's not a simple translation.
    Send to HH, thanks


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