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When nouns meet nouns (and other Great Lies of Hebrew School)


You know how much I love exposing the Great Lies of Hebrew school.  (Having been a Hebrew school teacher, millennia ago, I’m allowed.)  So here’s today’s.

How do you say “of” or “belonging to” in Hebrew?  Every schoolkid knows this, right?  Shel (שֶׁל)… easy!

Not so fast, kiddo.

In fact, the second part is more correct than the first.  “Shel” means belonging to… and not so much “of.”

Imagine you’re signing up volunteers for a school trip, so you want a list of parents.  So in Hebrew-school Hebrew, that ought to be רשימה של הורים / reshima shel horim.  But, in fact, that probably means something closer to “list belonging to parents,” which is not what you want to say at all.

Another example:  I went to the University of Toronto (yay, BA in philosophy!).  The first few times I struggled to say this in Hebrew, I was saying אוניברסיטה של טורונטו / universita shel Toronto.  It didn’t sound right, even to my ears. 

Why?  Because there’s no belonging – the university and Toronto go together, but not in an ownership way.  Neither one owns the other – they are simply two nouns kind of leaning together for mutual support. 

In English, we most often do this with “of”:  list of parents, University of Toronto, children of Israel.

But in Hebrew, when you have two nouns walking along together, leaning on each other, with no clear possession, you use the “leaning” form:  סְמִיכוּת / smichut.

(say it!  smeeeeeeeeee-chhhhhh-oot)

Did I mention Hebrew school?  That’s actually a great example of smichut.  Even in English, you wouldn’t say “School of Hebrew” (though you might say School of Rock!).  You just say “school” and “Hebrew” and everybody understands how it fits.

In Hebrew, the word for school, as you learned in School of Hebrew, is actually two words:  “book house” /  בֵּית סֵפֶר / beit sefer.  You take the book and the house and you just kind of lean them up together.  And everybody understands.

For singular masculine nouns, it really is just that easy (Well, okay, not quite – why is it  בֵּית / beit and not בַּיִת / bayit sefer?  Shh… never mind.).

If the first noun is feminine, you’ve got a little more work to do:  add a “tav” at the end before joining it with the second noun.  University, for instance.  Ends in “a” and so it’s a regular feminine noun.  And instead of אוניברסיטה של טורונטו / universita shel Toronto, my alma mater becomes אוניברסיטת טורונטו / universitat Toronto

And that list of parents?  רשימת הורים / reshimat horim.  The little “t” sound tells you there’s another noun coming – very handy.

Which is all well and good until you come to the plural.  What’s the plural of beit/bayit?  Yeah, okay, it’s irregular, but you may have learned it anyway:  בתים / batim

But if you have more than one school, you don’t say batim sefer.  In that case, when you’re using smichut, the final “mem” falls off:  בתי ספר / batei sefer.

Which brings us to the Children of Israel.  Child = בֵּן / ben.  Child of Israel, two nouns together, would be בן ישראל / ben Yisrael (leaving out “of”).  But even though children = בנים/ banim, when it’s “leaned” against another verb in smichut, the final “mem” falls off, leaving בני ישראל / bnei Yisrael.

Lots of olim, it turns out, have problems when they try to simply translate English sentences, word for word, into Hebrew sentences.  Compared to Hebrew, English is a wordy language, and often unnecessarily vague.  Often, the little words turn out to be meaningless, or at least, untranslateable in a literal way.

Even though I say these are the Lies of Hebrew school (שקרי בית ספר עברית – quadruple smichut!), they’re not really lies at all:  they’re just oversimplifications.  Useful, perhaps, for teaching kids.  Less useful for speaking Hebrew without getting laughed or stared at.

And that is all my words (מילים שלי / milim sheli – no smichut!) on this fascinating subject.  What about you, blog readers (קוראי בלוג / korei blog – smichut!)… If you’re already in Israel, what Lies of Hebrew School have you discovered here?

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More fun with smichut:

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