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The Grammar of Hebrew

From:Adrian Morgan (aka Flesh-eating Dragon) <dragon@...>
Date:Friday, September 10, 2004, 6:46
I have been enjoying an email discussion with a friend in Israel,
covering a variety of topics, but of course no self-respecting
conlanger would fail to ensure that a certain amount of linguistics is
included among those topics.

The following is that part of our discussion so far which has emerged
from a comparison of the English and Hebrew in the example of "the gate
of mercy" / "sha'ar ha'rakhamim". I thought it was worth sharing. I
particularly like the touch of humour.


> > > > OK, but what's puzzling me is that in "Sha'ar Ha'Rakhamim", > > > > you're now implying that this means "Gate Of The Mercies" and > > > > not "The Gate Of Mercy" as previously translated. After all, > > > > the "Ha" prefix comes before the "Rakhamim", not before the > > > > "Sha'ar". > > > > > > Very good, although you will be punished with an explanation. > > > You've pointed out one of the characteristics of Hebrew. > > [...] > > > Secondly, let us tackle the slightly more complicated question > > > of "The Gate of Mercy" versus "Gate of the Mercies". Hebrew, > > > alas, has no way of distinguishing between the two. By this > > > point you probably think that Hebrew is a god-awful language, > > > but I assure you I generally find it less ambiguous than > > > English. You just happened to stumble one of the language's > > > weaker points. To clarify, consider the following example. You > > > can easily > > > > Did you mean to write "can't" instead of "can"? > > No. However, I did mean "An English speaker" instead of "You", which > you somehow failed to guess. > > > > distinguish between "(a) keeper of the gate" (there's no "a" in > > > Hebrew, but never mind that) to "the keeper of the gate". In > > > Hebrew, they are both "shomer ha'sha'ar" ("shomer" - keeper). > > > They are nonetheless distinguishable from "keeper of gate" > > > ("shomer sha'ar"), although in English you would probably say > > > "gatekeeper". > > > > 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? And why can't I write, "ha'shomer sha'ar" if I want > > to? > > Let's tackle this one at a time. As for your first question, 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."
I'm assuming that "shel" (of) is closely related to "sheli" (of me). This is actually a useful answer, because it indicates that even if the simplest way to translate "the hoard of a dragon" and "a hoard of the dragon" are indistinguishable from each other, one can always distinguish them if one is willing to use an extra word or two in the process. Note that even in English, if one wanted to say, "the colour of the roof of the house of /a/ neighbour of /a/ grandfather of the keeper of the gate of mercy", one would probably not say that, but would instead say, "the colour of the roof of the house of one of the neighbours of one of the grandfathers of the keeper of the gate of mercy". Presumably there is a way of saying something similar in Hebrew.
> 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.
By all means explain it, but I do understand what you have said anyway.
> Your second question is one to which the answer would appear to be > quite obvious - because it's _wrong_ and you'll go to hell if you > do. However, it is a bit more complicated than that, because some > time ago the Academy of the Hebrew Language, supreme governing body > of the Hebrew tongue, declared it legal, in sight of increased use > by the masses of this form. (Although not in this particular case, > of course, sha'ar ha'rakhamim being an established name.) I do not > agree with this ruling, and have every intention to ignore it. Hell, > on the other hand, may go easy on you. > > > > As far as adjectives are concerned, by the way, the situation is > > > different. If you wanted to say "the tall gate", why, you would > > > do just that. As would I, for that matter. However, if I were to > > > translate this, I would say "ha'sha'ar ha'gavo'a" (_gavo'a_, > > > obviously, "tall"). > > > > The gate the tall ... ? > > 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.
OK. How about, "The tall broken gate is the big unsolved problem"?


Philip Newton <philip.newton@...>