To Have and To Have Not: An Et Hater at Heart

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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Jack Zeldis writes from Fresno, Calif., about the verb “to have” — or rather, about the lack of it — in Hebrew. Specifically, he asks me to comment on the two kinds of constructions for a Hebrew sentence like “I have the book”: the “correct” one of “Yesh li ha-sefer,” which you will almost never hear in Israel, and the “incorrect” one of “Yesh li et ha-sefer,” which is used by just about all Israelis.

In English and other European languages, “to have” is such an indispensable verb, having so many possible meanings that speakers find it hard to imagine languages in which it doesn’t exist. Yet it is the very multiplicity of meanings that “to have” has in English that helps explain why some languages prefer to do without this verb. Consider, for instance, the following: 1) “I have a book.” 2) “I have a friend.” 3) “I have a feeling.” 4) “I have time.”

Although we may think that “have” means the same thing in all these sentences, it doesn’t by a long shot. In Sentence 1, it denotes physical possession of an object; in Sentence 2, a relationship between two people; in Sentence 3, the existence of a subjective state, and in Sentence 4, the future availability of something that, at present, doesn’t exist at all. Why expect a single verb or expression to cover such diverse cases? And indeed, many languages do without such a catch-all and have different solutions for each case.

Classical Hebrew, like all its Semitic relatives, is one such language. In many places where English resorts to the verb “to have,” it employs one of two related usages. The first is the preposition le, “to,” in one of its inflected forms (for example, li, “to me,” lekha, “to you,” etc.); “I have a book” is thus (Hebrew does not have an indefinite article) li sefer — literally, “to me a book.” The second is to combine the first with the uninflectable particle yesh, which means “there is.” “I have a book” is then “Yesh li sefer” (“There is to me a book”), “You have a book” is Yesh lekha sefer and so on. This construction, which can already be found in the Bible, is the standard one in Israeli Hebrew. So far, so good.

A problem arises, however, when an Israeli wishes to say, “I have the book,” because here, classical Hebrew grammar and contemporary Israeli speech clash head on. The cause of this clash is a Hebrew grammatical rule having to do with transitive verbs. When such a verb — ra’ah, “to see,” for example — is followed by a direct object without a definite article, as in a sentence like “I see a book,” the construction is similar to that in English: “Ani ro’eh sefer.” When the direct object is preceded by the definite article ha, on the other hand, the particle et must be inserted before it as an indicator of the accusative case. “I see the book” is thus “Ani ro’eh et ha-sefer,” and “Ani ro’eh ha-sefer,” without the et, is unacceptable.

Let’s get back now to the yesh li construction. Mr. Zeldis is quite right in saying that in principle, “Yesh li ha-sefer” is the “correct” way of saying “I have the book.” Yesh, after all, is not a verb, nor is ha-sefer its direct object, so that not only is there no need to insert an et, but doing so is also perfectly illogical.

But the Hebrew of Israel, fashioned into an everyday spoken tongue in the early 20th century, mostly by European immigrants, has a logic of its own, which often is this: Speak Hebrew as though it were a European language. Hence, even though Israelis, if they stopped to think about it, could tell you immediately that the yesh of yesh li is not a verb, they treat it as though it were one, analogous in every respect to the “have” of “I have,” and say “Yesh li et ha-sefer” for “I have the book.” Similarly, they say “Yesh li et ha-h.aver,” “I have the friend” (as in a sentence like “I have the friend I always wanted”); “Yesh li et ha-hargashah,” “I have the feeling,” and “Yesh li et ha-z’man,” “I have the time.”

The knowledgeable Hebrew speaker can’t help but find this obnoxious. It’s totally un-Hebraic in spirit and far more irritating than a sentence like “I got the book in my pocket” is in English, since “I got” in the sense of “I have” is an isolated grammatical error that need not affect the rest of one’s speech, whereas the yesh li et construction is ubiquitous. Although Israeli Hebrew is in general so riddled with Europeanisms and Englishisms that there are linguists who contend (wrongly, I think) that it should no longer be considered a Semitic language, none of these is quite as consistently and universally jarring as yesh li et. And yet — and this, to the Hebrew lover, is the worst of it — one often can’t avoid using it without sounding unnatural or affected, so that even the greatest yesh li et haters find themselves saying it all the time. I should know, Mr. Zeldis, because I’m one of them. I don’t like it, but I do it. Like most of us, I’d rather be wrong than sound ridiculous.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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