Back to the Land

By Philologos

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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Referring to my column of two weeks ago on the expression am ha’aretz, Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, writes that “too much attention to the word am-ha’aretz seems to have badly affected your grammatical sense. As you surely know, the Hebrew plural of am-ha’aretz is amei-ha’aretz. In the same way, we say gedolei hador [literally, “the great men of the generation”; that is, “the leaders of the age”], not gedolei ha-dorot.”

Sarna, who is himself one of the gedolei ha-dor in his field, is, I am happy to say, quite wrong. But before I can explain why he is, some of you may need a quickie course in the Hebrew construct case.

The construct case, as it is known in Hebrew grammar, is classical Hebrew’s way of forming a genitive or possessive relationship between two nouns, which is done by putting them together, the possessed noun before the possessing one, while often inflecting or changing the first. Thus, to say “Abraham’s house,” one takes the word for house, bayit, puts it before the name Abraham, Avraham, and says beit Avraham, pronouncing the ei as in “heir.” (In modern Hebrew, one is more likely to say ha-bayit shel Avraham, “the house of Abraham,” or beito shel Avraham, but that’s another story that we won’t go into here.)

But the construct form is not only used in Hebrew to link two nouns in a temporary possessive relationship; it is also used to form permanent words. Just as, for example, the English noun “house,” compounded with other nouns, yields such combinations as boathouse, dollhouse, firehouse, etc., so the Hebrew noun bayit, when joined to another noun in the construct case, produces numerous Hebrew words. To take several examples, we have beit-sefer, school, literally “book house”; beit-holim, hospital, literally “sick house”; beit-mishpat, court, literally “law house”; beit-yetsika, foundry, literally “casting house,” and so on and so forth.

So far, despite the reversed word order, the parallels between English and Hebrew are close. This ceases to be the case, however, when it comes to plural formations. English nouns such as “boathouse” and “dollhouse” are pluralized, like almost all other English nouns, by adding “s” at the end, giving us “boathouses” and “dollhouses.” But in Hebrew, for obvious reasons, the plural signifier can’t come at the noun’s end. To take the word for school, for example, beit-sefer, you cannot pluralize it as beit-sefarim, because you would then be saying not “book houses” but “books’ house.” What we have to do is take the plural form of bayit, which is batim, inflect it for the construct case, which gives us batei, and say batei-sefer, schools, just as one would say batei-mishpat, courts, batei-yetsika, foundries, and the like. And by the same token, if one wishes to add the definite article ha in order to say “the school” or “the court,” one can’t grammatically put it at the beginning of the word (although many Israelis ungrammatically do) and say ha’beit-sefer or ha’beit-mishpat; rather, one has to couple it with the noun it belongs to and say beit-ha’sefer or beit-ha’mishpat. (This makes Hebrew the only language I know of in which, in many cases, the definite article is not prefixed before its noun, as in most languages, or suffixed after it, as in some languages, but infixed in the middle of it.)

At first glance, then, looking at the word am-ha’aretz, literally “people of the land,” Sarna would appear to be right: If we wish to pluralize it by saying “peoples of the land,” we have to say amei-ha’aretz, and not amei-ha’aratzot, as I did in my column. It would seem that I owe you all a red-faced retraction.

But wait! It ain’t necessarily so. The Hebrew word for a “rabbinical scholar” is the construct-form compound talmid-hakham, literally, “student of a sage,” right, Professor Sarna? Is the plural form, therefore, talmidei-hakham, “students of a sage,” as it logically should be according to all that we have said? No, it is not. It’s talmidei-hakhamim, “students of sages,” pluralizing both compounded nouns!

There are other, similar exceptions to the rule. The plural of ba’al-bayit, literally, “house owner” (the word can also be translated, according to context, as “burgher,” “member of the middle class” or “boss”) is not ba’alei-bayit, “house owners,” but ba’alei-batim, “owners of houses.” (From here comes the Yiddish balebatim.) The plural of beit-kneset, synagogue (literally “gathering house”) can be batei-kneset, “houses of gathering,” but batei-knesiyot, “houses of gatherings,” is also acceptable. In the same way, the plural of bet-midrash, “study house,” is batei-midrash but also batei-midrashot. Although such cases are limited in number, they do exist.

And am-ha’aretz? It’s definitely one of them. It can be pluralized as amei-ha’aretz but also as amei-aratzot, and the second form is, if anything, more common than the first. Both are given in my three-volume edition of Abraham Ben-Shoshan’s Hebrew-Hebrew Milon hadash, the most authoritative contemporary Israeli dictionary. Although I’ve been accused by readers of being an am-ha’aretz before —sometimes with good reason — in this case, the charge doesn’t stick

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


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