Smelling A Rat

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 11, 2008, issue of June 20, 2008.
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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has flown back to Israel from the United States to find himself in the same trouble that a few days in Washington helped take his mind off. One source of it is his old friend Uri Messer, the Israeli lawyer who told the police that he handled the slush funds the prime minister is accused of receiving, and who said to a reporter in a moment of remorse, “Hishtankarti alav” — “I ratted on him.”

Although you will not find the verb le’hishtanker, “to rat,” in a standard Hebrew dictionary, it’s in any dictionary of Hebrew slang. It comes from the Hebrew slang word shtinker, which derives from the same word in Yiddish and means an informer or stoolpigeon. I myself first heard shtinker used when I started doing reserve duty in the Israeli army, back in the mid-1970s. I was in an infantry unit assigned to patrolling the Lebanese border, and one night we were told to stay away from a certain section of it because a shtinker would be crossing into Israel and would be dealt with by the security services. Subsequently, I ran across many more shtinkerim in the army. The word was always used for Arabs spying for Israel and often involved their clandestine comings and goings.

But a shtinker doesn’t have to be a spy. Among criminals it can be a police informer; in any job, someone reporting back to the boss. Although I have not been able to document it, this meaning of the word almost certainly goes back to Eastern Europe. The literal meaning of shtinker is stinker, and in Yiddish it also can have the sense of a young brat, no doubt because little children have a way of suddenly making themselves very smelly. It’s thus easy to see how the word came to mean an informer, although back in my army days I found it distasteful to pin it on someone who, even if acting only for money, was working on Israel’s behalf.

But getting back to the verb hishtankarti, “I ratted,” we have here an interesting example of what might be called the cunning of language, which often works on an unconscious level. This verb can be analyzed as composed of three elements: the noun shtinker; the verbal prefix hit-, which belongs to the past tense of the verbal form known as Hitpa’el, and the suffix –ti, which marks the first person. The odd thing is that Hitpa’el is generally a reflexive form indicating an action performed on oneself. Thus, for instance, we have lavashti, “I wore [something],” but hitlabashti, “I got dressed” or “I dressed myself”; rah.atsti, “I washed [something],” but hitrah.atsti, “I bathed” or “I washed myself”; masarti, “I gave [something to someone],” but hitmasarti, “I devoted myself [to something],” etc.

Logically then, hishtankarti should mean “I informed on myself.” If I wanted to say, with the help of the word shtinker, that I informed on someone else, I should be using a different verbal form, such as Pi’el, which would yield shtinkarti. Why, then, did Hebrew slang opt for hishtankarti?

Count the consonants in shtinker, and you’re on your way to the answer. There are five of them. Hebrew verbs, as I once pointed out in this column, can come in three flavors: two-consonanted, three-consonanted and four-consonanted. They cannot (not counting prefixes and suffixes) have five consonants. Shtinkarti is therefore — at least by the formal rules of the language — an impossibility.

But in that case, you will object, hishtankarti should be impossible, too!

Should it? Count its consonants. Hehshintetnunkufreshtaf: seven. Now subtract the two consonants of the hit- prefix and the additional consonant in the –ti of the first-person suffix, and how many do you have left?

Four! Exactly the maximum you’re permitted.

But what happened, you ask, to the fifth consonant of shtinker? Is this some kind of magic trick?

Not really. It’s just another Hebrew rule. This one says that when a Hitpae’el verb starts with a shin, this switches places with the taf of the hit- prefix. Thus, for instance, the verb shiniti, “I changed [something or someone],” becomes in Hitpa’el not hitshaneti, but hishtaneti: “I changed [myself].” And by the same token, the Hitpa’el verb formed from shtinker is not hitshtankarti, which has eight consonants, but hishtankarti, which has only seven, because the taf of the prefix and the tet of shtinker have merged into a single consonant, thus turning the five consonants of shtinker into four.

It isn’t magic, it’s grammar. The magical thing is that the collective mind of Israelis made use of it without ever stopping to think about it. No one ever said, “Hey, if we say hishtankarti instead of shtinkarti, we don’t have to break the four-consonant rule!” It just happened by itself. That’s what I call the cunning of language. It achieves its ends through us without our realizing it. Linguistically, we’re all much smarter than we think.

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


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