Happy Rosh Hashanah to All, No Matter What the Gender

Hebrew's Female Nouns Sometimes Take Male Plurals

By Philologos

Published September 26, 2011, issue of September 30, 2011.

‘I’m done with all my shanot tovot,” an Israeli friend said to me a while ago, meaning that she had finished sending out shana tova cards to all the people on her list. How did I know that she was talking about greeting cards and not tragically telling me, “I’m done with all my good years,” which is what shanot tovot translates as literally? I knew because “good years” in Hebrew is shanim tovot, not shanot tovot.

Shana (with the stress in Israeli speech on the second syllable) is a noun that is feminine in gender but takes the masculine plural -im rather than the feminine plural -ot. The only time Israelis give it a feminine plural, except for the construct or genitive case, is when talking about Rosh Hashanah greetings. And yet, in the genitive, shana takes the feminine plural all the time, so that one says sh’not he-me’ah ha-esrim, “the years of the 20th century,” not sh’ney ha-me’ah ha-esrim, as one normally would with a masculinely pluralized noun. Although native Hebrew speakers make such switches instinctively, to a student of the language, this is confusing.

Kurt Hoffman

Indeed, few things are more confusing when learning Hebrew than the gender and plurals of nouns. There are general rules — and a seemingly endless number of exceptions to them. One rule, for instance, is that all nouns ending in -ah or -et are feminine and take the plural -ot, and yet besides shana/shanim we have such feminine nouns as betsah, “egg,” but betsim, “eggs”; d’vorah, “bee,” but d’vorim, “bees”; gaḥelet, “hot coal,” but geḥalim, “hot coals”; ishah, “woman,” but nashim, “women” (that’s a really curious one!), and so on. And just to confuse the student more, even though these words have masculine plurals, the adjectives that go with them are feminine, so that like shanim tovot, one says d’vorim oktsot, “stinging bees”; geḥalim bo’arot, “burning-hot coals”; nashim ḥakhamot, “clever women,” and so on.

Moreover, there are numerous nouns that do not end in -ah or -et but are feminine, too, even though to judge by their form, they should be masculine. Thus, for example, the words melekh, “king”; ḥevel, “rope,” and kesef, “money,” are all, as would be expected, masculine and give us m’lakhim, ḥavalim and k’safim in the plural; however, derekh, “way” or “road,” and shemesh, “sun,” are unexpectedly feminine. That doesn’t mean, though, that they’re pluralized similarly, because it’s d’rakhim, “ways,” but sh’mashot, “suns.” Go figure!

And that’s nothing compared to the masculine nouns, which take feminine plural endings far more often than feminine nouns take masculine ones, so that we have masculine shavu’a, “week,” but shavu’ot, “weeks”; yayin, “wine,” but yeynot, “wines”; aron, “closet,” but aronot, “closets”; etc., etc.. The student simply has to learn each one of these irregularities by heart, because there’s no way of predicting them.

In fact, don’t even try to predict. Take the parts of the body. Most of them are feminine, especially those that come in twos — like eyes, ears and legs, all of which take the dual plural -ayim. This gives us ayin, “eye,” and eynayim ḥumot, “brown eyes”; ozen, “ear,” and oznayim k’tanot, “small ears”; regel, “leg,” and raglayim arukot, “long legs,” and so on. What’s practically the only exception to this rule? The word for the female breast, shad, which is masculine, giving us shadayim yafim, “beautiful breasts.” If that isn’t grammatical perversity, I don’t know what is.

From the point of view of historical linguistics, it’s difficult to account for all this illogic. There is some evidence, however, that Hebrew genders and plurals were more regular in the distant past. Take the Hebrew word for table, shulḥan, which is masculine but has the feminine plural form shulḥanot. We know that in Ugaritic, an ancient and long-extinct northwest Semitic language close to Hebrew, the word for table was tulḥant, with a feminine “t” ending, and that the plural was tulḥanatu. Hebrew shulḥan must have also had this “t” ending at one time and been a feminine noun, too; when the final “t” was dropped (just as “wouldn’t” becomes “wouldn” and “didn’t” becomes “didn” in some varieties of English), giving the word a masculine form, it was masculinized in gender while retaining its old feminine plural. Something similar may have happened to many other words.

Shana, however, is puzzling. Although its plural has always been shanim and is so in the Bible, its genitive plural of sh’not strongly suggests that its original plural ending was -ot, not -im, and that in pre-biblical Hebrew one said shanot, “years,” and not shanim. Yet if this was the case — if thousands of years ago the feminine noun shana took the regular feminine plural ending, of which its genitive form is a vestige — why in the world would it later have been de-regularized into shanim? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible explanation.

One way or another, shanim is what it is when it isn’t a greeting card. With Rosh Hashanah a few days away, I’ll wish you all a shana tova and many shanim tovot to come!

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

To read Israeli poet Yona Wallach’s take on gender in Hebrew — “Ivrit” (also known as “Hebrew is a sex maniac”) — visit the parallel text of her poem here.



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