Skip To Content

Back to the Land

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 [email protected].

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.