A man and a woman…

Nov 23, 2011 by

[Thanks to Joel M. Hoffman for his inspiring pieces in the Jerusalem Post Glamour of Grammar column on “The birds and the bees” and “Girl people and boy people”. The title of this post alludes to the the French film Un homme et une femme]

The recent posts on the forms of address and the forms of names in Russian, as well as some older posts on the complexities of grammatical gender, made me think of the asymmetries in the Hebrew words for ‘men’ and ‘women’. Simply put, the feminine morphological counterparts for four Hebrew words for ‘men’ do not constitute their semantic counterparts.

To begin with, the polite Hebrew form of address to a man is adon, when used in combination with the title (e.g. adon rosh-ha-memshala ‘Mr. Prime Minister’) or with a family name (e.g. adon kohen ‘Mr. Cohen’); when used by itself, for example, when attracting the attention of a stranger who dropped his wallet, adon becomes adoni, with a 1st person singular possessive suffix -i, something like ‘my lord’. Notice also that G-d is address as adonay ‘Oh Lord’.

And what is the corresponding feminine form? There is no morphologically corresponding feminine form; a ‘lady’ or a ‘ma’am’ is addressed as gveret (in combination with the last name, e.g. gveret Kohen ‘Ms. Cohen’) or gvirti (if used by itself). Note that this term does not imply a certain marital status like the English Mrs. or Miss.

However, the masculine morphological counterpart of gveret is gever, which means not ‘Mr.’ or ‘Sir’ but simply a ‘man’. But the English word ‘man’ can mean either ‘male’ or ‘person’ (the latter meaning was highlighted by such words as fireman, mailman, policeman, chairman and even mankind before the feminists insisted on using firefighter, mail courier, police officer, chairperson and humankind instead). In contrast, the Hebrew gever means ‘man’ only in the sense of ‘manliness’. For example, Ra’iti arba’a gvarim means ‘I saw four men’ — and all of them must be male. If you want to say ‘I saw four people’ (of either gender), you must say Ra’iti arba’a anashim (we will return to the word anashim below).

The manliness of gever is further underlined by the fact that the plural form of this word gvarim appears on the sign for men’s restrooms — in contrast to its semantic, but not morphological counterpart nashim, to which we now turn.

The word nashim is an irregular plural form of the singular isha (instead of the expected regular ishot, which doesn’t exist). The masculine morphological counterpart of the feminine isha is ish, which too can be translated as ‘man’, but it has the gender-incidental meaning of ‘man’, more akin to ‘person’. Like isha, ish too has an irregular plural, anashim, which means ‘people’ rather than ‘men’ (vs. gvarim). As mentioned above, Ra’iti arba’a anashim means ‘I saw four people’. In contrast, Ra’iti arba nashim means ‘I saw four women’ and necessarily stresses their gender in a way that the masculine anashim does not. Another construction where ish means ‘a person of either gender’ is under negation: Lo ra’iti ish means ‘I didn’t see anyone’ (i.e. it is false if I saw isha, a woman).

But the story doesn’t end here. While isha is a gender-inherent word for ‘woman’, it does double-duty as the word for ‘wife’. While in English an officiant pronounces a couple man and wife, in Hebrew the couple would be referred to as ‘husband and woman’, ba’al ve-isha. Well, almost…

Because the word ba’al also means ‘owner, master’; this meaning is highlighted in such compounds as ba’al bait ‘landlord, householder’, ba’al hon ‘capitalist’ (hon = ‘capital’), ba’al ta’am ‘a man of taste’ (ta’am = ‘taste’), or ba’al xaim ‘animal’ (xaim = ‘life’). The feminine morphological counterpart of ba’al is likewise found in compounds like ba’alat bait ‘landlady’. Note that Hebrew draws a clear distinction between the female owner of the house (ba’alat bait) and the woman who takes care of household chores (‘akeret bait, ‘housewife’).

Based on the contrast between ba’al ‘husband’ (also ‘owner’) and isha ‘wife’ (also ‘woman’), one could spin a story that (at least historically) husbands owned their wives, and wives simply brought their femininity to the table, but that story might prove to be all wrong in light of what Joel Hoffman claims to be the correct translation/understanding of the line from the Song of Songs commonly known as ‘My sister, my bride’, which according to him implies equal status of male and female partners.

But are things ever equal/symmetrical when it comes to men and women?… It appears that the Hebrew vocabulary for ‘men’ and ‘women’ proves that not.

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  • Balashon Hebrew Language Detective

    I discussed Baal and Adon here:


    I don't think Baal as husband indicates ownership.

    I also talked about the relationship between ish and isha:


    There is actually no etymological connection between the two words.

  • ygam

    I think ba3al is being semantically bleached. Ba3al tshuva is not "a master of repentance" but "one who repented".

    Also, anashim is the plural of anosh, which is a very rare word; it is used as the plural of ish suppletively. Likewise, in English went is the past tense of to wend, but to wend is a very rare word, so went is used suppletively as the past tense of to go.

  • Ilona

    Asya, a couple of remarks: Adonay is not 'oh Lord', but Adon-PL-POSS1prs, i.e. 'my lords'. Probably the plural is used out of respect.
    Also, 'iS' and 'iSa' do not have the same root, i.e. they are not morphologically related.
    The plural of 'iS' is 'iSim', like in "hegi'u harbe iSim xaSuvim'.

  • ygam

    Ilona, what is "hegi'u harbe iSim"? I did a Google search for "הגיעו הרבה אישים" and found nothing. "הגיעו הרבה אנשים" finds tens of thousands of hits.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Balashon Hebrew Language Detective: Thank you for your comment and the links to the two very interesting posts!

    I didn't claim that BA'AL as 'husband' indicates ownership, I mere said that someone might spin a story based on this etymology (as people often do rely on etymology to explicate word meaning).

    An interesting comment on ISH and ISHA not being etymologically related. This may very well be so, but they do appear to pair lexically for Hebrew speakers (at least more so that GEVER and ISHA do). Also, if you are correct on ANASHIM being from the same root as ISHA, this would further support the idea that etymology (what root a word derives from historically) may not completely correlate with synchronic mental representations since Hebrew speakers clearly consider ANASHIM as the plural of ISH. (In fact, the example of male and female that you cite is another example of this: even though they are not etymologically related, people still think of them as a sort of morpho-lexical pair).

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @ygam: Indeed BA'AL can be semantically bleached (and is in compounds where it can serve as a sort of a linker, as in ISH BA'AL TA'AM).

    As for ANASHIM being the plural of ANOSH, even if this is etymologically correct, it doesn't seem to matter for speakers of Hebrew, who associate ANASHIM with ISH (whether it is a suppletive relationship or not).

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Ilona: Thank you for your comments! You are absolutely correct that ADONAJ should be glossed as 'my lords' (I believe Balashon Hebrew Language Detective discusses this in the post he provided a link for in the comment above). I was just trying to find an English analog rather than a direct gloss. I should have made that point clearer…



    I liked the implicit point made by Balashon that a true (exclusive, pluripotent) nature of owner is expressed by plural Ba'alim.

    So Ba'al "husband" would imply non-exclusive and / or partial control over the wife 🙂

  • John Cowan

    Anglophones think of male and female as related words, but they are not: female is from Old French femelle < Vulgar Latin femella < Classical Latin femina, unrelated to masculus > French ma(s)le > male. If it weren't for the false etymology, female would be pronounced /ˈfɛməl/. This is quite parallel to the ish/isha case.

    As for women and wives, wife originally meant 'woman' (and still does in Scots), and woman is a highly reduced compound of wife and man 'person, human being'. Interestingly, wife participates in three compounds with house: the almost transparent housewife 'woman who runs the house', the obscured housewife, hussif, huzzif 'sewing-kit' (the latter two pronunciations are phonetic), and the wholly obscured and completely semantically shifted hussy.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @MOCKBA: It's an interesting argument; however, a houseowner is BA'AL and he has full ownership/control of the house, no?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John Cowan: Thank you for your informative and detailed comment! I was going to pick up on the issues of 'male'/'female' and 'wife'/'woman' in the next post, but you've covered the main points — thank you!