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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