Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Just a short post.

.רק חיבור קצר

Jessica and I went to dinner for her birthday tonight at the restaurant across the street, Lina. We had some excellent food, and it wasn't too pricey - so we're delighted to discovery a real quality restaurant literally minutes from our doorstep! Her birthday potluck dinner is tomorrow, and we're excited about hosting friends from HUC and Hebrew University.

It's getting on toward bedtime, so I thought I'd just post this modified article I read on the Jerusalem Post website. It's a fun piece written by an HUC professor about some Hebrew quirks. No offense if you decide not to read. Cheers!

The Glamour of the Grammar: Double or nothing

There's only one word in Hebrew (or maybe two, but really one) in which the same letter appears four times in a row. Can you think of it? The answer is at the end of the column.

Three identical letters in a row is more common, and two is positively mundane. The issue comes up because we just learned that a dagesh marks a double letter in Hebrew, as, for example, in "שבת," which gets but one bet. If a double letter gets written as a single letter with a dagesh, how is is possible to have double letters after all, to say nothing of triple and even quadruple?

The answer is that, by and large, only double letters with no vowel between them are candidates for dagesh. So in the Hebrew word גג ("roof"), the vowel /a/ blocks the dagesh process. (The word גג brings up another puzzle: How many words can be written with only one letter? I've got 24, also at the end of the column.) Of course, nothing is so simple, because it's not always clear what counts as a vowel, so it's not clear what blocks the dagesh process.

Once again, we use the notion of base word, which is to say, the singular masculine third person. When two letters have no vowel between them in a base word, they get written as one letter with a dagesh. That's why "שבת" gets a bet with a dagesh (it's a base word), and why דיבר ("he spoke") also gets a dagesh in the bet, but סובבה ("she spun") gets double bets, with no dagesh.

But the matter is a little more complicated, because some suffixes meld with their base words, and others don't. ישן means "he slept." It's a base word. The derived form "we slept" ends with the suffix -נו ("we"), but it's ישנו, not ישננו, and it's spelled yud-shin-nun-vav, with - you guessed it - a dagesh in the nun, marking the fact that the root has a nun and so does the suffix.

The suffix -ת ("you") works identically, which is why "you went on strike" is אתה שבת (not אתה שבתת). It's as though these suffixes are part of the base word.

By contrast, the possessive suffixes, like -ך ("yours") do not behave like part of the base word, and they do not merge with the letter before them. So "your king" is מלכך, with two kafs.

Prefixes also stay separate, so "in a house" is בבית.

And now to the puzzles. In which word does the same letter appear four times in a row? And which words can be written with only one letter? Turning to the second one first, we find a handful of two-letter words: גג ("roof"), דד (a rare word for "nipple"), וו ("hook," and also the letter vav), זז ("he moved"), הה ("nose ring"), כך ("so"), מם (the letter mem), סס ("moth"), צץ ("he popped up"), רר (a kind of fish), תת (the prefix "under-"), טט ("giving") and a no fewer than four words spelled shin-shin: שש ("six"), שש ("white linen"), שש (a poetic form of שיש, "marble"), and שש ("he rejoiced"). So that's 15 biliteral words.

To get the triliteral words, we need to add a bit a grammar, because while Arabic has a lovely word yayaya ("he wrote the letter ya [yud]"), Hebrew has nothing parallel. There are no simple words that triplicate letters. But we do have the prefixes ש- ("that") and מ- ("from"), as well as the suffixes -ו ("his") and -ם ("theirs"). So we can build ששש ("that six" or "that marble" or "that white linen"); ששש ("that he rejoiced"), though we have to count shin and sin as the same letter; ממם ("from a mem"); ממם ("their mem"), spelled the same way as ממם; and finally the truly bizarre vav-vav-vav, which spells ווו ("his hook").

The quadriliteral word, the most difficult part of the second puzzle, is also the answer to the first puzzle. Mem-mem-mem-mem spells מממם ("from their mem"), and is the only Hebrew word to put four identical letters in a row. But if you thought of וווו ("and his hook") you win half credit. It should be spelled vav-vav-vav-vav, but an arcane rule of Hebrew spelling generally prevents it

The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

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