0

In Hebrew, we, of course, read from right to left. Take the following sentence, for example:

המורה למוזיקה אומרת לדני לא להתרגעש לפני הקונצרט
ha-moreh/morah le-muzikah omeret le-Dani lo lehitragesh lifnei ha-kontsert
The music teacher said to Dani not to get anxious before the concert

The subject here is המורה, which can mean either a male teacher (pronounced ha-moreh) or a female teacher (pronounced ha-morah).

The form of the verb tells us that מורה here refers to a female teacher and should thus be pronounced ha-morah, but the verb comes after the subject. Before getting to the verb, it’s a 50-50 guess whether the subject is male or female.

Is there a way to ascertain the gender of the subject without having to read ahead when reading the sentence linearly? And if not, does this ambiguity not cause confusion in practical terms?

17
  • 1
    If you say that sentence in English, the teacher's gender is never indicated at all, is it? That doesn't seem to cause any problems for English-speakers.
    – Draconis
    Apr 28, 2023 at 4:42
  • 3
    "By the verb conjugation, we know that מורה refers to a female teacher. ... Is there another way to ascertain the gender of the subject?" Why would you want to ignore the part of the grammar that answers your question?
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 28, 2023 at 7:11
  • 2
    @curiousdannii because when you read the sentence out loud, you have to pronounce the subject before the verb. The question is if it does not pose problems that you have to scan ahead. This aspect should be made clearer, but it’s a legitimate linguistic question.
    – Keelan
    Apr 29, 2023 at 6:15
  • 3
    In practice you tend to have context for whatever you're reading, so I expect cases of confusion are pretty rare. It's not that big a deal to have to repeat a word in a different gender once in a long while.
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 29, 2023 at 14:25
  • 2
    @Cairnarvon honestly, you should post that as an answer; it deserves to be accepted. Apr 29, 2023 at 16:43

4 Answers 4

3

This is not really different from המורה בבית hamore/a bavayit "The teacher is in the house", except that a later word may show that the reader made the wrong choice.

It's therefore not really different from English They read the newspaper, which could have two different pronunciations of read with two different meanings - "present" (actually, timeless or habitual) and past. A later word that somehow specifies time may indicate which was meant, eg they read the newspaper every day vs they read the newspaper yesterday.

1
  • 1
    Indeed, even with the adverbial every day the sentence remains ambiguous; e.g., “My aunt and uncle were of the old world: they lived in a grand house, they always ate their dinner at 8 o’clock on the dot, and they read the newspaper every day over breakfast”. May 3, 2023 at 0:15
0

If this were going to be a problem, let's say it's being read aloud from a teleprompter, then the writer would put in the vowels for that particular word.

2
0

My guess would be that it would either be evident from context, or irrelevant. If it were relevant and not evident from context, then you could write it with the vowel diacritics.

This is probably at least part of the reason that languages like this take one gender as the default, instead of always indicating. I'm not too familiar with Hebrew, but I'm pretty sure that the male form of a human noun is the default, so ha-moreh would at least work with a female teacher. And when they read further and see the feminine verb, they could correct themselves.

1
  • I only know ancient Hebrew, but I doubt that the masculine would be grammatical with a feminine verb. (There is a relatively rare phenomenon that a feminine subject takes a masculine verb, but it’s the opposite and I don’t know if this happens in Modern Hebrew too.) Also, according to en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niqqud vowel pointing is not used for disambiguation.
    – Keelan
    Apr 30, 2023 at 5:42
-2

In Hebrew the verb usually precedes its subject. This means that one should already know from the verb what the subject's gender is when reading it.

For example:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (Bereshit 1:1) In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

Reading carefully from right to left in that Hebrew text, we see the word order: "bereshit" (in beginning) "bara" (created, third-person masculine singular) "elohim" (God) "et" ([direct-object marker (DOM), not translated]) "ha-shamayim" (the heavens) "wa-et" (and [DOM]) "ha-arets" (the earth).

So, "In the beginning created God...." This subject-after-verb format is the usual grammar, though many exceptions exist.

In most languages, a reader needs to read ahead somewhat, if for no other reason than to know where to place proper expression in the sentence. For example, is it going to end as a question or as a statement?

Reading takes practice in any language, and Hebrew is no exception. In fact, with Hebrew it is common to need to read at least a short distance ahead. If one has the word "כָל/kal" in Hebrew followed by the mappiq (like a hyphen), it must be read as "kol", yet the spelling does not change: the punctuation after the syllable determined its pronunciation, e.g. "כָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ" (kol-ha-arets/all the earth). Granted this is but a short distance beyond the start of the word, but it illustrates the need to look ahead before one begins to pronounce the text.

11
  • 2
    This question is about Modern Hebrew, which usually has Subject-Verb-Object order.
    – Keelan
    May 1, 2023 at 7:05
  • @Keelan Perhaps I should ask the next question here, then: "How does one know which version of Hebrew one is asking about before answering the question?" I note that you are the only one who has used the word "Modern" on this entire page up until now, and you are not the one who asked the question. In either case, readers must look ahead--sometimes that is simply the truth, whether one wishes for it to be so or not.
    – Biblasia
    May 1, 2023 at 7:44
  • 4
    The quote in the question uses SVO; it talks about music (a Greek loan that postdates Biblical Hebrew) and music teachers, concerts (a loan from French) and people called Dani; and its transliteration is clearly modern, not Biblical. Those are all pretty clear clues that this is not about Biblical Hebrew, despite the word ‘Modern’ not being explicitly used. May 1, 2023 at 9:20
  • 1
    In fact, there turns out to be one case: Ps 119:96. I did not expect that. However, the pointing still indicates that it is pronounced kol. You are correct that there are two pronunciations of qametz in some traditions. It is pronounced o in closed unstressed syllables and ā everywhere else. When a word is joined with maqqef to the following word, it forms one prosodic unit and only one stress; for this reason כל will in these environments always be pronounced kol. But since the word is otherwise written with holem, I don't use it myself as an example of short qametz.
    – Keelan
    May 1, 2023 at 19:02
  • 1
    The example I use myself is חָכְמָה ḥokhmā 'wisdom' vs. חָֽכְמָה ḥākhəmā 'she was wise'. In both words the second qametz is stressed (and in an open syllable), so pronounced long. In the first word the first qametz is unstressed and in a closed syllable, so pronounced o. In the second word the first qametz is unstressed, but the meteg forces a long pronunciation ā, which also triggers the vocal schwa. If you use the cantillation marks to determine where the stress lies and follow these rules, you do not need to look at the maqqef for pronunciation.
    – Keelan
    May 1, 2023 at 19:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.