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Hebrew is an old language with long history and lots of rules and exceptions. For example, the language distinguishes plural from single and masculine from feminine. Hebrew also conjugates verbs and adjectives according to the pronoun, the gender and the tense. And all this according to scriptures from more than two thousand years ago. No wonder even native speakers slip their tongue every now and then. Below are 5 common mistakes just to reassure you that even native speakers don’t always speak perfectly in Hebrew.
צֹומֶת: is “intersection” masculine or feminine?
Most of the feminine Hebrew nouns end with the letter ת or ה, as we’ve already learned. But there are some exceptions, and צֹומֶת is one of them. צֹומֶת means “intersection”, and it appears for the first time in Jewish texts from the second century as masculine. Although it ends with the letter ת, it’s defined as masculine. Yet many Hebrew speakers mix it up. The confusion about its gender started already in the first millennium. Some Jewish scholars referred in their texts to צֹומֶת as masculine, some as feminine. But all of the Hebrew dictionaries, without exception, define it as masculine, corresponding to its pattern. Words in the same pattern, like נוֹפֶת, כּוֹפֶת, appear in the Jewish scriptures as masculine as well. And yet many Israelis still attribute feminine adjectives to צֹומֶת. So, next time correct them – one should say:
צוֹמֶת גָּדוֹל = big junction
צוֹמֶת מֶרְכָּזׅי = central intersection
צוֹמֶת סוֹאֵן = tumultuous junction
One shouldn’t say: צומת גדולה, צומת מרכזית, צומת סואנת.
מׅזְרָן: the correct spelling of the word “mattress”
This issue has already been an advertisement theme; a big Israeli store for beds and mattresses called פּוֹלׅירוֹן (Po-li-ron) made a TV commercial out of it. אוֹמְרׅים מׅזְרָן אוֹ מׅזְרוֹן?, asks the announcer. (Should we say miz-ran or miz-ron?).
They are not the only one engaged in this debate. During the Rio Olympic Games of 2016, Yarden Gerbi, the Israeli judoka, and the correct spelling of the word mattress became a famous meme. Unlike the TV commercial above, the meme is actually answers the big question. While Gerbi holds her opponent down against the mat, she yells: You see this? This is mizran! Not mizron! miz-ran!
The correct Hebrew word for mattress is מׅזְרָן. It appears for the first time in Jewish texts from the second century. The incorrect form of it – מׅזְרוֹן – derived from the Ashkenazi Hebrew that was prevailed among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. The author S.Y. Agnon, for example (whom we’ve already learned about), use the word מׅזְרוֹן in his letters to his wife. Agnon is a respectable persona, but the Academy of the Hebrew Language asserted: one should say מׅזְרָן, not מׅזְרוֹן.
◌ַאי: the appropriate suffix for professionals
There are quite a few suffixes in Hebrew, some of which are pretty similar to one another. For example: the ending ◌ַאי (ai) and the ending ◌ָאׅי (a-yi). Although very close in pronunciation, they are different in meaning. The first one – ◌ַאי – is an ending indicates a professional. For example:
חַקְלַאי = farmer
עִתּוֹנַאי = journalist
תַּסְרִיטַאי = screenwriter
בַּנְקַאי = banker
פִּרְסוּמַאי = publicist
מָתֶמָטִיקַאי = mathematician
The second suffix – ◌ָאׅי – indicates an adjective related to this profession. For example:
חַקְלָאִי = agricultural
עִתּוֹנָאִי = journalistic
בַּנְקָאִי = related to banking
Note: not every professional has a matching adjective.
Be aware not to mix up those two suffixes like some Israelis do.
נׅרְאֶה: the correct pronunciation of the word “seems”
It’s the same root, the same verb, the same letters, the same meaning. Only two things are different: the last vowel and the tense. נׅרְאָה (nir-ah) means “seemed”. נׅרְאֶה (nir-eh) means “seems, is seeming, will seem”. No wonder Israelis are confused. Most of them consistently use the first form – נׅרְאָה – no matter which tense is referred to. But the correct form for the present and the future tenses is נׅרְאֶה. An easy way to remember it is by the phrases:
כַּנּׅרְאֶה = apparently
כְּכָל הַנִּרְאֶה = probably
כְּפִי הַנִּרְאֶה = in all likelihood
Those phrases are used in the present tense only, and just like our present tense verb they end with an eh sound.
Numeral distinction between masculine and feminine
Usually in Hebrew, the suffix ◌ָה indicates a feminine noun, as we’ve already learned. With numerals, though, this ending indicates a masculine noun is been counted. When the noun in question is masculine, the numeral gets the feminine ending. When the noun in question is feminine, the numeral ends in consonant (like a masculine noun does). For example, the word ‛girl’ is feminine – יַלְדָּה (ends with ה). But when counting three girls the numeral ends with a consonant: שָׁלוֹשׁ יְלָדוֹת. The opposite will occur when counting the masculine noun ‛boy’ – יֶלֶד (ends with a consonant). When referring to three boys, the numeral receives the suffix ◌ָה for feminine nouns: שְׁלוֹשָׁה יְלָדׅים.
All the Semitic languages share this reversal distinction, and in Hebrew it causes a lot of mistakes. I’m a native Hebrew and I’m still get confused frequently, which drives my mom crazy. So don’t give up! עׅבְרׅית שָׂפָה קָשָׁה (Hebrew is a difficult language), even to native speakers. A mistake here or there won’t do any harm. Just keep practicing and don’t be afraid to speak up.