One of the most common errors people make when learning Hebrew revolves around the subject of gender. Unlike English, in Hebrew almost every verb, noun or adjective can be conjugated according to its gender – male or female. Therefore, it can be quite confusing when one has to decide whether a certain word is considered male or female. Verbs and adjectives have fixed patterns of conjugation and are therefore easily defined, with the endings “Ah” or “Et” added at their end to mark them as female, i.e. Katan (M), Ktana (F) = small; Holech (M), Holechet (F) = walking, and so on. As for nouns, people who are familiar with the Hebrew language can often recognize the gender by the sound of the word alone, but beginners often find it quite challenging, and this is what we’re here to help you with!
One useful way of identifying an object’s gender is by converting it from single to plural, which gives us a clearer clue as to the word’s gender, according to its sound. The ending “Im” generally applies to male words, i.e Banim (boys), Gvarim (men), while the ending “Ot” generally applies to female words, i.e Banot (girls), Gvarot (ladies). Unfortunately for the Hebrew learning community, there are plenty of exceptions on this front. In fact, the rule of plural endings only applies for roughly 2 thirds of Hebrew nouns, and even native Hebrew speakers often make mistakes with regards to the grammatical gender of objects. Here are some some examples, for clarification:
Bayt = House, Batim = Houses (male)
Gina = Garden, Ginot = Gardens (female)
These are classic exaples of the unexceptional noun, where pluralizing clearly indicates its gender.
Even = stone, Avanim = stones (female)
Off = Chicken, Offot = chickens (male)
These are examples of exceptional nouns. Allthough their ending sounds like it’s indicating a gender, they actually belong to the opposite one.
To make things even more bizzare, some Hebrew nouns are considered genderless, thus they are both male and female. Examples: Sakin = knife, sakinim = knives, Ru’ach = wind, ruchot = winds and so on. All genderless nouns originally had one gender, but were modified thanks to the influences of the Arameic language and Hazal writings, which eventually led to their current ambiguity.
This leads to some interesting questions about Hebrew culture and its attitude towards sex and gender. Why was it so important to set a gender for each word to begin with, and what is the meaning behind it? We know that generally, the Hebrew and Jewish cultures are very much patriarchial, thus the male plays the authoritative role while the female has a more functional role in the family life. We are also well familiarized with the inequality between men and women, and the controversy over religious taboos which revolve around the issue of gender. Indeed, gender in the Jewish world is in many aspects a sensitive issue, not to be discussed in public, so it’s surprising to find that of all fields of study, Hebrew linguistics was the one to take things a step further into the stream of conceptualized gender. Either way, it surely provides some good poetry to ponder over, and lots of room for imagination! I invite you, Hebrew-learning readers of all genders to go out and explore, and if you’re already doing it, do it in Hebrew!
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