Lesson 3: Nouns

Blessing God before study

Abstract

This section marks the beginning of your study of nouns in biblical Hebrew. You’ll begin by learning a few basic nouns and then use these same nouns to explore some simple grammatical concepts that are key to reading biblical Hebrew. Those concepts are:

  1. Spelling changes that indicate number, i.e., whether a noun is singular and plural nouns.
  2. Spelling changes that reflect possession (e.g., “a tree’s leaves”)

A spelling change that has a grammatical consequence is called ‘inflection’.

Introduction

To begin, you’ll need to understand an important grammatical term, “inflection“. Most (all?) languages. At its simplest, an inflected language is one in which one or more parts of speech change their spelling depending on certain grammatical conditions. Let’s take English as our example.

English changes the spelling of its nouns for number, i.e., to indicate whether a noun is plural or singular. For example, the singular noun ‘horse‘ is made plural by adding ‘s’ – horses. In general, most English nouns are made plural by adding ‘s’ or ‘es’ to them. However, there are a few exceptions; the plural of ‘man‘ is ‘men‘, the plural of ‘woman‘ is ‘women‘, the plural of ‘goose‘ is ‘geese‘ and so on. To make this even more complex, some English nouns are not inflected at all – the noun ‘deer‘ for example can be singular (a deer) or plural (three deer). Hebrew nouns, like English, are inflected for number and like English there is a general rule to which there are a host of exceptions.

In this course, we won’t learn the exceptions except for important, frequently occurring nouns. For example, the Hebrew word meaning ‘house’ is very, very important and occurs over 1500 times in the Hebrew Bible. Unfortunately, its inflections are irregular and we’ll just have to learn them.

Showing Possession: The Hebrew Construct Chain

In addition to number, Hebrew nouns, like English nouns, are also inflected for possession. But, the inflection rule is not obvious, nor particularly regular. Accordingly, we’ll learn these inflections on a word-by-word basis.

Here is a brief overview how Hebrew nouns are shown to be possessive. We start by noting English uses the apostrophe to show possession. For example,

the boy’s bat

Unfortunately Hebrew does not have the apostrophe1)in fact, biblical Hebrew has no punctuation whatsoever.. So, as you might guess, Hebrew shows possession by inflecting the noun being possessed (called the construct noun).

Absolute (Normal) Spelling Construct Spelling
 בָּיִת (or בַּיִת) /ba·yeet/  בֵּית /bayt/
 שָׁלוֹם /shalom/  שְׁלוֹם /shəlom/

In the first row, bayeet and bayt both mean ‘house‘, but the word on the right is read as “house of” while the one on the left is simply ‘house‘ or “a house“. In the second row, shalom and shəlom both mean ‘peace’ or ‘tranquility’, but shəlom means “peace of” while shalom means just ‘peace‘. Remember, an inflected noun is translated using ‘of’, as in the next table:

Translation Construct Spelling
house of the LORD  בֵּית יְהוָה
peace of Jerusalem  שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם

NOTE: Some terminology may be in order here: the grammatical term used to describe the case in which one noun modifies or describes another is called the genitive or possessive case (both are interchangeable).

It is worthwhile to emphasize that English inflects the possessor noun (using an apostrophe):

The man’s table.

This tells the reader that the man possesses the table. The opposite is the case for Hebrew: it is the noun being possessed (table in this example) that is inflected. If English were like Hebrew, we would attach the apostrophe to the possessed noun.

The man ‘table

The emphasis in Hebrew is on what is possessed.

Apart from spelling, are there other ways to recognize when a noun is possessed by another noun?  Yes! Whenever two nouns exist side by side the probability is that the first noun is possessed by the second and would be translated as “the <noun> of the <noun>2)the other possibility is that the two nouns represent a verbless clause. We won’t study these until much later..

Let’s summarize what you know so far:

  • The possessor noun is termed to be absolute (i.e., spelled normally) and appears second.
  • The noun being possessed is a construct noun (i.e., inflected) and appears second.

Now, for some simple usage rules, some of which have already been discussed.

  • Two or more nouns showing a possessive relationship is called a construct chain.
  • The possessed noun is said to be in a construct state, is translated as “<noun> of”, is inflected, and always appears first in a construct chain.
  • The noun possessing the construct noun is said to be in the absolute state and is not inflected. Look at the first table above. The two syllable word for house (bayeet = a house) is shortened to one syllable (bayt = house of) in its construct form. Similarly, the absolute form of shalom (peace) is shorted to shəlom (peace of) in the construct form.

One more usage example: possession can be spread across multiple nouns. For example, consider the following sentence:

The city of the state of the country of the hemisphere of the planet on which we live.

The red nouns are construct nouns because they are possessed (or contained in) by the subsequent noun. This example should tell you that a noun in a construct chain of three or more nouns can exist as both a construct and absolute state.

Number

In Hebrew, each noun exists in one of three gender states: masculine, feminine or both3)Rarely. There is no grammatical rule to determine which gender any arbitrary singular noun belongs. You just have to know (or be able to look up) the gender. However, the gender of Hebrew nouns can almost always be derived from how its plural form is formed. In general the rule is this: plural masculine nouns end with the /eem/ sound.

 סוּסִים   שָּׁמַיִם  בָנִים   

By contrast, plural feminine nouns end with the /oht/ sound

 מַצּוֹת   פָּרוֹת   בָנוֹת

Just for fun, here is a phrase from Genesis 5:4:

בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת (/oo·va·noht/) /ba·neem/)

HINT: Before you open your Bible and look at Genesis 5:4, study this phrase carefully. It is two plural nouns, the first of which is a male noun and the other is a female noun. They are separated by a conjunction Vav (= and). Can you guess?

This rule is not hard and fast. In fact, there are a number of exceptions, but we’ll avoid them if possible in this class.

The content of the table below is cumulative.

Vowels אְ  אַ  אָ  אוּ  אֶ  א  א  אִ  אוֹ  אִי  אֵי  אַי  אוֹי
Consonants א  ע  ו  ה  בּ  ב  כ  ך  ל  נ  ן  מ  ם  ת  ר  צ  ץ  י  שׁ  ק  ד  ח
Hebrew for these English Nouns land, day, night, skies, evening, morning, one, light, dark, waters, spirit

Exercise 3: Nouns

 

 

 

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