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 important grammatical concepts that are key to reading biblical Hebrew. These concepts are:

  1. Spelling / pronounciation changes that reflect possession (e.g., “a tree’s leaves”). Such changes are called inflections.
  2. Spelling / pronounciation changes that indicate number, i.e., whether a noun is singular or plural.

Introduction

In biblical Hebrew possession1)When discussing how a language expresses possession, you will often hear grammarians use the term genitive case. The two are equivalent. is expressed in either of two ways. The first way, and the subject of this lesson, uses something we call the “construct chain”. The second, which will be introduced in a following lesson, is to use pronomial suffixes2)For example, to express pronomial possession (his house, her horse) we add an appropriate suffix to the noun being possessed.. In biblical Hebrew the construct chain expresses the ‘of’ relationship. Two examples of this kind of possession would be “the house of David” meaning “David’s house” or “the land of my father” meaning my father’s land. Along the way, you’ll be introduced to, and learn about, several important grammatical concepts that pertain to this topic, specifically the terms ‘inflected’, ‘construct’and ‘absolute’. Let’s get to it.

Inflection: Almost all languages are inflected. Simply put, an inflected noun (or other parts of speech) are spelled [and usually pronounced] differently depending on their grammatical state. In English, for example, one of the simplest and most common examples of inflection is to signify a noun’s plurality by changing the noun’s spelling by adding the characters ‘s or es.

ASIDE: More formally, we would say that a language is inflected for number if a plural word is spelled differently than its singular counterpart). In English, for example, plural nouns are pronounced/spelled with an added /s/ or /es/ sound such as horse (singular) or horses (plural). Inflection is not restricted to number. For example many languages, including both biblical Hebrew and English, are inflected for gender (masculine or feminine). Some English pronouns are inflected for gender. For example, ‘his’ and ‘her’ are inflections of the third person singular pronouns. On the other hand, the third person indefinite pronoun, ‘it’, is not inflected for gender3)Hebrew is much simpler. All pronouns are inflected for gender. There are no exceptions.

Showing Possession: Construct and Absolute Nouns: In biblical Hebrew a word equivalent to the English word ‘of’ does not exist. Instead, biblical Hebrew inflects the noun that is possessed usually by spelling the first syllable of the noun (but not always) using a “short” vowel. The noun that is possessed and whose spelling is changed is called the construct noun because its spelling is constructed to indicate that it is the noun being possessed. In the two examples below, the term absolute is the normal, non-constructed case:

Absolute Construct
“a land” – (/ah·retz/) אָרֶץ  “a land of” – (/eh·retz/) אֶרֶץ
“a word” – (/da·var/) דָּבָר “a word of” – (/də·var/) דְּבַר

Observe that the pronounciation of the construct form has the first syllable shortened. This is especially evident in how the second word is pronounced, i.e., davar vs. dəvar (its construct form). In most cases where a noun is constructed the first syllable is shortened.

In Hebrew a construct noun is a noun that is possessed by another noun. When encountering two nouns side-by-side and the first one has a shortened vowel in the first syllable (such as the words in column two above) then you should think, “the first noun is owned or in an of relationship with the second (“land of Canaan” or “word of the LORD“. In these two examples, ‘land‘ and ‘word‘ are both in the construct state and are the nouns that “belong” to Canaan or the LORD respectively. Also, in these two examples, ‘Canaan’ and ‘LORD’ are absolute, i.e., they are the nouns that own the construct nouns.

Study the following table that compares how Hebrew and English represent the possessive relationship

Represented Hebraically English
the son of man the man’s son
the house of David David’s house

The Hebrew Construct Chain

One of the differences between English and Hebrew when considering the ‘of’ or possessive relationship is this:

  1. English inflects the possessing noun (e.g., adding an ‘s’).
  2. Hebrew inflects the noun being possessed (e.g., using a short vowel in the 1st syllable).

Note also that in English, the possessive noun always comes first and is spelled with an appropriate suffix (e.g., ‘s or es). In Hebrew, the possessive noun always comes second and is the object of the ‘of’ preposition. This is understandable since the only way to express possession in Hebrew is by using a construct noun. Continuing with the previous example, note English can be written two different ways to show possession, while Hebrew can be written only one way

English Possession Hebrew Possession
“God’s word” or “word of God” “word of God”

When reading the Hebrew Bible, you will often run across two nouns adjacent to each other – with no verb in between. This will be your first clue that you’re dealing with a “construct chain” – two or more nouns occurring sequentially with no intervening verbs. Huh? Two or more? Here’s an example of a construct chain consisting of two construct nouns (red) and one absolute noun (magenta).

NOTE: definite articles are always prepended to their noun and monifiers (‘winning’) always come after the noun they modify).

English Written Like Hebrew English
thebat theboy theteam winning the bat of the boy of the winning team.

Now, consider the Hebrew for the-land, הָאָרֶץ. How would we write the Hebrew for “the land of the land”? Note the first ‘land‘ is a construct noun (the one to be translated “land of“) and the second ‘land‘ is the absolute noun (the owner) because the first syllable is shortened. Here’s the Hebrew:

הָאֶרֶץ הָאָרֶץ

Examine and compare the spelling of the two words very carefully. Do you see the spelling difference? The Aleph of first word,הָאֶרֶץ, is marked with the shorter sounding seghol but its counterpart in second word is marked with the longer sounding chamats. The pronunciation makes this somewhat more clear:

Construct form (הָאֶרֶץ) /ha·eretz/
Absolute form (הָאָרֶץ) /ha·aretz/

In other words, the first syllable of the construct form is shortened (/eh/ instead of /ah/). The general rule, of which there are many exceptions unfortunately, is that when you encounter two nouns in succession and the first syllable of the first noun is shortened, you have a construct chain. The chart below illustrates two other nouns in which the first syllable of the construct noun is shortened.

Absolute Spelling Construct Spelling
 בָּיִת (or בַּיִת) /ba·yeet/ – house  בֵּית /bayt/ – house of
 שָׁלוֹם /sha·lom/ – peace  שְׁלוֹם /shə·lom/ – peace of

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 ‘peace‘.

Finally, in the table below are some phrases taken directly from the Bible that illustrate how construct nouns are used.

Translation Possessive Spelling
… the house of the LORD  בֵּית יְהוָה
… the peace of Jerusalem  שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם
… in the land of Canaan בְּאֶרֶץ־כְּנָעַן

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 – usually by shortening its first syllable, 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. Examine at the 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 in which we live.

The red nouns are construct nouns because they are possessed by a subsequent noun.

Number

<IN PROGRESS>

In Hebrew, each noun exists in one of three gender states: masculine, feminine or both4)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) its 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 – /ba·neem/ /oo·va·noht/

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 the conjunction Vav (= and).

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 table below summarizes the vowels, consonants, and nouns for this lesson.

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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