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 / 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

This is a rather long lesson including, as it does, an introduction into how biblical Hebrew expresses possession and how to tell if a noun is plural or singular. Along the way, you’ll be introduced to, and learn about, several important grammatical terms, notably ‘inflection’, and ‘construct’ and ‘absolute’ nouns. Let’s get to it.

Inflection: Almost all languages are inflected. This term is used to characterize languages in which the spelling of a word indicates something about its grammatical usage. An simple example will make this clear. English is a language in which possessive nouns are inflected (spelled differently) to show possession. For example, the singular noun ‘horse‘ is made plural by adding the suffix, ‘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 – ‘deer‘ for example can be singular (a deer) or plural (three deer). Hebrew nouns, like English, are inflected for number and like English there are a host of exceptions.

In this lesson we will steer clear of exceptions except for a few important, frequently occurring nouns. For example, the Hebrew word meaning ‘house‘ is important both in terms of frequency1)The word ‘house’ in its various spellings occur over 1500 times in the Hebrew Bible. and theology. Unfortunately, its inflections are irregular and we’ll just have to learn them over time.

Construct and Absolute Nouns: In Hebrew a construct noun is a noun that is possessed by another noun. Construct nouns are always translated with the ‘of’ preposition, such as “land of Canaan” or “peace of the LORD“. In these two examples, ‘land‘ and ‘peace‘ are construct nouns and are the nouns that “belong” to Canaan or the LORD respectively.

An absolute noun is a non-possessive noun.

Showing Possession: The Hebrew Construct Chain

Here is a brief overview how Hebrew nouns are shown to be possessive. But, as usual, we’ll start by noting English indicates possession by adding the suffix, ‘s. For example,

the boy’s bat

Unfortunately Hebrew does not have the apostrophe2)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). NOTE: English inflects the possessive noun, not the noun being possessed. If English were written like Hebrew, the previous example phrase would be written,

the boy bat’s

Note also that in English, the possessive noun always comes first. In Hebrew, the possessive noun always comes second. This is understandable since the only way to express possession in Hebrew is by using the ‘of’ preposition. Continuing with the previous example, note

English Possession Hebrew Possession
the boy’s bat or the bat of the boy the bat of the boy

NOTE: English can express possession using either the ‘s suffix or the of preposition. Not so, Hebrew. Possession is indicated only by the ‘of’ preposition. But here’s the problem. There is no word for ‘of‘ in Hebrew! How can this work? Well, examine the table below but remember that the definite article, /ha/, is always prefixed to its noun. With this in mind here’s how Hebrew possession would be expressed in English

English Written Like Hebrew What It Means
thebat theboy the bat of the boy

You will want to remember that when you’re 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 your 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).

thebat theboy theteam winning3)Adjectives almost always follow the noun they modify. the bat of the boy of the winning team.

So, the first clue that we’re dealing with a construct chain is two or nouns occurring in succession with no intervening verbs. It’s at this point we need to know that construct nouns (the ones being possessed) are spelled differently. For example, consider the Hebrew for the-land, הָאָרֶץ. How would we write the Hebrew for “the land of the land”? Note the first ‘land‘ is construct noun (the one to be translated “land of“) and the second ‘land‘ is the absolute noun (the owner). 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 a segol but its counterpart in second word is marked with a 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 (/er/ 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/  בֵּית /bayt/ – rhymes with fight
 שָׁלוֹם /sha·lom/  שְׁלוֹם /shə·lom/

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

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 terms are interchangeable). Construct chains are just one example of genitive nouns.

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 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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