Chapter I.2. More Talking

Before we get up close and personal with the scary alphabet, let’s familiarize ourselves more with Hebrew words. We already know how to say where we’re from and what’s our name is. Let’s start with another way of telling our name, now the most popular one:

Shmi Adam.

This is literally “My name is Adam”, not just “I’m Adam”. We already know that Hebrew needs no “is” in such simple construct. But where’s “my” and where’s “name”? Well, actually “-i” is “my” and “shm” is sort of “name”. Don’t worry, if you just want to say “name” in Hebrew, you won’t have to struggle trying to pronounce a word with no vowels in it. It’s actually “shem”, but when the “-i” ending is attached, “e” disappears (drops out). It is actually the same process that causes “a” to disappear in “aratsot” when “ha-brit” is attached to it. In both cases, something gets attached to a word and it causes one of the vowels in the word to disappear. There are only two differences, really:

  1. In the case with “aratsot” it’s the next word “ha-brit” that’s attached, and in the case with “shmi” it’s the “-i” ending.

  2. In the case with “aratsot” it’s the second vowel that is dropped (“artsot”, not “aratst”), and in the case with “shmi” it’s the first and the only one.

The first point illustrates that in Hebrew there are rules that apply more than in one case. Namely, vowel dropping happens when something stressed is attached to a word. Usually it’s an ending or a suffix, but it could also be another word in the case with smikhut. The thing is while in smikhut both words have their own stress, the smikhut as a whole is considered to have its own stress, and it’s always on the last word. That’s why the same rules apply. This makes it particularly interesting to Hebrew learners, because once you know the rules of the vowel dropping, you can figure out how to make nismakh for many words too! The rules aren’t strictly the same, but the differences are minor.

The second point is actually pretty simple: different vowels drop at different distances from the stress:

Now I must warn you that these rules aren’t strictly correct. First of all, they apply only to nouns, participles, adjectives and numbers (collectively called names or “shem” in Hebrew). Moreover, they are given here in an incomplete form. The thing is, there are different “a”s and “o”s in Hebrew, just like in English words “bud” and “far”, “pot” and “awe”. Unlike English, though, they are pronounced the same way! But they still differ grammatically, so an “a” may drop or not depending on what kind of “a” it is. If it sounds scary, don’t worry: there aren’t that many kinds of vowels and they’re pretty easy to distinguish once you get the hang of it, we’ll get to it later.

Let’s get back to the word “shmi”. The ending “-i” means “my”, as I’ve already mentioned. That’s a funny way of specifying ownership of something, which only used in limited cases in modern Hebrew, just like smikhut. In fact, such endings may be considered a special case of smikhut, only with a pronoun as the second part. That is, “shmi” is “name of mine”.

Now that we’ve learned to introduce ourselves properly, it’s time to ask someone their name. Now in English I use the plural “their” with “someone” which looks a bit silly, right? This is because I don’t want to sound as a sexist using “he” when it could also be “she”. But then if you ask someone their name, there is no such problem, it’s just “What’s your name?” in English, no matter who are you talking to, right? Well, that’s another story in Hebrew because here are two different “your” for boys and girls:

The easiest part here is “ma”, which is just “what” (or “which” in some contexts). There is no “is” as always. As for the second word(s), you may have already guessed that these are another forms of “shem”, and that “-kha” must be the masculine “your”, whereas “-ekh” is the feminine one. The only thing left to figure out is what happened to vowels in “shem”.

The easiest is the feminine case (that’s why I put it first, not just because of respect to girls). It’s the same vowel dropping as with “shmi”, and that’s about it.

In the masculine case, if you just attach “-kha” and drop the vowel, you’ll get a really terrible word: “shmkha”. Isn’t it a real pleasure, trying to pronounce it? What, you don’t think so? Well, apparently neither did Jews when they decided to insert “i” there. Why “i”? Because it’s the easiest vowel to pronounce, especially at the beginning of a word. Or at least they believed so. But there’re no strict rules about it. Sometimes the vowel that was there in the first place is brought back to life, in this case it would be “shemkha” then, which looks reasonable enough, but unfortunately wrong. At least “i” and the-vowel-that-was-there-in-the-first-place are the most typical cases, so you can rather safely assume that it won’t be “shomkha”, “shumkha” or whatever else. But you still need to look in the dictionary to figure out the correct answer.

You may ask why drop it in the first place if we’re going to insert something there afterwards? Well, that’s a pretty good question, but apparently Jews don’t look for easy ways. The good news is that the vowel is the same for all word forms where it must appear (that is, when there would be too many consonants otherwise). So if you know that it’s “shimkha”, then you can be sure it will be “shim-whatever” if you need to attach some other ending to it and it starts with a consonant too, like “-kha”.

But when exactly does this vowel insertion happen? In rough, it happens when there are three consonants in a row, and the new one is inserted between the first two. While it won’t be strictly true in the middle of a word, and the real rule is a bit more complicated, at the beginning of a word this simplification works well enough, so let’s settle on that for a while.

The conclusion for this chapter: