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Beyond the grammar basics

March 2, 2012

I’ve been having an interesting conversation (it starts in post 6, and you don’t have to register/log in to read the thread) on a relatively subtle (but still potentially reasonably common) structure in Hebrew that I can’t find specifically addressed in any of  the three grammars DH and I have looked up today, either for Biblical or Modern Hebrew. (We read and discuss both, although we only speak the modern variety.)

I’ve asked some other native speaker friends (apparently this is one of those issues of prescriptive preference versus actual practice) and plan to email my most recent teacher for her opinion. I’ve been overthinking the issue, and can’t really remember at this point either what I would naturally say, or may have been taught to say (although I’m still not convinced this was ever specifically addressed). It sounds like either way would likely be acceptable for me to use, as someone with enough of an accent that I’m obviously not a native speaker. (That’s something to work on, but not right now.) The question is, do I want to follow the prescriptive preference, or the naturally practised form of the construction? Personally I’d like to sound educated, but not archaic, and most of all, comfortable and fluent in the language. I will, therefore, be investigating further, but also trying not to overthink things when I need to use the construction.

This isn’t the only instance of variations in grammar and register I’ve come across in Hebrew. The present tense of the verb to sleep, for instance, has an older (but widely used) irregular form that is regularised by many speakers. While I normally use the ‘correct’ form, I’ve been known to use the newer form when it was used first to me by someone offering to help (with my baby). There’s no point sounding snobby!

Some questions for you my blog-readers:

  • How do you investigate grammatical structures not covered by your preferred textbook or grammar?
  • Do you choose to use the ‘preferred’ form, or the more widely used form, in your second and further languages, or do you try to use both in different contexts?

I haven’t gone into the specifics of the question I’m dealing with here, because I’m more interested in the general question, for the sake of this blog. If you have comments either way, I’d be delighted to hear them.


From → Hebrew, Resources

  1. I read the post about Hebrew /et/. I did my PhD in Biblical Hebrew grammar, and the function of /et/ in Biblical Hebrew is a bit of a mystery. It’s usually used as an accusative marker, but is missing in some expected instances and appears in some other instances. For example, it appears a handful of times on the subject of a passive sentence. In Modern Hebrew it is used very consistently on the accusative of a *definite* noun. It is also the preferred way to express accusative pronouns. Biblical Hebrew, like Arabic, usually uses verbal suffixes for pronominal accusatives.

    To address your question I have a background in linguistics, so I find the contrast between preferred (ie, prescriptive) and common expressions fascinating. I’m learning Farsi, and I’ve found that in formal situations, one pronounces words closely to how they’re spelled, while significant differences exist in pronouncing the spoken language. In practical terms, one of my CDs does one, while the other does the other. So I’m just confused sometimes.

    When I run across a construction not explained by grammars, I fell like I’ve discovered something, so I’m excited. I usually look to native speakers. They can’t explain well, but they can give me more examples. So, for example, the plural marker on nouns and adjectives in Farsi does not appear consistently. On Livemocha, people were always correcting me, so I asked what was up. They couldn’t explain. Aha! This is interesting. The grammar books don’t explain, either. I get hungry for examples on this sort of thing; my ears perk up.

    When I run into new grammatical constructions, my ears perk up and my curiosity is piqued. Such discoveries motivate my study.

  2. @originalliterature: are you asking for examples of /et/? in Modern or Biblical Hebrew? Or examples of new structures that pique my interest?

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