Hermaphroditic Numbers: Learning Hebrew (12-23-05)
Hebrew — learning it — I have said little about. I play in my head what I might sound like if my Hebrew errors were in English. I can only approximate. In Hebrew, each verb has a connecting word following it before a proper noun; not entirely like English. One word, et, is not translateable; literally it could mean ‘to.’ in some contexts. But I might err in saying, “I want to talk “on” you.” Or, “May I ride to you in your car.”
I will try to sort out a few more examples. But now to numbers. Hebrew numbers are hermaphroditic, or perhaps have gender dysphoria, or like some primitive life forms, change gender at puberty. First, Hebrew is a gendered tongue (unlike us simpler-minded English speakers; we are still Puritan-tainted — shy away from sex even in our words). Therefore, there are female and male numbers. Rather, when a number is associated with a noun, it takes on the gender of the noun. Here, already we have a chameleon-like quality of numbers, a readiness to take on the morphology of whom it is abutting. But, that’s just the beginning. Feminine words generally end with ah, or et —unless they are numbers. Male numbers generally end with ah; up until they reach puberty — eleven. Then male numbers lose their ah’s, a version of castration realization. But, female numbers, upon reaching puberty, grow a tail, eh. Perhaps a version of female penis realization: hit puberty, get a tail.
You with me so far?
Now, in general, when just counting, the quotidian stuff, female numbers are preferred, easier, shorter words (prepubertally, at least): achat, shta’im,shalosh, arbah, chamesh, shesh, sheva, shemoneh, tesha, eser. Then up pops the new endings, starting with achat esreh. Male numbers sound — well, a bit awkward prepubertally — a bit long on the tongue, unwieldy: echad, shna’im, shloshah, arbahah, chamisha, shisha, shivah, shemonah, tishah, and, get this, asarah. Another reason for males to envy females, besides womb envy.
Unclear to me if this is a clear matter of hermaphroditism, or gender confusion. For the male numbers in puberty still consider themselves male, even though topographically, so to speak, they have sprouted rather feminine-sounding addenda. Ibid for the ladies: they seem to consider themselves female, even after adding a touch of something on
their pudenda. And all this just for numbers.
With words, I have marvelously many ways to make myself misunderstood. The most parsimonious (a misuse of the word “parsimonious,” when I mean to say, “simplest”) is to shuffle a letter. So, instead of saying hafganah, (“demonstration”), I say hagfanah (something akin to “wine”-y, although not “whiney,” which would be a more fitting parapraxis for some demonstrations). I can be much more creative, taking a central letter and like some rotating door, swivel a few letters around it to make a different word: I take the “g” in magdir, (“define”) and flip a few letters around it to say, mafgin, (demonstrate.) That is instead of defining a word, I end up making a demonstration about it. Imagine the surprise of the listener, who might picture me about to loft a sign above my head and march circles around him, perhaps with a word scrawled upon it.
I am known to substitute a letter: For margish, (feel) I simply swipe the “r” and replace with an “f,” creating mafgish, (something like “meet”); I go from wanting to feel something, to wanting to meet something. Well, maybe not too far apart conceptually — problem arises if the something is a someone in the sentence.
These are but the simple measures I have taken to tailor the language, to have a “bespoke” Hebrew — so to speak. I bring my personal Jeremyn Street “word tailor” along to resize the language to my fit. I can be much more creative than simply having sleeves or cuffs done, as above.
I, like some Biblical writer, have been known to stun my listener by using past tense mixed with future tense, leaving them uncertain whether I am coming (from the past) or going (to the future): Just today, I told (siparti) Moshe, my sapar (haircut guy — saparit, for the lady ones), who gave me my tisporet, (“do”) with his mispara’im (scissors) — (Are you getting the drift of the word connections in my transliteration?) — anyhow, I told him — now hold onto your beret — that “I will leave early this morning from Ra’anana, and arrived late to Jerusalem.” Time travel I just did, in a
word. I can break through the space-time continuum in the other direction — into the future — also verbally: “The lecture on dreams I gave today will go very well.” I have many other such variations which
do not defy Einstein physics, I believe.
Now, back to the previous paragraph, if I may travel backwards for a moment. Roots in Hebrew are wonderful to play with; sometimes confound. In a 1950’s book, I think called, How the Hebrew Language was Built, or something akin to that, shorashim, roots, sprout in many directions. For instance, sapar, saparit, tisporet, mispara’im; makes sense that they share the root, spr, as they have to do with cutting. But what about the word mispar? How’d that get in there? I learned that in times before the Egyptians laid papyrus on us, when numbers needed to be recorded — like how many sheeves of wheat did you cut today — these numbers (misparim), were cut, tispar, into stone. Walla! (Said with a tone of wonder or discovery, and a slight labial to the “w,” coming from the Arabic. Not too far removed and perhaps a precurser of voila.) In the book, he takes a word like echad , “one” (three letters as every root is in Hebrew) and from this gets the conceptually related words: yachad, together, myuchad, special, bimyuchad, especially, and a whole series of mono or uni words, such as chad-goni, monotone. Also, the commonly used word amen (I will believe, or I believe), shares roots with aoman, (artist — someone, who follows Aristotle’s dictum to “imitate” reality in a believable way).
Also, I make hay of such words, lofting the word in one direction, such as a chat about “togetherness,” then a wind catches me and sends me into “specialness.” Are you still with me?
I have constructed more sophisticated malapropisms, syntactical gymnastics of Olympic proportion that would have made Mrs. Malaprop blush. But a few warm-ups. I am known to start with a masculine noun, then shift gears into a feminine verb, mismatching, so to speak, verbal chromosomes. I attribute this to the influence of living in the gender-bending milieu of San Francisco for some years; that is, a temporary influence. The plural/singulars of verbs give me much creative opportunities. I may start with you singularly, then multiply you within blink of an eye (or slip of a tongue) with a verb. Like entering some kaleidoscope of selfhood, you will see yourself multiply-reflected. A verbal Prospero, I can do this with only one word. I will mis-conbabble kvar, “already,” with adayin, “still”: when I think I am saying apologetically, “I still don’t speak Hebrew well,” what emerges from my lips is, “I already don’t speak Hebrew well.” In such a slip, I “Q.E.D.” myself, should the listener have any doubt.
Well, perhaps enough for now.