Making Sense of Hebrew Syntax

The syntax (the arrangement of words to make sentences), or Tachbir (tahch-beer), of a Hebrew sentence is quite different from English. Have a look at the basics of word order — what syntax looks like in English, and how Hebrew is different. Also discover how to say there is and there isn't, because if you can use this simple sentence construction, you can say a lot — just plug in the noun of your choice, and you'll be speaking Hebrew!

Putting your sentences in order

When you read or hear Modern Hebrew sentences, you may think they're oddly constructed compared to English or any other European language. In English, so much depends on word order. In Hebrew, on the other hand, less depends on word order. For example, in Hebrew you could say either of the following:

  • Memshalah Chadashah Kamah (mehm-shah-lah chah-dah-shah kah-mah; Literally: government new arises)
  • Kamah Memshalah Chadashah (kah-mah mehm-shah-lah chah-dah-shah; Literally: arises government new).

Both of these phrases mean the same thing: A new government rises. The order of the words doesn't affect the meaning.

Look at another example in English. "Mollie kissed Harry" isn't the same as "Harry kissed Mollie," is it? Certainly not to Mollie — or for that matter, to Harry.

In Hebrew, sometimes a verb, especially one without an object, comes before its subject, not after it as in English. Under certain conditions, you can identify the direct object (person or thing acted upon, as opposed to person or thing doing the acting) because the word Et (eht) precedes the direct object.

You know it was Mollie who did the kissing whether you say:

  • Mollie Nishkah Et Fred (moh-lee neesh-kah eht fred; Literally: Mollie kissed Fred)
  • Mollie Et Fred Nishkah (moh-lee eht fred neesh-kah; Literally: Mollie Fred kissed)
  • Et Fred Nishkah Mollie (eht fred neesh-kah moh-lee; Fred [is] kissed [by] Mollie.)

These sentences, despite their different word order, all mean essentially the same thing: Mollie kissed Fred.

To say there is or there are, use the word Yesh(yehsh) before the noun you want to talk about.To say there isn't or there aren't, use the word Ayn(ayn) before the noun. For example:

  • Yesh Bananot.(yehsh bah-nah-noht; There are bananas.)
  • Ayn Bananot.(ayn bah-nah-noht;) There aren't any bananas.)

Now, pick a noun, any noun, and put a Yesh or an Ayn in front of it. You'll be speaking Hebrew!

Questioning

When you make a question, you don't change the order of the words like in English. You can ask a question in a few different ways. The first is by simply taking a statement and putting a question mark in your voice (by raising your voice at the end of the sentence.) Thus, when asked with the proper intonation, this statement can be a question: Yesh Chalav BaMakrer? (yesh chah-lahv bah-mahk-rehr ?; there's milk in the refrigerator?)

Another way to turn this statement into a question is by adding the word Nachon (nah-chohn; correct) to the end of the statement. In grammar-speak, this word is called a tag. For example: Yesh Chalav BaMakrer, Nachon? (yehsh chah-lahv bah-mahk-rehr, nah-chohn?; there's milk in the refrigerator, correct?)

Yet another way to turn a statement into a question is to add the question word, Ha'im (hah-eem) in front of the sentence. For example: Ha'im Yesh Chalav BaMakrer? (hah-eem yehsh chah-lahv bah-mahk-rehr; is there milk in the refrigerator?) This last option is the most formal option, so you won't hear it often.

While Hebrew differs from English in that you don'tneed to flip the order in a statement in order to make it a question, the word-order flexibility of Hebrew allows the speaker to stress a particular part of the sentence by putting it at the beginning.

For example, if someone just said there are no strawberries in the fridge, you may ask: Bananot Yesh? (bah-nah-noht yesh; Literally: bananas there are?; but are there bananas?) Or, you may also ask: Bananot Ayn? bah-nah-noht ehn?; Literally: bananas there aren't?;aren't there bananas?)

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