Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Grammatical Gender in the Early Modern Hasidic Hebrew Tale

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Grammatical Gender in the Early Modern Hasidic Hebrew Tale

Article excerpt


Hasidic Hebrew hagiographic tales composed in Eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century constitute one of the most extensive repositories of narrative Hebrew on the cusp of its revernacularization. This important but hitherto neglected language exhibits many morphosyntactic differences from prominent earlier varieties of Hebrew. One particularly striking way in which Hasidic Hebrew deviates from canonical precedent is in its approach to grammatical gender: Hasidic Hebrew tales are replete with non-standard noun and pronoun gender as well as gender discord in noun-adjective and verb phrases. On initial inspection, these deviations appear to be completely haphazard and seem to justify the common criticism of Hasidic Hebrew literature--first proposed by the authors' contemporaneous maskilic opponents and later widely adopted by the scholarly community--that the non-standard usages are simply unsystematic errors committed by ignorant writers failing to replicate the norms of canonical Hebrew grammar. (1) However, close examination suggests that in most cases these seemingly arbitrary usages can actually be grouped into several clear categories, and that these categories are attributable to a number of reasonably consistent factors; thus, Hasidic Hebrew authors do seem to have employed a coherent system of grammatical gender, but one that follows different rules from other forms of the language.

First, Hasidic Hebrew noun gender is determined relatively strictly by phonetic factors: masculine singular nouns end in any sound except e; feminine singular nouns end in e; all plural nouns ending in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]-are masculine; and all those ending in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]-are feminine. Second, Hasidic Hebrew third person singular pronouns are used interchangeably for referents of both genders, while second person masculine pronouns may be used for feminine referents; these phenomena seem to be due mainly to Ashkenazic pronunciation patterns and influence from the authors' native Yiddish respectively. Third, gender in noun-adjective phrases is dominated by a tendency toward phonetic suffix concord, with deviations from this trend primarily restricted to demonstratives and the numerals [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (one and two), where the authors did not perceive a difference between the masculine and feminine modifiers. Fourth, gender discord with numerals 3-19 reflects a process of simplification whereby the masculine forms tend to replace their feminine counterparts. Finally, the widespread gender discord exhibited in verb phrases is again due primarily to phonetic considerations, processes of simplification, and Yiddish influence.

These trends suggest that while the Hasidic Hebrew authors may indeed have been ignorant of the canonical Hebrew gender rules their writing nevertheless represents a well-developed and relatively cohesive system, and moreover that this system indicates Hasidic Hebrew to be a thriving (if non-vernacular) idiom subject to common processes of linguistic development such as regularization, simplification, and influence from other languages. I shall present and analyze these points with illustrative examples from Hasidic tales published by the prominent collectors M. L. Rodkinsohn, M. M. Bodek, J. Kaidaner, E. Shenkel, I. M. Bromberg, and F. Munk.


Hasidic authors appear to have an inconsistent understanding of Hebrew noun gender, often treating traditionally feminine nouns as masculine and vice versa. However, this seemingly chaotic approach actually reflects a relatively regular system in which a noun's gender is dictated by the pronunciation of its ending, as detailed below.

2.1. Masculine Singular Nouns

In Hasidic Hebrew, singular nouns not ending in the vowel sound a (see

2.2. for further discussion of this sound) are almost invariably masculine. …

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