Tag Archives: Hebrew

When verbs disagree

This morning I had an unexpected cross-linguistic learning experience.

When not obsessing about Spanish, one of my other passions is learning and chanting weekly portions of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) for a local Jewish prayer group. My Hebrew is nowhere near as good as my Spanish; I read Biblical Hebrew with language skills acquired in a one-year college course on Modern Hebrew in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, for my own pride and interest I always strive to understand the vocabulary and grammar of every portion I read.

This morning, as I was studying a passage from the book of Exodus for later this month, I was struck by a sentence that began

Vayomer Moshe v’Aharon… ‘Said Moses and Aaron…’

Verb-first word order was common in Biblical Hebrew, but I was surprised to see the singular verb vayomer accompanying the plural subject Moshe v’Aharon. The Spanish equivalent would be *Les dijo Moisés y Aaron (instead of dijeron).

To better understand this phenomenon I asked about the sentence on www.reddit.com/r/Hebrew, including the comparison with Spanish. A participant soon informed me that singular verbs with plural subjects are common in verb-first Biblical Hebrew sentences, and that in Standard Arabic (also a Semitic language) this is not just common, but actually mandatory. This “redditor” pointed out, somewhat snarkily, that “well Hebrew is not Spanish.”

As I thought about this response it occurred to me that Hebrew and Spanish aren’t as different in this regard as I had assumed. There are two common cases in which Spanish uses a singular verb with a plural subject. Can you think of what they are?


The first case involves the first gustar ‘to please,’ which Spanish uses (in a ‘backwards’ fashion) to mean ‘to like.’ If you like two or more activities, such as singing and dancing, you express this with singular gusta instead of plural gustan, which is used if you like two or more things:

  • Me gusta bailar y cantar.
  • Me gustan Star Wars, Harry Potter, y La casa de papel.

The second case is the existential hay, which means either singular ‘there is’ or plural ‘there are’ (depending on context), and its equivalents in other tenses. Some examples:

PresentHay una prueba mañana.
‘There is a quiz tomorrow.’
Hay muchas pruebas en esta clase.
‘There are many quizzes in this class.’
PastHubo un terremoto.
‘There was an earthquake.’
Había tres estudiantes en la clase.
‘There were 3 students in the class.’
FutureHabrá un baile en el zócalo.
‘There will be a dance in the square.’
Habrá nuevas elecciones en 2022.
‘There will be new elections in 2022.’

The literal bottom line, then, is that principled exceptions to verb agreement are another coincidental similarity between Spanish and Hebrew.

Unas similitudes casuales entre el español y el hebreo

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

En honor de la temporada actual de los días festivos judíos (Rosh Hashana y Yom Kippur), decidí señalar unas similitudes entre el español y el hebreo. Estas similitudes son completamente casuales. Es decir que los dos idiomas no están nada relacionados. El español es un idioma románico, de la familia indo-europea, y el hebreo es semítico, de la familia afroasiática. Ni han tenido los dos idiomas bastante contacto geográfico como para influenciarse. Al contrario, estas similitudes son una muestra de tendencias lingüísticas generales.

  • El español y el hebreo tienen sustantivos masculinos y femeninos.
  • En los dos idiomas, los adjetivos y artículos tienen que concordar con el género y número del sustantivo que describen.
  • En los dos idiomas, los adjetivos siguen los sustantivos.
  • Los dos idiomas tienen el sonido gutural que en español se escribe con jg (antes de /e/ e /i/).
  • Los dos idiomas tienen cinco vocales: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, y /u/.
  • Los dos idiomas tienen tres tiempos verbales: pasado, presente, y futuro.
  • Los dos idiomas tienen distintas clases de verbos en cuanto a la conjugación: las categorías -ar-er, e -ir del español, y los siete binyanim del hebreo.
  • Las conjugaciones del pasado y del futuro de los dos idiomas reflejan tres personas (primera persona, segunda persona, tercera persona) y dos números (singular y plural).
  • En los dos idiomas los complementos directos se señalen con un marcador distinto: el a personal en español y et en hebreo, aunque aquello se limita a complementos directos humanos.


In honor of the current Jewish High Holiday season, I decided to point out some similarities between Spanish and Hebrew. These similarities are completely coincidental because the two languages aren’t at all related. Spanish is a Romance language from the Indo-European family, and Hebrew is a Semitic language from the Afro-Asiatic family. Nor have the languages had enough geographical contact to influence each other by borrowing. Rather, these similarities are evidence of general linguistic tendencies.

  • Spanish and Hebrew have masculine and feminine nouns.
  • In both languages, adjectives and articles must agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify.
  • In both languages, adjectives follow nouns.
  • Both languages have the guttural /x/ sound (written with a j or g in Spanish).
  • Both have five vowel sounds: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/.
  • Both have past, present, and future verb tenses.
  • Both have distinct verbal conjugation classes: -ar-er, and -ir verbs in Spanish, and the seven binyanim in Hebrew.
  • Past and future conjugations in the two languages reflect three persons (first, second, and third person) and two numbers (singular and plural).
  • Both languages have a direct object marker: the a personal in Spanish and et in Hebrew, although the former is limited to human direct objects.