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:
|Present||Hay una prueba mañana.|
‘There is a quiz tomorrow.’
|Hay muchas pruebas en esta clase.|
‘There are many quizzes in this class.’
|Past||Hubo un terremoto.|
‘There was an earthquake.’
|Había tres estudiantes en la clase.|
‘There were 3 students in the class.’
|Future||Habrá 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.