God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Gender in Modern Hebrew – An Example

I think it might be informative to look at how av (usually translated “father”) and its plural, avot, work in Modern Hebrew. Even though we can’t directly conclude anything about ancient Hebrew or Greek from Modern Hebrew, we can learn more about how gender — at least potentially — works in human language.

In no particular order, here are some facts about av and avot in Modern Hebrew:


  • When people talk about their literal father, one word they use is av.* (When they talk about their mother, one word is em.)
  • The word av is grammatically masculine.
  • The plural avot is grammatically masculine, even though it ends in -ot which is often reserved for feminine plurals.
  • When Lucy, the “first human,” was discovered, she was called av kadmon in Hebrew, literally “original av.”
  • When people talk about how “fathers” are different than “mothers,” the words they use are avot and imahot (the plural of em).
  • The Hebrew for “old-age home” is bet avot, literally, “house of avot.” (The phrase applies equally to men and women.)
  • When people talk about their “ancestors,” the word they use is avot. (Again, the phrase does not have specifically male connotations.)

It seems to me that if a theory of gender and language doesn’t allow for the possabilites above, it’s probably inaccurate, or, at least, incomplete, so we shouldn’t use that theory to try to understand ancient languages.

(*) In addition to av, there’s a less formal word aba in Hebrew. The two words approximate the difference between “father” and “dad.”

September 9, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 1 Comment