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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
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Lesson 6: Nouns, pronouns and participles
Nouns (step 2 of 8)
Person, place, thing or idea

As we turn now to focus on nouns, I am pleased to point out that we are not starting from square one. We have yet to talk about the grammar of nouns, but we have had many nouns within our vocabulary words. In fact, if you have been keeping up with the vocab, you already know more than 150 nouns!

A noun is a person, place, thing or idea. In Hebrew, nouns have two main grammatical details—gender and number. This is, of course, different than English which does not give nouns a grammatical gender. But the concept is not hard to understand.

A noun like אִישׁ (“man”) naturally has a gender of masculine whereas the noun אִשָּׁה (“woman”) is predictably feminine. However, in Hebrew, all words have a gender, not only those with a masculine or feminine nature. So, for example, עִיר (“city”) is feminine. This grammatical gender in no way suggests masculine or feminine qualities in the meaning of the word (cities do not thereby possess femininity), but is simply a grammatical dynamic in Hebrew. The importance of grammatical gender in nouns is found in the reality that this gender aids us in identifying which verbs and adjectives in the sentence connect to this noun. (We saw an example of this in discussing the commands in the song קוּמִי אוֹרִי.)

As regards form, feminine nouns generally end with an a-class vowel + ה, or with a ת. As for the plural, Hebrew uses two different endings to indicate this. Masculine nouns typically are made plural with the ים ending whereas feminine nouns typically take the וֹת plural ending which replaces the final ה or ת.
family (noun)
singular & plural forms
masculine מֶלֶךְ מְלָכִים king / kings
feminine מִשְׁפָּחָה מִשְׁפְּחוֹת family / families

But Hebrew actually has three options for its grammatical number—singular, plural and dual. Singular and plural work the same as they do in English, but dual is new. The grammatical number of dual is used for a specific selection of nouns which naturally come in pairs. We find this often with body parts (a pair of legs, hands, ears, horns, etc), words of time (2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, etc), and words of counting (two, two hundred, two thousand, 2 times, etc).

The ending for a noun with a grammatical number of dual is similar to the masculine plural ending, but with a patach vowel under the proceeding letter (which, you will recall, creates the same sound as the English word “eye”). Note that this is the dual ending irrespective of what the normal plural ending for this noun is. For example, מֵאָה is “one hundred,” מֵאוֹת is “hundreds,” but מָאתַיִם is “two hundred.”
foot (noun)
singular & dual forms
feminine רֶגֶל רַגְלַיִם leg / pair of legs
masculine יוֹם יֹמַיִם day / two days
feminine מֵאָה מָאתַיִם one hundred / two hundred
Rules with exceptions

Those are the rules—not too complicated—that is, until we begin to talk about the exceptions. Ready?
Exception #1: form

Feminine nouns typically end with an a-class vowel + ה, or with a ת. All other noun forms are usually masculine. But while this is the case for the majority of distinct nouns in the Hebrew Bible, it is not true for all. And sure enough, several of the most common nouns in the Hebrew Bible are, in fact, exceptions in this respect.

We saw one exception above where רֶגֶל is listed as feminine, though it does not end in ה or ת. (In fact, all body parts which come in pairs are feminine in gender.) Here are some more of the most common nouns in the תנ״ך, virtually all of which are exceptional in one way or another.
common masculine nouns
בֵּן בָּנִים son / sons
אִישׁ אֲנָשִׁים man / men
בַּיִת בָּתִּים house / houses
אַב אָבוֹת father / fathers
דָּבָר דְּבָרִים word / words
עַם עַמִּים people / peoples
common feminine nouns
שָׁנָה שָׁנִים year / years
עִיר עָרִים city / cities
אִשָּׁה נָשִׁים woman / women
בַּת בְּנוֹת daughter / daughters
חֶרֶב חַרְבוֹת sword / swords
רֶגֶל רְגָלִים leg / legs
Exception #2: plural endings

Besides exceptions related to a noun’s singular form, many nouns in the Hebrew Bible are also exceptional with regard to the plural ending they receive. This, once again, is true of many of the most common nouns.

For example, שָׁנָה is a feminine noun, but receives the masculine plural ending ים. But note that this does not change this noun’s gender. Whether singular or plural, it is still a feminine noun which requires any related verb or adjective to likewise be feminine.
Exception #3: gender-both

Up to this point, we have talked about masculine and feminine gender nouns. But there are some nouns which are also classified as gender-both because they can take either a masculine or feminine verb or adjective. The most common examples are פָּנִים (“face”), אֶרֶץ (“land” or “earth”), יַד (“hand”) and נֶפֶשׁ (“soul”). 

That being said, most gender-both nouns function primarily as either masculine or feminine. For instance, all four of the above examples will most often function as feminine nouns.
Exception #4: misc

And, of course, there are other less frequent exceptions besides these. For example, some words only appear in the plural form, though they have a singular meaning. For example, מַיִם (“water”), פָּנִים (“face”) and אֱלֹהִים (“God”). In such cases, these plural form nouns with singular meaning will behave like normal plural nouns and requires adjectives and verbs connected to them to be in the plural.

That is, except for the noun אֱלֹהִים. This is the only noun with a plural form which usually (though not always) takes a singular adjective or verb. We touched on the significance of this exception in the devotional step at the beginning of this lesson.
Proper nouns and gentilics

Two other noun-related terms that will be helpful for you to know are “proper nouns” and “gentilic nouns.”

Proper nouns are those nouns which refer to specific people or places. For example, מֹשֶׁה and יְרוּשָׁלִַם (“Jerusalem”) are proper nouns whereas אִישׁ and עִיר are not.

Gentilic nouns are those nouns which indicate a ethnic or national affiliation. Two examples would be מִצְרִי (“Egyptian”) and בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי (“Bethlehemite”).
Have a grammar headache from all the exceptions? The best cure for such things is worship! On the next step we learn a new song.