The Case of the Disappearing ‘Nun’

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Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

Our starting point is Adam’s assertion (Gen. 2:23) “… לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּה כִּי מֵאִיש לֻקָחָה-זֹאת” which is problematic from the etymological point of view. We discuss briefly this point for the words אִיש, אִשָּה , and their relatives.

Linguistic authorities [1], [2], [3] agree that there is no proven root relation between אִיש and אִשָּה. Here are the main points:

The etymology of אִיש is uncertain, although several ancient languages have similar words: In Arabic we have ‘ins’ and ‘insan’, in Phoenician — ‘n‘sh’. Those are clearly related to the word אֱנוֹש; as a masculine, singular, indefinite noun it is a synonym to אִיש, unrelated to it, but related to its plural form אֲנָשִים. The plural אִישִים is rare (3 times in the Bible); in Modern Hebrew it means ‘personalities’, ‘VIPs’.

The root of אִשָּה has wider support: In Aramaic, ‘אִנְתְּתָא’ or ‘אִתְּתָא’; in Arabic, ‘untha’. The ‘strong dagesh’ in the ש indicates the letter נ which disappeared from אִנְשָה. This phenomenon is also found in the pronouns אַתָּה and אַתְּ from (אַנְתְ(ה, and in the entire group of verbs whose first root letter is נ, the so-called חַסְרֵי פ”נ , or, briefly, פ”נ, where the נ disappears in their various conjugations and is replaced by a ‘strong dagesh’ in the ע letter: תִּקֹּם from תִּנְקֹם, תִּטֹּר from תִּנְטֹר , יִשָּׂא from יִנְשָׂא, — but יִנְהַג , because ה (along with א, ח, ר,ע) does not accept a ‘dagesh’.

So, instead of אִנְשָה we have אִשָּה . It is important to note that the ‘disappearing’ letter , נ in our case, must be a consonant. It cannot be a vowel like י in אִיש — hence, אִשָּה is not derived from אִיש.a[4] Other examples of ‘disappearing’ consonants are יִקַּח from יִלְקַח , הִטַּהֵר from הִתְטַהֵר .

Finally, the well-known anomaly: the plural of אִשָּה, symbol of femininity, takes on the masculine suffix נָשִים, while אָב – a masculine symbol – becomes אָבוֹת.


[1]. “המִּלון החדש”. ירושלים: קרית-ספר , 1969 אברהם אבן-שושן
[2]. אברהם אבן-שושן, “קונקורדנציה חדשה”. ירושלים:קרית-ספר 1989
Also Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989
[3]. Francis Brown, “The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English
Lexicon.” Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
(Contains numerous citations of sources).
[4]. In the prevalent ‘full spelling’, כְּתִיב מָלֵא, found in books, newspapers, etc., the vowel-letters ו, י are used profusely because vowel points are very rarely used. Rules about the ‘dagesh’ are suspended. So, it is בניי = ‘my sons’, =מילה’word’, or ‘circumcision’, מצווה = ‘commandment’. In this regimen, the feminine form of איש is… אישה , obtained with the normal suffix ה. Problem “solved” (?!).

About Shlomo Karni


  1. Shadal on that verse (2:23):

    “Moses recorded these words as they were pronounced in his time, even though “ishah” was not actually derived from “ish”, but rather from “enash”, which became “enesh” (as “gevar” became “gever”), yielding the plural “anashim”, as well as the feminine form “inshah”, which became “ishah”. The word “ish”, however, has been preserved in its original form, from which was derived “yesh”, and in Aramaic “itai”.

    Very similar to what you wrote. Do you know if he was correct about that last part, of yesh and itai?

  2. I have trouble reconciling the idea that Biblical Hebrew dropped a “nun” that appears in other languages with the idea brought down by Rashi that the original language was Lashon Kodesh

  3. As my (non-Jewish) Arabic professor at YU would say when introducing a feature (like that nun) that appears in Arabic but no longer in Hebrew, “Well, I don’t want to get into a discussion of what language was spoken in Eden…”

    There are opinions among Rishonim that Adam and Chava spoke Aramaic, by the way. Certainly it’s scholarly opinion that Avraham did, and picked up Hebrew- which is almost identical to Canaanite- when he moved to Canaan.

  4. To Aryeh S: Thanks for the refrence. The word “yesh” is akin to “ishu” ( = to be) in Akkadian. Hence “ish”, as a “being” (?)

  5. Yes, איש EeYSH (man) and אישה EeSHah (woman) are male and female “beings.” As יש YaiSH (there is) is the source of English IS and YES, Spanish si (yes), etc. As the human being is a physical spiritual entity, he/she resembles and is related to that odd creation we call אש AiSH (fire).
    Aramaic and Arabic are post-Shinar (Sumer, referenced as the later Babel) corruptions of the pre-Biblical Hebrew of Edenic (or Edenic). Only a simpleton could think the corruption תור Toar (bull) is earlier or better than שור SHOAR (the bull which plows a שורה ישר SHOORaH YaSHaR (straight row, or mSHEER SERIES).
    אנוש ENOSH (Man) is not Arabic that it could be a nasalization (added N or M to the root). It is the source of MENSCH.

    Pin-heads stuck on last century’s “wisdom” will not bother to help or even to read about the paradigm shift in Hebracism found at Exceptions most welcome

  6. Why is it not possible for the dagesh to take the place of the yud? The Ibn Ezra actually says that IIRC. If the long hiriq became shortened in response to the added final long vowel, the shin could have geminated to fill in the missing phonetic space. I guess that’s just speculation, but why isn’t it possible?

  7. Ipcha Mistabra

    If Im not mistaken, the siloam inscription writes the words “ish el ray-ayhu” but the word ish is missing the yud.

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