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Hebrew words generally come from three-letter roots. For example, from the root 'k.tz.r' we get the word 'katzar', the adjective "short," and also 'ketzer', the noun "short (circuit)." Similarly, from 'y.r.k' we get the word 'yarok', which is the color "green," and also the word 'y'rakot', "vegetables." (One vegetable is a 'yarak'. Don't be misled by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who think the singular is 'yerek'. It's 'yarak'. Really. A 'yerek' is any green, not specifically a vegetable.)
New words can be formed by doubling up one or more of the root letters, in a process called "reduplication," though the process should be called simply "duplication." We're not duplicating anything again, which is what reduplication ought to mean. ("Re-" in English is frequently redundant in this way, as in "reiteration," which means "to say again," even though "iterate" means to "repeat," and "reiterate" seems like it ought to mean "to say again again.")
At any rate, reduplication in Hebrew gives rise to a variety of nicely nuanced words. From 'yarok', "green," we get 'y'rakrak', "greenish." Similarly, from 'tzahov', "yellow," we get the word 'tz'havhav', "yellowish." From 'shamen', "fat," comes 'sh'manman', "fattish." This pattern of reduplication, like the English suffix "-ish," is associated with both "a little bit like" and just "a little." 'Y'rakrak' means "sort of green" or "a little bit green."
Nouns, too, can be reduplicated, and when they are, they generally take on a diminutive meaning. A dog is a 'kelev', and a doggie is a 'k'lavlav'. Though it's hard to imagine what it might refer to exactly, a 'n'hashhash' is a "snakie," that is, a small cute 'nahash', or "snake." (But while a 'dov' is a bear, 'duv'dvan' means "cherry." By sheer coincidence, the diminutive in English of "bear" also isn't a small bear, but rather what the bear eats: berries.) But even though they usually represent small or cute things, reduplicated nouns can also indicate "a bit like," which is why 'y'rakrak' could also be a vegetable-like thing.
So far, we've seen the reduplication pattern of ABC becoming ABCBC, that is, the second and third root letters participating in the reduplication. There are two other common patterns.
Sometimes the two letters that get reduplicated are the only strong letters a root has. From the root 'm.l.l' we get the word 'mila', which means "word." Reduplicate the 'mem' and the 'lamed', and you get 'milmel', "muttered." The reduplicated ABAB pattern need not actually come from a nonreduplicated word or root. 'Zimzem', onomatopoetic in nature, is "hummed," and 'richrach' (the "ch" here is the English one, like in "cheese," spelled with a 'tzadi' and an apostrophe called a 'chupchik'), also onomatopoetic, means "zipper." 'Fisfes' means "to miss," as for example a bus. (Traditional grammar - "'beged kefet b'rosh mila'," as any high-school student in Israel knows - dictates that the word be 'pispes', but 'pispes' is from the word 'pas', "stripe," and it means "to put stripes on.")
There's a third, mostly modern pattern, in which only the last letter is reduplicated. From the word 'zemer' ("song" or "melody"), we find the fairly new word 'zamrir' ("jingle"). From 'semel' ("sign") we get one of the two Hebrew words for "logo": 'samlil'. (The other word, probably more common, is 'logo'.) From 'sh.g.r' we get 'shiger' ("sent"); a 'shagrir' is an "ambassador." So we've seen ABCBC reduplication, ABAB, and now ABCC.
It is this ABCC pattern that we saw in a recent column about 'pi'el' and the "new" variety of 'pi'el' verbs, as in 'fikses', "to fax," or 'ishrer' ("reconfirm"), the reduplicated form of 'isher', "to confirm." Another example of the modern 'pi'el' pattern, sometimes called 'pi'lel', comes from Michal of Haifa, who uses the verb 'tistes' for "to toast," bagels, for example. (The Hebrew word 'tost' happens to mean "grilled sandwich," usually "grilled cheese sandwich.") She took the English verb "toast," turned it into the root 't.s.t', and then made a lovely reduplicated 'pi'el' verb out of her new root.
The ABAB and ABCC patterns differ from ABCBC, in that it's generally only ABCBC-type reduplication that corresponds with the English suffix "ish," while ABAB and in particular ABCC are just ways of making words.
Whole words can be reduplicated, too, but that's for another time.
The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.