Glamour of Grammar: More building blocks

I asked readers to find passive and active forms of a verb that mean almost the same thing. We'll now get a hint.

February 12, 2009 11:46
3 minute read.
Glamour of Grammar: More building blocks

Hebrew Hear-Say logo. (photo credit: )


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Several months ago, I asked readers to find passive and active forms of a verb that mean almost the same thing. 'Zachar' (remember) and 'nizkar' (think about) are one such pair. The challenge was to find another. This week we'll get a hint. The issue arose when we first started tackling the Hebrew 'binyanim', that is, verbal paradigms, also known as "grammatical constructions." We saw that the 'niph'al' form tends to represent the passive of the 'kal'. In a normal pair like 'katav'/'nichtav', 'katav' means "wrote" and 'nichtav' means "was written." Parallel to 'kal'/'niph'al' are 'pi'el'/'pu'al'. We'll take a look at each. 'Pi'el' consists of four consonants with an /'e'/ or an /'a'/ vowel between the last two (but that's really an oversimplification). So the 'pi'el' version of 'k'.'t'.'b' is 'kitev'. The /'e'/ vowel is part of the 'pi'el' paradigm. The middle root letter "'t'" is doubled to make the requisite four letters ('kaf', 'tav', another 'tav' and 'bet'). Because there are now three consonants at the beginning of a word ('ktt'-), the rule of epenthesis, which we discussed last March, adds the vowel /'i'/ between the first two consonants, giving us 'kittev'. Except that it doesn't stop there. A double letter in Hebrew is almost always pronounced as a single letter, so 'kittev' becomes 'kitev'. The way to think of the word, then, is as starting with k.t.v, which becomes 'k'.'t'.'t'.'v', which becomes 'kttev', which becomes 'kittev', which finally becomes 'kitev'. And that's the final form. Except sometimes that's not the final form, because the final /'e'/ vowel in a 'pi'el' verb becomes the more normal /'a'/ when some suffixes are added to the verb. For example, with the suffix -'ti' for "I," 'kitev' becomes 'kitavti'. (But it's really the other way around, and the /'a'/ becomes an /'e'/ when there's no suffix - it's a long story.) The rare word 'kitev' means basically the same thing as 'katav', so while it's helpful for understanding grammatical forms, it is not in general all that useful a word. Better is the very common 'pi'el' verb 'diber', "spoke," which comes from the root 'd'.'b'.'r'. There are in principle lots of ways of creating the four root letters that 'pi'el' requires. In classical Hebrew, the middle root letter of a triliteral root is doubled to go from three to four. That's why we get 'diber' (from 'd'.'b'.'r', then 'd'.'b'.'b'.'r', then 'dbber', then 'dibber'). But in modern Hebrew the final letter can be doubled instead. So from the English word "fax" we get the Hebrew root 'f'.'k'.'s', but the 'pi'el' verb is 'fikses', not 'fikes'. ('Fikes' happens to mean "focused," from the similarly lettered Hebrew root 'f'.'k'.'s', in turn from the English word "focus.") From '.'sh.r' (the apostrophe is an 'alef') we have two 'pi'el' verbs, 'isher', "to confirm," and 'ishrer', "to reconfirm." Sometimes a root already has four letters, in which case nothing has to be doubled. 'Kirsem' means "gnawed," and it comes from the quadriliteral rood 'k'.'r'.'s'.'m', with the 'pi'el'-vowel /'e'/ and the epenthetic vowel /'i'/. Other times a root only has two letters, and then things get even more complicated. From 's'.'b' we get the 'pi'el' root 'sovev'. It actually makes perfect sense, but the reasons are extremely complicated. The passive of 'pi'el' is 'pu'al'. Like 'pi'el', 'pu'al' requires four root letters, and the ways of getting from two or three to four are the same. Unlike 'pi'el', 'pu'al' comes with a built-in /'u'/ vowel. In fact, it is that vowel that marks the verb as passive. So the passive of 'diber' (he spoke) is 'dubar' (it was spoken). "They spoke Hebrew" is 'hem dibru ivrit'. The passive form "Hebrew was spoken" is 'ivrit dubra'. A prefixed 'mem' marks the present tense for 'pi'el' and 'pu'al'. So from 'diber' and 'dubar', we have 'm'daber' (I am speaking, he speaks, etc.) and 'm'dubar' (it is spoken or, if you can think of the right context, I am spoken). 'Ivrit m'duberet' is "spoken Hebrew." Though 'pu'al' is almost always the passive of 'pi'el', we haven't specifically addressed what 'pi'el' means. (The common but wrong answer is that 'pi'el' is an intensive form. Sometimes it is, but usually it's not.) Next time we'll take a closer look at what 'pi'el' and 'pu'al' mean, even finding one 'pu'al' verb that means the same thing as its corresponding 'pi'el'. Can you think of the verb before then? In the meantime, here's a hint: It is commonly found on road signs. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

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