Glamour of Grammar: 'Dangerous curve ahead'

We'll learn more about what the 'pi'el' and 'pu'al' verb forms mean.

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Last time we looked at how to create 'pi'el' and 'pu'al' verb forms. Today we'll learn more about what those forms mean, and also discover the answer to the puzzle I posed: What 'pu'al' form means the same thing as its related 'pi'el'? Just to review, 'pu'al' is normally the passive of 'pi'el'. For example, the 'pi'el' verb 'diber' means "spoke" and the related 'pu'al' form 'dubar' means "was spoken." Both kinds of verbs are formed from four consonants; when only three present themselves, the middle or last consonant is doubled, though frequently the double letter is later undoubled (a topic we'll return to in more detail soon). Combined with 'kal' (literally, "easy," the most basic verb form) and 'niph'al' (generally the passive of 'kal'), we have now addressed four 'binyanim', or verb patterns, in this space. Frequently the same root will appear in more than one binyan. And biblical 'kal'/'pi'el' pairs like 'shavar' (broke) and shiber (commonly, "smashed," or, perhaps, "smashed the !@#$ out of") paint a distorted picture, leading to the often-cited but wrong conclusion that 'pi'el' is the intensive of 'kal'. Some 'pi'el' verbs may be intensive forms of their 'kal' counterparts, but even with 'shiber', the evidence is weak. This rumor about 'pi'el' as an intensive form comes from two sources. The first is a confusion between form and function. The doubled letter is a kind of augmentation in the form of the verb. It might seem reasonable that the function of such an augmentation would be a strengthening of meaning. When Hebrew terminology is used for the verbs, the connection becomes even more plausible, because the name for the 'dagesh' that marks the double middle root letter in 'pi'el' and 'pu'al' is 'dagesh hazak', "strong 'dagesh'." With such a strong dot in the middle of the verb, surely, some people thought, the verb must represent a stronger action than the mere 'kal' - a word which, in addition to meaning "easy," also means "light." But language doesn't work that way. Form and function, perhaps to the dismay of modernists, need not match in grammar. The second reason for the confusion is a general tendency to assign a role of emphasis to poorly understood parts of biblical Hebrew grammar. (In addition to 'pi'el' and 'pu'al', at least two other grammatical forms are wrongly analyzed as emphasizing something: the infix 'nun' and the infinitive absolute - both topics for another time.) At any rate, we need only look at the vast majority of 'pi'el' verbs to see that they do not, in general, have any inherent sense of intensity to them. One of the most common verbs, 'diber', just means "spoke," not "spoke forcefully," "spoke intensively," etc. Similarly, 'hipes', for example, just means "searched.'' Sometimes 'pi'el' represents a causative of sorts. 'Gadol' is "big'' and 'gidel' is "grew" or "raised," as of plants and children, respectively. (It's not a true causative, because growing crops and raising children involves more than just causing them to be big.) Other times, the 'kal' and 'pi'el' are related, but not in any particularly patterned way. 'Hashav' ('kal') is "thought," and 'hishev' ('pi'el') is "computed." 'Lamad' is "learned'' and 'limed' is "taught." Both the 'kal' and 'pi'el' of 'tz'.'m'.'h' mean "grew" or "flourished," but the 'pi'el' version is chiefly used of hair. When a verb starts off a noun, 'pi'el' is the most natural 'binyan' to use. An ''ot' (the apostrophe is an 'alef') is a "signal'' and ''otet' means "signaled." A 'faks' is a "fax," and "faxed'' is, as we've seen, 'fikses'. 'Mispar' means "number" and 'misper' is "numbered." Finally, some 'pi'el' verbs bear little direct relation to the 'kal' verbs from the same root. ''Ibed' (again the apostrophe is an 'alef') means "lost," while ''avad' is the much more severe "perished." 'Patah' means "opened" and 'pite'ah' means "developed." Unlike the vague connection between 'kal' and 'pi'el', 'pu'al' is almost always simply the passive of 'pi'el'. One exception - and here's the answer to the puzzle - is 'm'saken'/'m'sukan'. 'M'saken' means "endanger" or "threaten." 'M'sukan', therefore, should mean "endangered." Something that's 'm'sukan' should present no threat to you. But, surprisingly, it does, because 'm'sukan' means the same thing as 'm'saken', as in the common road sign, "'sivuv m'sukan'," "dangerous curve." Grammar is like that. Let your guard down, and what looks benign might try to get you. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.