Glamour of the Grammar: Cause of action

We've already looked at four of Hebrew's seven binyanim. This week we look at a fifth: hiph'il.

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We've already looked at four of Hebrew's seven 'binyanim' (except that there are really at least nine), which are also known as paradigms or, in this space, by the somewhat literal "building blocks." This week we look at a fifth: 'hiph'il'. As with most grammatical constructions, there are two parts to understanding 'hiph'il': its form and its content. In form, 'hiph'il' consists of the letter 'heh' prefixed to a triliteral root and, in some conjugations, the vowel /'i'/ added between the final two letters. So, for example, from 'k.t.n' (small), we get 'hktin'. Then epenthesis - the rule that adds the vowel /'i'/ between the first and second consonants of a word when the word begins with three consonants - changes 'hktin' to 'hiktin'. And that's the final form. It means "he shrank [something]." When a suffix is added, though, the second /'i'/ sometimes becomes the more usual /'a'/, so while "he shrank" is 'hiktin', "I shrank" is 'hiktanti'. In this regard, the final /'i'/ of 'hiph'il' is similar to the final /'e'/ of 'pi'el'. Both drop in and out. In terms of meaning, 'hiph'il' is generally, but only partially accurately, regarded as causative. We see that 'katan' means "small" or "was small" and 'hiktin' means "made something small(er)," so the initial observation seems right. But, in fact, there are three different general meaning patterns for 'hiph'il'. One is causative. The second goes by the technical name "inchoative." And, thirdly, some 'hiph'il' verbs are just verbs. The root 'sh.m.n' (fat) will help us understand causative and inchoative better. From that root we get the adjective 'shamen', "fat." The 'hiph'il' form, 'hishmin', means two different things. It has a causative meaning, which is to cause something (generally an animal) to get fat. But the verb also means simply "gained weight," as in, 'hishmanti', "I gained weight." This is inchoative. Essentially, an inchoative verb expresses a change of state, for example from weighing less to weighing more. A causative verb is similar, in that it expresses bringing about the same kind of change. In English, the verb "shrink" is both causative (he shrank the image) and inchoative (the image shrank). Just as in English, where the same verb can be both causative and inchoative, the Hebrew 'hiph'il' verb 'hishmin' does double duty. (Since we're collecting technical terms today, we may note that, because the 'hiph'il' form expresses two different meanings, some people think that technically there are two words that sound the same, and the words are called "labile." Another equally obtuse way of looking at the situation is to call the verbs bivalent, in that they represent two things.) Other inchoative 'hiph'il' verbs include 'higdil', "became great" (though the word is labile, and it also means "enlarged"), from 'g.d.l', which means "big" or "great"; 'he'edim', "blushed," from 'adom', "red"; and many more. Connecting 'hiph'il' with causative or inchoative meanings, however, is usually just an approximation. On one hand, the 'hiph'il' is rarely a true causative and only sometimes a true inchoative. And on the other hand, verb forms other than 'hiph'il' are used for causatives and inchoatives. In terms of the latter, 'shavar' (broke) is causative (caused to break), even though it's in 'kal', and the corresponding inchoative is in 'niph'al': 'nishbar'. In addition to causatives (really almost-causatives, as we'll see) and inchoatives, we have verbs that just happen to be in 'hiph'il'. From the complicated root '' we get 'hitzil' (the 'nun' drops out, leaving a 'dagesh'), which means "saved." 'Higid', from 'n.g.d', means "said" (and 'higid al', literally, "said on," means "tattled"). 'Himtin' means "waited." There's nothing causative or inchoative about these, and there are many more 'hiph'il' verbs like them. Regarding almost-causatives versus true causatives, we might consider the root 's.b.r'. The adjective 'savir' means "reasonable," but 'hisbir' (almost universally pronounced 'hizbir') means "explained." "Explaining" and "making something (seem) reasonable" are similar, but they are not the same. From 'k.t.v' (write) comes 'hichtiv', "dictate." Again, dictating might cause someone to write, but it doesn't have to. 'Hidrich', from '' (walk or path), is "guided." The colloquial 'he'eziv' - from azav, "left" - means "fired." For that matter, the 'hiph'il' verb 'hishkah', from the root 'sh.k.h', "to drink," means "watered," as in plants or animals. But 'hishkah susim' means leading the horses to water, not actually making them drink. And that's a good thing, because... Well, you know. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.