The Glamour of the Grammar: Building blocks

Hebrew verbs come in (at least) seven varieties. In Hebrew they are called binyanim.

Hebrew verbs come in (at least) seven varieties. In Hebrew they are called binyanim, that is, "buildings," or, better, "constructions," as in the term, "grammatical constructions." This week we're going to look at two of them. To complement the binyanim, Hebrew has a stock of consonantal "roots." Generally, these roots contain three letters, though two-letter and four-letter roots are also available. Actual verbs are created by putting a root in one of the binyanim. By and large, the roots provide the general meaning of the verb, and the binyanim add nuances. For example, the simplest binyan is called kal or pa'al, and it consists simply of the vowel /a/ separating the root letters. (In point of fact, the /a/ isn't really part of the binyan, but, similar to the epenthetic /i/ we recently discussed, it gets added for more general reasons.) From the root Sh.L.H (the "H" represents a het here) roughly meaning "send," we get the past-tense verb shalah, "he sent." Similarly, the root Sh.'.L (the apostrophe is the letter alef), roughly "ask," yields sha'al, "he asked." The root Z.K.R ("remember") in kal is the verb zakhar, "he remembered." (Another week we'll look at why the /K/ sound becomes /Kh/ here.) The same rule - putting the vowel /a/ between the root letters - applies to two-letter roots. From S.B, "spin," we get sav, "spun." (And again, we postpone a discussion of why /B/ becomes /V/.) A second binyan expresses the passive of the first. (Just so we're all on the same page: "passive" means taking the object of the verb and making it the subject. "Dan lit a fire" is active. Dan, the subject of the sentence, did the lighting. The fire, the object, was the recipient of the lighting. "The fire was lit" is the corresponding passive. The fire is still the recipient of the lighting, but now it's the subject of the verb.) This second binyan, called nif'al, is marked by a prefixed nun. The nun then usually induces an epenthetic /i/ between it and the first consonant of the root. The vowel /a/ still lies between the last two consonants of the root. From the root Sh.L.H, we get the nif'al verb nishlah, "was sent." So "David sent the letter" is david shalah et hamichtav, while "the letter was sent" is hamichtav nishlah. But, as with the English phrase "by and large" that has nothing to do with "by" or "large," the situation with the binyanim and the roots is not as clear-cut as some people might like, a topic to which we will frequently return. Some "passive" verbs in nif'al aren't really passive. In kal, the root Sh.M.R "keep" gives us shamar, "he kept," but the nif'al version, nishmar, means not only "he was kept" but also "he was careful." The root R.'.H (again the apostrophe is an alef, and this time the "H" is a heh) has to do with seeing. The verb ra'ah means "he saw," but the corresponding nif'al, nir'ah, means both "he was seen" and "he seemed." A few months ago, I posed a question about "doubly transitive" verbs, that is, verbs that take two objects. This week we get part of the answer. One such verb is Sh.'.L, "ask." The question is one object, and the questionee is the second. For example, "Dan asked him the question" is dan sha'al oto et hash'eila. Note the double et. (Still pending is the challenge to identify the second doubly transitive verb. Stay tuned.) Can both objects be passivized? Yes. "The question was asked" is hash'eila nish'ala, and "Miriam was asked" is miryam nish'ala. The passive and et don't play well together, though. While "Miriam was asked a question" is the slightly dubious miryam nish'ala she'eila, there's no simple way to say, "Miriam was asked THE question." The obvious miryam nish'ala et hash'eila sounds slightly odd. And there's really no good way to say, "The question was asked of Miriam." One final verb deserves mention. While zakhar is the active "remembered," the corresponding nif'al means not only the passive "was remembered" but also the active "thought about." Nizkarti b'yalduti means "I was thinking about my childhood." This is one of the rare cases where the passive means almost the same thing as the active. There's another common Hebrew verb like that, too. Can you find it? The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.