The Glamour of the Grammar: What to do?

On the one hand making infinitives in Hebrew is easy, but then again nothing is ever that easy.

A reader from Acre wants to know how to make infinitives in Hebrew. On the one hand, it's easy. Add the prefix l- ("to") to the beginning of the word. But nothing is ever that easy. When we looked at v- ("and"), we saw a surprising variety of vowels under one simple prefix. The vowels under l- behave similarly. So that's one complication. Secondly, we have to know what to put l- before; that's a second complication. A third complication is both the most difficult and the most interesting. Letters jump in and out of infinitives. We'll cover Complication 1, the vowels, in more detail another time, making do now with a short approximation of what's going on. There are four patterns. The vowel under the lamed is a kamatz ("a" sound) if the word is very short; a sh'va (silent) if the word is longer; a hirik ("i" sound) before another letter with a sh'va under it; and before a hataf-vowel, the lamed copies the vowel it precedes. (You might remember the hataf-vowels from several weeks ago. If not, don't worry about it. We'll go over them again soon.) Examples of the four patterns are: lasim, "to put," l'daber, "to speak," lishmor, "to keep" and le'ehov, "to love." A short approximation of the second complication will also have to do for now. The lamed attaches to the masculine singular imperative (command form) of the verb. Daber is "speak!" and l'daber is "to speak." What about the letters that jump in and out? If the first letter of the imperative is a nun with a sh'va under it, the nun optionally drops out. (The sh'va of course drops out, too. We can't have vowels hanging out with no consonants over them.) "To fall," from the root n-p-l, is lipol, not linpol. The nun in general is mischievous, and this is only one example of a general plot on its part to confuse students of Hebrew. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately - at this point it's hard to tell the difference - when letters, including nun, drop out of a word, they usually leave behind a hint of their prior existence: a dagesh. So there's a dot in the peh of lipol. Four letters drop out of infinitives without leaving a dagesh: yud, heh, nun (again) and lamed (once). Instead of the telltale dagesh, these letters add a compensatory tav at the end of the infinitive. For example, from y-sh-v ("sit") we find laSHEVet, with penultimate stress. The yud has dropped out. There is no dagesh in the shin. And a tav that otherwise doesn't belong appears at the end of the infinitive. Lalechet, "to go," from h-l-ch, works the same way. Vexingly, the same thing can happen to roots that start with a nun. From n-g-' (the apostrophe is an ayin), "touch," we find laga'at, "to touch." The nun has dropped out, but this time there is no dagesh in the gimel. Instead, a tav has joined in. So we have two patterns with nun. One, in which the nun drops out and leaves a dagesh, we saw above. We see the second here. And in a third pattern, sometimes a nun - as in lindod, "to wander" - doesn't drop out at all. (In fact, an alternative form of the infinitive "to touch" is lingo'a.) One verb has two nunim: n-t-n, "give." Both of them drop out in the infinitive, yielding latet, "to give." And one verb has an initial lamed that drops out. From l-k-h ("take") we get lakahat, "to take." Students of Hebrew are often (justifiably) confused by the seemingly arbitrary nature of some of these "rules," in which, for example, the nun falls into three categories. This sort of confusion is not new, and in the past we saw different forms of some of these infinitives. In Rabbinic Hebrew, "to sit" is leisheiv, not lashevet. (And it means "to dwell.") An initial alef is also quirky. By and large it takes a hataf-vowel, which is then copied by the lamed. From the root '-ch-l, "eat," we get le'echol, "to eat." But the alef in '-m-r ("say") drops out, giving us the modern lomar. In the Bible, we find leimor. A final heh also drops out, again to be replaced by a tav at the end. In this case, the vowel before the tav is "o," as in lirtzot, "to want," from r-tz-h. There's actually a little more. But what to do? I'm out of space. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.