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Hebrew morphology

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The Verb ("poa'l")

The Hebrew Language verbs are inflected by gender, person, number, mood and tense. The base form for verbs is the 3rd person masculine singular past active indicative.

Person, Number, and Gender

There are three persons in the Hebrew language: the 1st person, also called "speaking"; the 2nd person, also called "present" (as in presence); and the 3rd person, also called "hidden" (in the present tense, all persons have identical forms, differing only by number and gender). For each person, there are both singular and plural forms. The archaic dual number present in the noun system (e.g. "yom" = "day, "yomayim" = "two days", "yamim" = "days") is never used in the verb system. Usually the person affects the suffix of the verb. Thus "lamadti" means "I learned", "lamadta" means "You (masculine singular) learned", "lamdu" means "they learned". The stem "lamd-" remains constant.

The inflection by gender is full; that is, Hebrew distinguishes between "lamadet" (you learned, feminine) and "lamadta" (you learned, masculine).

Tense

There are three tenses in the indicative mood: the past ("avar"), the present ("hoveh") and the future ("a'tid"). There is no perfect tense, but the perfect aspect can be derived from the context. To emphasize the imperfect/progressive aspect of an action, the auxiliary verb "to be" may be used, as in the English progressive tenses. However, unlike English, this form is only used for emphasis and distinction, and is not required to express an imperfect sense.

Mood and Voice

Additionally, there is an imperative form ("tsivui"), used primarily with the 2nd person, although 3rd person imperative forms similar in form to the future tense exist ("yavi-na", "let him bring"). An infinitive form exists as well.

Passive "binyan"s (see below) have neither an Imperative, nor an Infinitive form.

"Binyanim"

As in other Semitic languages, verbs (like nouns) are derived from a three-letter root (which signifies a certain general concept, such as K-T-V for writing) into numerous patterns through the use of intermediate vowels and prefixes. Hebrew grammarians usually classify the verb system into 7 basic groups (called the "binyanim", plural of "binyan"), each of which has conjugates a certain way, which is usually apparent in the binyan's name. Thus, the Nif'al binyan specifies the presence of the syllable "ni" in the beginning of the verb (either directly or as a residual emphasis on a different beginning). The Pa'al binyan is sometimes called Qal (perhaps because without diacritics (little dots that serve as vowels in written Hebrew) it could be confused with Pi'el).

There are 3 active binyans (Pa'al, Pi'el, Hif'il) and 4 passive ones (Nif'al, Pu'al, Huf'al, Hitpa'el). Usually Pi'el verbs (e.g. "tipel", handled, took care of) become passive in Pu'al ("tupal", was handled, was taken care of). Similarly, the active Hif'il corresponds to the passive Huf'al. Nif'al is often used as the passive of Pa'al (thus Pa'al "sagar", "closed", turns into Nif'al "nisgar", was closed); however, ancient usage suggests that it was originally used as a reflexive structure, and modern Hebrew has many verbs in Nif'al that have an active sense (e.g. "nixnas", "entered"). In modern Hebrew, hitpa'el carries the reflexive function.

The system of the binyan is relatively easy to understand and grasp; however it has numerous exceptions due to regular phonetical effects such as assimilation.

Participles and Gerunds

English gerunds such as "my winning the prize was a surprise" are expressed by noun forms equivalent to the infinitive of the verb.

Participles may be formed from all verbs (using the indicative form) and used as nouns or adjectives. e.g. the Hebrew for "guard" (the profession) is the present participle "(he) guards" ("shomer"). Participles may also be used to describe state, and would then usually be accompanied by words such as "while" or "as", e.g. "as he is painting, time goes by". Prefixes may be used with participles to describe time, e.g. "mishekamti", "once I stood up"; "lixshetakum", "when you get up" (future, masculine).

The Noun ("shem ha-etsem")

Hebrew nouns are inflected by gender, number (and sometimes by possession) but not by case. Nouns are generally correlated to verbs (by shared roots), but their forming is not as systematic, often due to loan words from foreign languages.

Gender

Hebrew distinguishes between masculine nouns (such as "yeled", "boy, child") and feminine nouns (such as "yaldah", "girl"). There is no neuter gender. Generally, almost all nouns that end in "ah" are feminine. Sometimes, as in the example, a feminine form can be formed through adding a final "ah" to a masculine noun (written as the letter "he").

Number

Generally, Hebrew distinguishes between singular and plural forms of a noun. Masculine plural forms usually end with the suffix "-im"; feminine singular "-ah" turns into "-ot". Thus we get the forms "yeladim", "boys, children", and "yeladot", "girls". Hebrew also has a dual number, but its modern use is restricted to particular nouns, such as "shavua", "week", which becomes "shvu'ayim", "two weeks". However for most nouns the dual form is discarded in favor of the plural. Thus, "dirah", "apartment", becomes "shtei dirot" ("two apartments"), rather than *"diratayim".

Poessession

Possession may be indicated by a possessive pronoun ("sheli", "my, mine"), but ancient Hebrew used inflection, and such inflection is still in use in literary Hebrew, as well as in particular idioms in modern spoken Hebrew. They noun receives a suffix signifying the person to whom an object belongs. Thus, "dirah", "apartment", may change into "dirati" ("my apartment"), "diratxa" ("your apartment"), "diratam" ("their apartment"), etc.

Forming Words

There are basically two ways of forming Hebrew nouns. The first way is similar to the system of the verb. A root is adopted into a pattern of vowels, prefixes and suffixes (called, in this case, the "meter", or "mishkal"). The root A-D-M, related to "red", "man" (Adam), and "earth", is adopted into the meter "qatelet" (which is a typical meter for words denoting diseases), to create "ademet", "measles". "Qatelet" is a form of pronouncing meters, with the 'q', 't', and 'l' standing for the actual three letters of the root.

The second way is the addition of two existing stems. For example, "qol", "sound" and "no'a", "motion" create together "qolno'a", "cinema".

See also : Hebrew language



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