whatisaword? (dictionary and beyond)

peter_kirk at sil.org peter_kirk at sil.org
Fri Dec 24 21:57:31 EST 1999

Dear Randall,

I hesitate to disagree with you on this as you obviously know so much 
more Hebrew than I do. But I do have one advantage, that I remember 
better than you, I guess, what it is to be a beginner in Hebrew. And I 
have experience in learning several other languages in recent years.

I don't think it would be helpful for relative beginners to have 
hishliaH listed under he rather than shin. Two reasons:

1) Mainly for complete beginners: A minority of the forms of hishliaH 
actually begin with that he (actually, none of the three attested 
forms listed in BDB). Beginners will quickly learn to drop that he, 
yod, taw or whatever the actual form begins with and look for this 
under shin. In fact they may find shalaH instead and incorrectly 
deduce that mashliaH is a form of shalaH rather than hishliaH. But 
they will find it harder to learn when they need to add a he which is 
not in the text in front of them.

2) Mainly for intermediate (and advanced) language learners as you 
mention below: These learners learn by association. Their initial 
associations will be over-simplistic, but even so they are very 
helpful. I am all the time hearing Russian and Azerbaijani words which 
I don't know but whose approximate meanings I can deduce from their 
roots, related words etc. Should I deny myself that clue to meaning 
because I am missing some of the nuances? I am sure that it is helpful 
for these learners, on coming across an occasional form of hishliaH, 
to be able to relate it to shalaH and shilleH.

Also, more theoretically, the form hishliaH does not occur, so it is 
even more a construct than the root is! At least the letters sh-l-H do 
occur in that order. But some such construction is necessary to make a 

The basic disagreement is that I do not even agree with the first 
statement of yours that I have retained below. It is certainly 
over-simplistic. For example, surely the niphal of a verb like yada` 
acts as the passive and/or middle of the qal form rather than as a 
different verb, and its hiphil acts as the causative of the qal. To 
list the niphal and hiphil as separate words would be most confusing, 
especially if there is no reference back to the qal to which they 

We are used to drawing a clear line between infectional and 
derivational morphology and deciding on that basis what merits a 
separate dictionary entry, but unfortunately that sort of division 
simply does not work with Hebrew. It doesn't in Russian or Azerbaijani 
either. (In Russian, are the perfective and imperfective two forms of 
the same verb or separate verbs? Dictionaries are usually forced to 
list them separately, not least because their formation is so 
irregular. And how about the verbal nouns formed regularly with the 
ending -niye? These are also listed separately, but by the same logic 
English gerunds e.g. "giving", "living" used as nouns should be listed 
separately.) If the same division does work in English, it is because 
we have made up definitions to fit English.

So how would I list verbs, in a dictionary for beginners and for 
experts? (To do something different in different dictionaries is just 
confusing.) My instinct is to do something like this:

YD`             root of:
    YADA`       know...
    NODA`       (passive of YADA`) be known...
    YIDDEA`     ... (??)
    HODIA`      (causative of YADA`) make known, declare...
    HITWADDA`   (reflexive of HODIA`) make oneself known...
YIDDE`ONI [YD`] 1. spirit of the dead... 2. soothsayer...
NODA`           see YD`
$LX             root of:
    $ALAX       1. stretch out (one's hand)... 2. send...
    NI$LOAX     (passive of $ALAX) be sent
    $ILLAX      send away...
    HI$LIAX     let loose...
$ELAX [$LX]     1. missile... 2. canal...      

I would list these in order of roots and/or of nouns, basically as in 
Holladay, but all out of order verb forms would be cross-referenced as 
with NODA` above. Actually apart from this (and not listing puals and 
hophals separately) I am more-or-less following Holladay. Also I would 
make sure that what appears at the top of each page is the root, not 
(as in BDB) the derived form - this would be so much more helpful for 
finding places.

My feeling is that the resulting dictionary would be much more useful 
to beginners and intermediate students (and probably experts also) 
than the one you are proposing. I think it is also theoretically in no 
way inferior.

Even though you, like me, are in a place where tomorrow is not a 
special holday, I hope you have a good day.

Peter Kirk

______________________________ Reply Separator _________________________________
Subject: Re: whatisaword? (dictionary and beyond)
Author:  <ButhFam at compuserve.com> at Internet
Date:    24/12/1999 06:25


   --  NB -- I'm pointing out, claiming, that the various stems and
binyanim, Q,N,Pi,Hitp,Hif, (=5), are DIFFERENT verbs.


I would hazard a guess that no successful second language programs 
recommend or use etymology as the way to teach beginners a language. In 
fact, etymology often skews the actual, current meaning of a word. (Don't 
get me wrong--I do believe that it is useful as an intermediate/advanced 
level skill for 'attacking' new/unknown words, in any language being 
learned. even for re-press, im-press and de-press! but the etymology will 
mislead and 'spin your head' if you try to make it 'active'.)


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