[b-hebrew] Inflexions?

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at cua.edu
Tue Nov 18 07:41:23 EST 2003

>===== Original Message From "Karl Randolph" <kwrandolph at email.com> =====
>To All:
>When I took the introductory class to Biblical Hebrew, I was taught that 
there are seven inflexions to Hebrew verbs: Qal, Niphal, Piel, Pual, Hiphil, 
Hophal, Hithpael, and that all verbs exhibited these forms.

Then you were misinformed. First, a root is not a verb. A Semitic verb 
consists of root and stem/binyan. Second, the binyanim should not be referred 
to as "inflexions." A root in a given binyan constitutes a word, or a lexeme, 
and inflection happens to that word. Third, few if any Hebrew roots appear in 
all possible binyanim. A few minutes skimming through a lexicon should confirm 
this fact. (Fourth, and on a somewhat different track, there is also a Qal 
Passive binyan, although arguably if you're learning Masoretic Hebrew there is 
not. The same might also be said for other t-binyanim that have been largely 
absorbed into Hitpael.)

>Is the Piel a true, independent form? Or is it just a different conjugation 
of the Qal, in the same way as there are different conjugations in Spanish for 
-a and -o verbs?

Not knowing Spanish, I can only comment generally on this suggestion. From a 
formal standpoint, the Piel (like all the other binyanim) is simply a way of 
constructing a verb from a root. On the semantic side of things, each binyan 
has a generally definable relationship to the nature of the verb so 
constructed. In some cases, it is hard to distinguish between the meaning of a 
given Qal verb and its Piel counterpart, but some broad conclusions can be 
drawn by looking at the whole picture. It does happen in some languages that 
binyanim will lose their significance. Instead of having a given root that 
appears in binyanim X and Y with different meanings, You simply have patterns 
X and Y that appear with different roots (which is I think what you're 
suggesting). This is pretty much the state of things in Ge'ez. If I remember 
correctly, post-biblical Hebrew tends to move in this direction, with a lot of 
Qal verbs being altogether replaced by Piel verbs. But in the biblical 
material, the system is still significant.

>When reading a pointed Tanakh, I noticed that if a verb is pointed as a Qal, 
it almost never has a Piel expression, or if Piel almost never Qal. When 
reading an unpointed text, it is usually impossible to recognize any 
difference between the two
>(except in the case of participles and possibly infinitives which introduce 
other questions). Hence my question above.
I think this is a gross overstatement. While it is true that many (perhaps 
most) roots are only expressed in a few of the available binyanim (which goes 
to show that what you learned in basic grammar was false), and that you will 
often encounter roots that appear in Qal or Piel exclusively, there are plenty 
of examples that exhibit both forms. The fact that forms are graphically 
indistinguishable in a writing system that does not show consonantal 
lengthening or most vowels should not be taken as indicative of whether or not 
the forms exist. You say yourself that there are some forms where the 
distinction can be observed, and we also have to ask whether the Masoretes 
made up the distinction out of thin air. Furthermore, the Piel is exhibited 
(to varying degrees, depending on how much the writing system can tell us) in 
just about every Semitic language--in some cases, clearly distinguishable in 
the native writing system. (Akkadian comes to mind here, where consonant 
lengthening can be shown, and where enough of the voweling is visible to 
distinguish binyanim.) Even Ge'ez (which is also written with vowels 
indicated) does not lose binyanim; they simply become insignificant and remain 
as vestiges in the forms of verbs. Again, it's conceivable that this could 
happen in a language like Hebrew, but the usage patterns and the appearance of 
Qal and Piel verbs derived from the same root strongly suggest otherwise.

>I also can’t tell any difference in meaning between Qal and Piel.

Perhaps you're not looking hard enough, if already think that they are 
nonexistent or meaningless. A lot of work has been done on the force of the 
Piel, and I won't rehash it all here.
>The Pual occures more often, but is that the Qal passive mentioned by George 
Athas recently?
No. The Qal passive apparently was unknown to the Masoretes. (Aside from the 
participle, and if we're talking about Hebrew rather than Aramaic.) Jouon 
thinks that it happened to have an identical form with the Pual in the perfect 
and the Hofal in the imperfect, but I think it's more common to think that the 
form was so completely lost by the time of the Masoretes that they read Qal 
passives as the most logical equivalent with the same consonants. The Qal 
(Peal, actually) passive in Aramaic can be observed to diminish in usage over 
time. For that matter, the other internal passive forms (Pual, Hofal) also 
fade away, so that by the time we get to the Targums of Onqelos and Jonathan, 
the passives are formed pretty much exclusively through the use of t-binyanim. 
In Hebrew, a similar progression is posited, and the Qal passive forms are 
identified on the basis of distribution. A Qal passive should correspond to a 
Qal, a Pual should correspond to a Piel, a Hofal should correspond to a Hifil. 
So wherever we find an internal passive form in the MT that corresponds to a 
Qal active form but has the same consonants and is pointed as another form, we 
suspect an original Qal passive. I think students sometimes get the impression 
that there are only a handful of Qal passives here and there in the biblical 
text, but compared with other internal passives, they are really not all that 

Trevor Peterson

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list