[b-hebrew] Inflexions?

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at cua.edu
Fri Nov 21 07:18:06 EST 2003

>===== Original Message From "Karl Randolph" <kwrandolph at email.com> =====
>Seriously, this question has raised some rather interesting, even apparently 
contradictory, responses. Hiphil and Hophal clearly have the causitive sense,

Not always. What about roots where there is no Qal? This definition can only 
work if you have a Qal to compare. In some cases, there's not even a 
conceivable Qal. And what about denominatives?

>Hithpael reflexive,

What about the Hitpael from hlk? Does it mean to walk oneself? I don't think 
reflexivity always captures the sense.

>but what is the distinction between Qal and Piel? One, off line response,
>said that the difference was between that of transitive and intransitive 
verbs (in which case, many verbs are incorrectly pointed).

No, I don't think that's a good idea. As you say, the actual pointing wouldn't 
fit in a lot of cases. Besides, if that's the fundamental difference, what do 
we say about other derived binyanim? Wouldn't it also make sense to say that 
Hifil is transitive? So then we're still left having to ask what distinguishes 
Hifil from Piel.

>If the Piel is causitive, then what’s the difference between it and Hiphil?

The usual answer to this question is that Hifil causes an action, while Piel 
causes a state. I don't know that this always works, but I think it's a 
sufficient distinction to distinguish one from the other.

>Other times some say it is the same as

Well, that would amount to what you suggested. But I think what people 
probably mean is that its meaning is sometimes indistinguishable from the Qal, 
which at least from a translation standpoint is true. Not that there is no 
distinction (although I think sometimes this can be the case, particularly if 
we're comparing verbs used in different historical periods), but it is a 
distinction that is hard to capture in English.
>I believe that languages are basically simple that can be mastered by 
children, except for rare, specialized cases. If the Piel is to be recognized 
in a case by case basis, then it fails the child masterable test.

No, it doesn't. If, as I have suggested, the binyanim are derivational forms 
rather than inflectional, there is no problem here. Is English an impossibly 
complex language because each verb must be learned individually instead of 
basing groups of verbs on inferential roots? No, we pretty much expect that 
individual words have to be learned individually. Vocabulary building is part 
of the process of learning a language. Now, to a certain extent, children 
learn how words are derived and try to apply what they learn. But just because 
adding -ness to the end of an adjective makes an abstract noun doesn't mean 
that every instance of doing so results in an accepted term. Part of learning 
a language involves learning the actual words that exist in the language. This 
process is aided by recognition of general patterns, but when it comes to 
derivation of words, independent generation is more limited. Yes, we can 
create a new word like stick-to-itiveness. But it is an act of creating a new 
word, not an inflection of an already existing word. If our created words grow 
to common usage, they enter the general lexicon. Sometimes they persist in a 
more limited sense, but it is only the strength of the pattern on which 
they're constructed that makes them intelligible to others. In Semitic 
languages the binyanim provide a reasonably strong derivation system for verbs 
that allows new words to be formed according to standard patterns. In some 
cases, the meaning is obvious from the derivational form. In other cases, the 
new word would have to have been learned by hearing it in various contexts. 
This is probably more the case with Piel than some of the other binyanim. (I 
should mention that the passives would be much more regular in their 
relationship to active counterparts.)

>So what I am looking for is a test
>that I can apply consistently from verb to verb. Knowing such a test would 
also make it easier to recognize definitions in the contexts that verbs are 
It would be great to have this, but even for a binyan like the hifil, things 
are not always as consistent as we might like. As I said not long ago, it can 
be of some help to know how the binyanim work when a new word is encountered, 
but the primary source of information about new words will always come from 
usage. The fact that Piel is hard to pin down does not mean the stem is 
nonexistent or meaningless. It's really quite consistent with the way 
derivation of words happens in real life. It can be a rather messy process.

>A followup question after your helpful response and that of Ken Penner, could 
the Piel represent instrumentality? In the case of a midwife, one who helps in 
the birth. In the case of BQ( I’m not sure what the difference is. In the case 
of XLH again
>it looks like a form of instrumentality. Any thoughts?

One thing to keep in mind is that this is not a problem exclusive to Hebrew. 
Akkadian has a wider range of binyanim, some of which are notoriously 
difficult to pin down. There is one referred to in Huehnergard's grammar as 
the $t-lexical ($ here stands for shin, and I'm using the notion common in 
Assyriology and comparative Semitics; $ is a prefix used instead of h to form 
a causative binyan, t refers to the affixed t-element, like we find in 
Hitpael). This is to distinguish it from a different $t, which was probably 
derived differently. But the reason it's called $t-lexical is that the meaning 
is almost completely unpredictable. You can usually observe a relationship 
between the $t-lexical form and some corresponding verbs from the same root, 
but the relationship must be learned for each verb. It's obvious that the $t 
exists, and it's generally obvious that these forms are $t. Maybe someday 
someone will figure out an overarching pattern that accounts for all of the 
meanings. In the meantime, we don't have to doubt whether there is such a 
thing--we simply accept that derivation isn't always predictable. You can try 
to find an overarching pattern for the Piel. But most of these ideas will only 
account for part of the data.

Trevor Peterson

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