[b-hebrew] Piel etc.

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Wed May 11 18:14:42 EDT 2005

----- Original Message -----
From: "Dr. Joel M. Hoffman" <joel at exc.com>
> Regarding Piel etc.:
> It is simply not true that the binyanim dictate semantic sense.

Whoa! Whoa there, this is too sweeping a statement.

First of all, looking through the rest of your letter, too many of your examples are from Modern Hebrew, which appears to me to have greater differences from Biblical Hebrew than were between Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic (which were different enough that a speaker of one could not understand a speaker of the other).

Secondly, the assumption is made that if one statement is a Qal, then its opposite should also be in Qal. We can’t assume that.

Thirdly, I have repeatedly taken modern lexicographers to task for being sloppy in their analysis of ancient meaning. Part of that very well may be that they use modern western European Indo-European semantic domains to classify ancient Semitic usages. Part of that is merely imparting modern, Western concepts onto ancient, Middle-eastern documents, so that they misunderstand what was written. Part of that is tradition: certain meanings have become traditional and so lexicographers continue using them. But it appears the biggest problem is translation: there are phrases, ways of saying things, grammar that makes perfect sense in the original languages, including the binyanim dictating semantic sense, that cannot be translated into English or other modern, European languages or results in very stilted, turgid language that no one can understand, so lexicographers go through all sorts of mental contortions to give clues for translators, resulting in clues for translators that obscure a clear understanding of ancient usages.

>  So to
> say that "Piel [is] a heightened action of some kind," or that "Piel
> [is] the imposition of a state (adjectival)..." is to do everyone a
> disservice.
> In both modern and ancient Hebrew, each binyan tends to cluster around
> a set of meanings, but the clustering is not absolute.

While recognizing that each binyan tends to cluster around a meaning, or maybe more than one meaning, it is my desire to find out what is that meaning and the breadth thereto. As a lexicographer, then, if I understand the Piel, for example, then I could predict what the Qal, the Hiphil and other binyanim meanings would be. But if they don’t follow the pattern, then it is a good sign that I didn’t understand the Piel correctly in the first place and I need to go back and do more research. But if I just blindly go on, treating each semantic domain as an isolated unit, treating each verb’s binyanim as independent from another verb’s binyanim, what rhyme or reason can I point back to? How can I be assured of the integrity of my research? How can I confidently understand the text? And how can I with confidence make an accurate translation of the text?

>  Some people
> therefore conclude that there are "rules and lots of exceptions," but
> I don't find that approach helpful or accurate, both because the rules
> tend to be complicated, and because the exceptions outnumber the
> non-exceptions.

See above, sloppiness.
> Furthermore, the belief in semantic rules that accompany the binyanim
> leads to (sometimes severe) misunderstandings of the Hebrew words,
> because people try to force their wrong notions of the semantic import
> of the binyanim onto the words.

See above.
> For example, in Modern Hebrew, the Piel GIDDEL means "to grow (plants)
> or to raise (children)," while the hiphil HIGDIL means "to enlarge."
> Similarly, the hiphil HIRXIK means "to cause to be far away," while
> its opposite, "to cause to be nearby," is Piel (KEREV).
> There is nothing intensive or emphatic about "speaking" (Piel: DIBBER)
> or, for that matter, faxing (Piel: FIKSES), or focusing [a camera, say]
> (Piel: FIKES).  Returning to Biblical Hebrew, there is still nothing
> emphatic about "speaking."  We can also look, say, at Genesis 12:3,
> where we find two words for "curse" clearly used in parallel, but one
> is in Piel (KILLEL), while its synonym is in Kal (ARAR).  Similarly,
> the passive of BERACH (Piel) is not Pual but Niphal (NIVRACH) there.
> There is nothing emphatic about the nearly-passive verb "to get," but
> it, too, is Piel:  KIBEL.
> Branching out a bit, the Niphal verbs NISHBA' ("to swear") and NAMAS
> ("to melt") are not at all passive, and neither are the modern Hebrew
> Niphal verbs NIZKAR ("to recall") and NIFTAR ("to die").
> For that matter, the relationship between NIFTAR/HITPATER
> ("die"/"quit") is not at all the same as the relationship between
> 'IBED/HIT'ABED ("lose"/"commit suicide").
> The oppositve of "to gain weight" (Hiphel: HISHMIN) is the Kal verb RAZA
> ("to lose weight").
> The Kal verb 'AVAD means "to work" or "to serve," while the Piel 'IBED
> means "to process."
> The Piel verb KIRSEM simply means "to gnaw" not "to gnaw
> emphatically."  The hiphil verb "HEVIN" simply means "to understand,"
> not "to cause someone to have wisdom."
> These and many, many, more examples disprove any notion of binyanim
> dictating semantics.
See above. First because modern Hebrew understandings. Second because they are equivelances for translators, not analyses for ancient linguistic understanding.

> Nonetheless, it is generally true that Kal/Niphal, Piel/Pual and
> Hiphel/Huphal form active/passive pairs, though even there exceptions
> are not uncommon.
> -Joel Hoffman
> (joel at exc.com)

When I was young, I expressed a desire to go back to school and get a PhD in Hebrew studies. I let myself get talked out of it. At that time I was disappointed. Now I view that as an advantage.

One of the ways moderns study ancient Hebrew is to compare cognate languages. All I have under my belt is Tanakh. Often I don’t have to think about how ancient Hebrew should “sound” (or more accurately, how it should look on the page), I have now gotten to the point that I can almost act instinctively that something looks right, or it doesn’t, even before undertaking a study asking “Why?” An example is the Joash stone fake: because I can read archaic Hebrew script, I started reading it right off. But before I finished four lines of text, I was already mentally listing things that just didn’t “feel right” and in going back, I could show why. Yet publicized statements as to how the fake was recognized emphasized that the clue was near the bottom of the text. What? Didn’t they see .... ? Likewise, I see your analysis above contaminated by your fluency in modern Hebrew as well as other cognate languages.

Karl W. Randolph.

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