[b-hebrew] Piel etc.

George Athas gathas at hotkey.net.au
Thu May 12 04:00:36 EDT 2005

Hi Joel!

Thank you for your comment about the binyanim (ie, stems) not dictating semantic sense. I agree with you to an extent. You helpfully imply that language does not work like mathematics -- it is far more fluid and abstract in its logic and operations, and Biblical Hebrew is no exception. However, I would not swing the pendulum so far the other way that the binyanim/stems become purely arbitrary forms. There does seem to be some method to the 'madness' of the binyanim/stems. It might be a verbal chaos theory, but I think there is some logical control. When claiming that there is an intensive or heightening sense to verbs in the Piel, we do not mean that the sense is artificially imposed upon the root from the outside. Rather, the semantic range of the root itself in the Piel lends itself to heightened action.

For example, it is not that the verb DiBBeR means to 'speak emphatically' or anything like that. Rather, it is that Biblical Hebrew sees the very action of speaking as somehow heightened. In other words, the root DBR naturally occurs in the Piel stem because Biblical Hebrew sees the Piel stem as the appropriate form. If you compare the usage of DiBBeR (Piel, 'to speak') with the use of (aMaR (Qal, 'to say'), you will find that while there is a lot of semantic overlap, there is a slightly different semantic range because the Qal is generally reserved for the most basic of stems, and the Piel is reserved for more formalised or heightened action. We might not readily see what the 'heightened' feature of the action is, but that doesn't really matter much in the end. Piel might be heightened in the sense that it causes a state to occur, or an action is viewed intensively, but these nuances are not added to the semantic range; they are to be seen within the semantic range of the particular root. This is why virtually no verb occurs in all seven binyanim/stems -- each of the binyanim/stems has a particular feel to it. It's not a mathematical imposition upon the root such that a nuance can be derived, but is rather a sense such that a nuance is felt.

Also, I think Karl is right about the dangers of using Modern Hebrew to make definitive statements about Biblical Hebrew. It sometimes has illustrative value, but not determinative value.

Best Regards,

(Sydney, Australia)

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Dr. Joel M. Hoffman 
  To: b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org 
  Sent: Thursday, May 12, 2005 1:32 AM
  Subject: [b-hebrew] Piel etc.

  Regarding Piel etc.:

  It is simply not true that the binyanim dictate semantic sense.  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

  In both modern and ancient Hebrew, each binyan tends to cluster around
  a set of meanings, but the clustering is not absolute.  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

  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.

  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.

  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)

  b-hebrew mailing list
  b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org

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