Chapter I.3. Names, Verbs, Patterns and Roots

We already know that nouns, adjectives, participles and numbers are called “shem” (name) in Hebrew. Shem is one of the two largest word groups in Hebrew, the other one being “poal” (the stress on the first vowel), that is – guess what? – the verb. These groups have their own sets of rules which apply to them, although there are many things in common. Other than these groups, there are some pronouns, participles, the article, conjunctions, particles and maybe other stuff. But it’s those two groups that exhibit most dynamics and make Hebrew so mathematically beautiful, so that’s what we’ll be learning most of the time.

In English, we only have regular and irregular verbs. But in Hebrew, there are seven groups of verbs called “binyanim” (lit. “buildings”). That’s plural, and the singular is “binyan” – and we’ve just suddenly learned another one of the two most common plural endings – “-im” (the other one is “-ot” – remember “ar(a)tsot”?). Each group has its own set of rules. The good news is that these rules are pretty strict and once you figure out which binyan it is, you can put the verb into any imaginable form right away. Also the verbs of a single binyan look very similar to each other, which makes it easier to find out the binyan. Let’s start with some examples.

Ani lo medaber Ivrit.


Ani lo medaberet Ivrit.

The stress in both “medaber” and “medaberet” is on the “ber” because “-et” (the feminine ending) is unstressed. Wait, “feminine ending”? That’s right, you say “medaber” if you’re a guy and “medaberet” if you’re girl. The word itself means literally “speaking”. You may have already guessed that it has something to do with speaking Hebrew, and in fact, it says “I don’t speak Hebrew” or, literally, “I no speaking Hebrew”. Medaber is the masculine present tense of the verb “diber” which means “to speak”, only that for some reason the dictionary form for a verb in Hebrew is considered to be the masculine singular third person past tense, that is, it literally translates as “(he) spoke”.

Now, the funny thing is, strictly speaking, “medaber” isn’t actually a verb. It’s a participle, and as such, a name. The present tense participle in Hebrew also works as regular present tense, so there is absolutely no such thing as the “real” present tense. That’s why I literally translated it as “speaking”. There are only three tenses in Hebrew, and only past and future are considered verbs.

The verb “diber” belongs to the “piel” binyan. If you know the dictionary form of a verb, you can figure out its binyan in most cases right away by vowels and letters it uses. Just look: “di-ber” – “pi-el”. See the similarity? They both follow the scheme “consonant-i-consonant-e-consonant”. Well, almost – there seems to be no consonant between “i” and “e” in the word “piel”, but in fact there is – it’s just not pronounced in modern Hebrew for a simple reason: it was ridiculously hard to pronounce – something like a cross between “g” and “kh”.

Such similarities between words are called patterns. There are supposed to be around 200 such patterns in Hebrew, but many of them are prone to change in various circumstances, which means that a word doesn’t always follow one pattern or another. Thankfully, those changes also follow some rules, so you can still figure what patter it was supposed to be.

Here is another example:

Ani lomed Ivrit.

It means “I learn Hebrew”, and just like with “medaber”, a girl would say “Ani lomedet Ivrit” (with the stress on the “med”) instead. As you can see, the word “lomed” has an entirely different pattern than that of “medaber”. There’s no “me-” (don’t confuse it with the “me-” preposition, by the way!) and the vowels have changed. It’s because “lomed” belongs to a different binyan – “paal”. It’s dictionary form is, of course, “lamad” (“(he) learned”), as you can figure out from the word “paal” itself.

Paal and piel are probably the most common binyans. Some binyans have vague semantics associated with them. Paal’s semantics is too broad to describe, it could really mean almost anything. Piel, on the other hand, is often used for “intensive” or causative actions (that cause another action), but as you can see with “medaber”, it isn’t always the case, so semantics should be used only as a hint, not as a strict rule.

Now, what happens if we take the word “lomed” and “force” it into piel? It becomes “melamed” then. But is it a correct word or did we just made something up? In fact, it is a correct word meaning “teaching”. That’s an example of causative verb in the piel binyan because it “causes” someone to perform another action (specified by the paal binyan in this case).

The last trick introduces us to another important concept in Hebrew. What we just did with the word “lomed” is take three letters “l-m-d” and “inserted” them into piel’s pattern for a present tense participle. That three letter thing is called a “root” in Hebrew, and the base of every name (shem) or verb (poal) is exactly this: pattern+root. The root in regular cases (which means virtually all of them) is three or four letters, and the model is a ready-to-use word lacking only those three letters. You take a model, put the root inside, then attach various stuff around the word (prepositions, the article, suffixes, endings and such), and you’re done! It’s that simple:

Word = prepositions / particles / other stuff + (pattern + root) + suffixes + endings

That’s exactly what makes Hebrew so attractive to logically-minded people.

But be warned! Even though it worked when we put one verb’s root into another binyan’s model, it won’t always work. For most roots there are only a few binyans that can be used, and if you’re trying to use a wrong one, you’ll end up inventing a word that sort of has meaning, but doesn’t exist in Hebrew. What you could do instead is try to remember whether you saw that particular root in some other binyan. For example, you come across the word “melamed”, but you don’t know its meaning. With some experience, you’ll be able to quickly figure out that it belongs to piel and is a present tense participle. Then you remember that you know the word “lomed” which seems to have the same root! Then, using the context and the possible piel semantics, you figure out exactly what it means if you’re lucky or at least get a solid idea about that.

Most binyans have about 7 patterns for base forms, but there are few binyans that don’t have all the forms. The base forms are divided into two groups – the forms that behave like verbs, and those that behave like names. We won’t get into details for now, let’s just say that future and past are verb forms and present is a name (specifially, participle). This means that you have to learn different rules for these, but the good news is that the rules for name forms are the same as for regular nouns, adjectives and such. In fact, name forms of verbs are often used in that manner. For example, there’s the verb “shamar” (to guard), and the present tense participle “shomer” not only means “guarding”, but also “a guard” (that’s a noun).

If you need to put a verb form into a specific gender and number (remember – the dictionary form is third person masculine singular), you need to attach specific prefixes/endings. But these are independent of binyan, which makes them easier to learn. For example, the ending for past tense first person is non-stressed “-ti”. Since it’s non-stressed, there is no need to drop any vowels, just attach the ending, and you’re done:

Ani lamadti Ivrit.

That would be “I learned Hebrew” or “I was learning Hebrew” or even “I’ve been learning Hebrew”. Now, verb forms don’t have gender in first person, which makes this phrase work for both guys and girls just fine. But other persons don’t have this nice feature! See:

Hu lamad Ivrit. – Hi lamda Ivrit. (He learned Hebrew. – She learned Hebrew.)

Unlike “-ti”, feminine “-a” is a stressed ending, so we need to check for vowel droppings. We’ve already learned that in shem, “a” drops in the second syllable from the stress (so it would be sort of like “lmada” if it was shem). But unlike shem, in a poal any vowel can drop in the first syllable from the stress, so it’s “lamda”.

While poal forms lack gender in first person, shem forms lack person altogether! That’s why they still have gender even if used in first person. The form “lomed” can be applied to any person then:

Hu lomed Ivrit. – Hi lomedet Ivrit.

See? The forms are the same as for “ani”, but pronouns are different. Speaking about pronouns... You may have noticed that “he” and “she” in Hebrew sound just like English “who” and “he” for whatever reason. This makes them pretty easy to remember: “Who is he? He is she.”

In conclusion, I would like to note that “regular” adjectives, nouns and other shem that has nothing to do with verbs, also follow their own patterns. But unlike verbs, these patterns aren’t naturally grouped in any fashion, although some of them do have their own semantics (usually very vague). There are around 200 patterns overall in Hebrew with around 4000 roots. This makes it 800000 possible words! But only about 40000 words actually exist, which means that 95% of the combinations are unused and reserved for future use. These numbers are pretty rough, however.

Summary of this chapter: