Modern Hebrew verb conjugation
In Hebrew, verbs, taking the form of derived stems, are conjugated to reflect their tense and mood, as well as to agree with their subjects in gender, number, and person. Each verb has an inherent voice, though a verb in one voice typically has counterparts in other voices. This article deals mostly with Modern Hebrew, but to an extant the information shown here applies to Biblical Hebrew as well.
Classification of roots
A root that contains at least one of the weak letters, א alef, ה hey, ח het, י yod, נ nun, and ע 'ayin, is called a weak root. Each pairing of a weak letter with a position results in a slightly different conjugation pattern. The largest group of these are the ones that end with ה hey. Examples of weak roots: שתה /ʃaˈta/ (drank), עלה /ʕaˈla/(went up), ירד /jaˈʀad/ (went down), נפל /naˈfal/ (fell).
A root that contains a ו waw or a י yod as the second letter is called a hollow root. The ו waw and the י yod are written as part of the root, even though they are absent from many of the conjugated forms. Examples of hollow roots are the following: שר /ˈʃaʀ/ (sang), גר /ˈɡaʀ/ (lived), דן /ˈdan/ (discussed), דג /ˈdaɡ/ (fish).
Roots without weak letters are called strong or complete roots.
Binyanim or derived stems
Hebrew verbs are conjugated according to specific patterns, derived stems, called בִּנְיָנִים (binyanim - "constructions") where vowels and affixes are slotted into the (mostly) three-letter שרשים (shorashim - roots) from which the majority of Hebrew words are built.
There are seven basic binyanim. The traditional demonstration root is פ.ע.ל which has the basic meaning of "action" or "doing":
|root : פעל|
This simplified chart's menorah-like shape is sometimes invoked in teaching the binyanim to help students remember the main ideas about the binyanim; which binyanim are active voice (left side) vs. passive voice (right side) and which binyanim are simple (outer-most menorah branches), intensive (second-outer-most) and causative (third-outer-most), and which binyan is reflexive (center). Two important facts are not shown on the chart. First, there are some binyanim that have more than one meaning. Second, "hitpa'el" is the reflexive form, only of "pi'el"; not of all the active voice binyanim.
- In Hebrew (and in Arabic), many words that have a meaning related to writing, contain the root K-T-B (in Hebrew, when the letter B does not come at the beginning of a word, it may sound like a V. The same thing happens with K and X due to a process called bekadgefat.). Thus:
- "he wrote" (simple active voice) is "hu katav", "it was written" (simple passive voice) is "ze nixtav",
- "he dictated" (causative active v.) is "hu hixtiv", "it was dictated" (causative passive v.) is "ze huxtav",
- "hu kittev" and "ze/hu kuttav" have a few meanings, none of which is commonly used, "he corresponded" (intensive-reflexive) is "hu hitkattev",
- "he rewrote" is "hu shixtev", and "it was rewritten" is "ze shuxtav" (these two binyanim are used only with a few roots and thus are not considered as common ones).
- In Hebrew, many words that have a meaning related to clothing, contain the root L-B-SH (in Arabic it is L-B-S). When this root is put in the seven common binyanim, it changes its meaning in a similar way to the root K-T-B, but with one little difference. The intensive reflexive form, "hu hitlabesh" means "he dressed himself up" (not "he dressed up the person, who dressed him up", correspondingly to "he corresponded").
- The root G-D-L is common to words, related to large sizes. Thus:
- "he grow up" (simple act, either active or passive) is "hu gadal", the Nif'al binyan is not used with this root,
- "he enlarged" is "hu higdil", "it was enlarged" is "ze hugdal",
- "he grow apples" (intensive, active) is "hu gidel tapuchim", "the apples were grown" (intensive, passive) is "hatapuchim gudlu", and the intensive-reflexive form of this root is used almost only in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic prayers.
As mentioned, some binyanim have more than one meaning. For example, Hif'il's second most common meaning is "turned in to". Verbs like "turned fat" ("hishmin") and "turned pale" ("hixvir") are in this binyan. That meaning of Hif'il is similar to that of the Arabic 9th derived stem, If'alla, while Hif'il's main meaning is shared with its Arabic historical equivalent, the 4th derived stem, Af'ala.
Present Tense (Participle)
A verb in the present tense (הוֹוֶה, howe) agrees with its subject in gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural), such that each verb has four present-tense forms:
|pi'el||גדל||מְגַדֵּל||מְגַדֶּלֶת||מְגַדְּלִים||מְגַדְּלוֹת||Raises, grows (something)|
|hitpa'el||בטל||מִתְבַּטֵּל||מִתְבַּטֶּלֶת||מִתְבַּטְּלִים||מִתְבַּטְּלוֹת||Belittles oneself, loafs|
|huf'al||קטנ||מֻקְטָן||מֻקְטֶנֶת||מֻקְטָנִים||מֻקְטָנוֹת||Is shrunken by|
The present tense does not inflect by first, second, or third person because its use as a present tense is a relatively recent trend, as this form was originally used only as the participle. The modern present tense verb is still used as the present participle; see further down.
The ancient language did not have strictly defined past, present, or future tenses, but merely perfective and imperfective aspects, with past, present, or future connotation depending on context. Later the perfective and imperfective aspects were explicitly refashioned as the past and future tenses respectively, with the participle standing in as the present tense. (This also happened to the Aramaic language around the same time, but did not happen to the Arabic. In Arabic, the present and the future tenses still share the same morphology; the one that is equivalent to the Hebrew future tense. The future tense is separated from the present tense with the use of prefixes.)
Past Tense (Past/ Perfect)
A verb in the past tense (עָבַר 'avar) agrees with its subject in person (first, second, or third) and number, and in the second-person singular and plural and third-person singular, gender.
Note that the past/perfect and the present/participle inflections of the third-person singular nif'al were historically pronounced with different vowels in the final syllable—the past/perfect with a paˈtaħ ( ַ = /ɐː/), and the present/participle with a qaˈmasˤ ɡaˈdol ( ָ = /ɔː/). In Modern Hebrew, both of these vowels have merged to /a/, and the two verb forms now are pronounced the same. For example, the past tense נִשְׁמַר niʃˈmaʀ means "he was guarded" (or in old-fashioned perfective "he is/was guarded"), whereas the present tense נִשְׁמָר niʃˈmaʀ means "he is being guarded".
|He||She||Thou (You)||I||They||Ye (You)||We|
Future Tense (Unpast/ Imperfect)
A verb in the future tense (עָתִיד 'atid) agrees with its subject in person and number, and in the second- and third-person singular, gender. The second-person singular masculine and third-person singular feminine forms are identical for all verbs in the future tense. Historically, there have been separate feminine forms for the second- and third-person plural (shown in parentheses on the table). These are still occasionally used today (most often in formal settings), and could be seen as the 'correct' forms. However, in everyday speech, most Israelis use the historically male form for both genders.
|He||She||Thou (You)||I||They||Ye (You)||We|
As in the past tense, personal pronouns are not strictly necessary in the future tense, as the verb forms are sufficient to identify the subject, but they are frequently used.
|pi'el||גדל||גַּדֵּל||גַּדְּלִי||גַּדְּלוּ||גַּדֵּלְנָה||Raise, grow (it)|
|hitpa'el||בטל||הִתְבַּטֵּל||הִתְבַּטְּלִי||הִתְבַּטְּלוּ||הִתְבַּטֵּלְנָה||Belittle yourself, loaf|
Except for the strictly passive binyaním (pu'al and huf'al), each binyan has distinct imperative forms in the second person. This imperative form is only used for affirmative commands. The pa'al, nif'al, pi'el and hif'il form their imperatives by dropping the initial ת taw of the future-tense form (e.g., תפתח /tifˈtaħ/ (singular, masc.) → פתח /ˈpətaħ/ "open!", תשמרי /tiʃməˈʀi/ (singular, fem.) → שמרי /ʃimˈri/ "guard!"); the fifth, hitpa'el, forms its imperative by replacing this initial ת with ה (/titbaˈtːel/ → /hitbaˈtːel/ "do nothing!"). (Note that the dropping of the initial ת often results in a change in vocalization, as can be seen in the instance of /tiʃməˈri/ vs. /ʃimˈri/).
Negative commands use the particle אל /ˈal/ followed by the future-tense form. For example, אל תדאג /ˈal tidˈaɡ/ means "don't worry" (masculine, singular).
In informal speech, the future tense is commonly used for affirmative commands when making requests. Thus for example, תפתח /tifˈtaħ/ can mean either "you will open" or "would you open" (masculine, singular). (Similarly in English one might say "would you open" or "could you open" in lieu of simply "open".) In Hebrew, as in English, the more formal way to avoid the implication of commanding is to use the word "please" (בבקשה /bə-vaqaʃa/) with the imperative.
The infinitive can be used as a "general imperative" when addressing nobody in particular (e.g., on signs, or when giving general instructions to children or large groups), so that for example, נא לא לפתוח /ˈna ˈlo lifˈtoaħ/ means "please do not open". This might be more literally be rendered as "it is requested that [this] not be opened", avoiding the question of address by using a passive voice.
Present participles are identical to present tense forms (the modern present tense actually having been derived from the ancient present participle): נרות בוערים /neˈrot boʕaˈrim/ (burning candles), ילדה מקסימה /jalˈda maqsiˈma/ (charming girl).
Only the pa'al binyan has a true past participle: from כתב k-t-b we have כתוב /kaˈtuv/, (writ, written). For verbs that have a pa'al form and a nif'al form serving as its passive, this provides a means to distinguish between a completed and a continuing action. The pa'al past participle indicates completion:
- הספרים כתובים /hasːəfaˈrim kətuˈvim/ (the books have been written)
while the present tense of nif'al indicates that the action continues:
- הספרים נכתבים /hasːəfaˈrim nixtaˈvim/ (the books are being written)
The passive participle is commonly used as an adjective, as in הפקודה הכתובה /hapːəquˈda hakːətuˈva/ (the written order).
The present tense of the pu'al and huf'al are used as passive participles for the pi'el and hif'il respectively. For example, from hif'il האיר /heˈʔir/ (lit) we get חדר מואר /ˈħeder muˈʔar/ (lit room).
Infinitives (ˈʃmot hap-poˈʕal) in Hebrew are primarily formed by adding the letter lamed (ל) to the front of the base form (sˤuˈʀat ham-maˈkoʀ). The vowels change systematically according to the binyan.
- כָּתַב /kaˈtav/ (wrote, pa'al) → לִכְתֹּב /lixˈtov/ (to write)
- מְדַבֵּר /medaˈbeʁ/ (speak, pi'el) → לְדַבֵּר /ledaˈbeʁ/ (to speak)
- הִתְחִיל /hitˈħil/ (started, hif'il) → לְהַתְחִיל /lehatˈħil/ (to start)
- הִתְפַּלֵּל /hitpaˈlel/ (prayed, hitpa'el) → לְהִתְפַּלֵּל /lehitpaˈlel/ (to pray)
- נִפְגַשׁ /nifˈɡaʃ/ (met with, nif'al) → לְהִפָּגֵשׁ /lehipaˈɡeʃ/ (to meet with)
Note that pu'al and huf'al verbs do not have infinitives.
Gerunds (ˈʃəmot pəʕuˈla) are nouns expressing an action. Gerunds are created in Hebrew by putting the root of a verb into a miʃˈkal, a noun pattern (see Modern Hebrew grammar#Noun derivation). Five of the binyanim have gerunds: pa'al, pi'el, hif'il, hitpa'el, and nif'al. For example:
- שָׁמַר /ʃaˈmaʁ/ (guarded — pa'al) → שְׁמִירָה /ʃəmiˈra/ (guarding)
- שָׁב /ˈʃav/ (returned — hollow pa'al) → שִׁיבָה /ʃiˈva/ (returning, a return)
- שָׁתָה /ʃaˈta/ (drank — weak pa'al) → שְׁתִיָּה /ʃətiˈjːa/ (drinking, a drink)
- נִכְנַס /nixˈnas/ (enter — nif'al) → הִכָּנְסוּת /hikanˈsut/ (entering)
- בִּקֵּר /biˈqːeʁ/ (visited — pi'el) → בִּקּוּר /biˈqːur/ (visiting, a visit)
- הִפְתִּיעַ /hifˈtiaʕ/ (surprised — hif'il) → הַפְתָעָה /hafteˈʕa/ (surprising, a surprise)
- הִתְחַמֵּם /hitħaˈmːem/ (warmed — hitpa'el) → הִתְחַמְּמוּת /hitħamːəˈmut/ (warming)
Note that unlike in English (where gerunds and present participles share the same form but different etymology), Hebrew gerunds cannot be used as adjectives.
"לו היה לי זמן, הייתי הולך."
"לו מישהו היה טורח לספר לי, הייתי יודע."
"פעם הייתי הולך המון לקולנוע."
- Academy Decisions: Grammar, chapter 3 - for The Academy of the Hebrew Language's decisions on the conjugations of less common verb patterns
- Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, §38 ff.
- Ornan, Uzzi (2003). The Final Word: Mechanism for Hebrew Word Generation (in Hebrew). Haifa University.
- Hebrew Verbs Conjugation Tool - Online Hebrew Verb Learning Tool (Hebrew/English)
- hspell - המאיית העברי החופשי - טופס הטיית פעלים - Online Hebrew verb conjugator, based on hspell, the Free Hebrew spelling engine (in Ktiv male)