Modern Hebrew verb conjugation
In Hebrew, verbs, which take 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 some extent, the information shown here applies to Biblical Hebrew as well.
Classification of roots
Verbs in Hebrew, like nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are formed and declined by altering a (usually) three letter root. However, the root can be identified as having a different pattern than normal in certain cases.
A root that contains at least one of the "weak" letters א alef, ה hey, ו vav, ח het, י yod, נ nun, and ע 'ayin or two of the same consonant (geminates) is called a weak root. Each pairing of a weak letter with a position results in a slightly different conjugation pattern. Resh ר is often considered a weak letter, though it occasionally functions as a strong letter, depending on speaker and era of the language. Roots without weak letters are called strong roots, among other names.
A root that contains ח het, ה hey (except in third position without mappiq), or ע 'ayin or א alef (in first position only) is a guttural root. The pattern changes from this group are largely due to all of these letters being unable to take schwa nah. Alef outside of first position is in its own group due to the vowel changes that accompany it being drastically different than other guttural roots. A root that contains ה hey word-finally without mappiq is also similarly divergent from guttural roots, due to being a marker of vowel-final words rather than any historical consonant.
A root that contains a ו vav or a י yod as the first or second letter is called a hollow root, as the simple (pa'al and nif'al) conjugation function as two-letter roots, while the other conjugations keep the letters somewhat due to the middle root being geminated. A root beginning with yod usually marks a waw-initial root (due to Old Hebrew /w/ becoming /j/ at the beginning of words), but occasionally functions as if it a regular yod root.
A root containing נ nun is irregular due to the fact it will form geminated consonants rather than clusters of it. Roots containing two of the same consonant as the second and third part of the root function similarly.
Roots of four or more letters treat the middle letters as a permanent cluster and don't have forms in the simple conjugations pa'al and nif'al, but are regular otherwise.
There are also entirely irregular verbs like הָיָה ("to be"), and הָלַךְ ("to walk"), which are unusual beyond their bearing of weak letters.
Binyanim or conjugations
Hebrew verbs are conjugated according to specific patterns, derived stems, called בִּנְיָנִים (/binjaˈnim/ - binyanim, "constructions") where vowels patterns and affixes are slotted into the (usually) three-letter שרשים (/ʃoʀaˈʃim/ - shorashim, "roots") from which the majority of Hebrew words are built.
There are seven basic conjugations and a very rare eighth hitpuʕal, as well as some irregular verbs technically pa'al, nif'al or pi'el being used irregularly without necessarily a weak root (due to being descendants of obsolete conjugation or confluence between multiple conjugations). 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: (1) which binyanim are active voice (left side) vs. passive voice (right side), and (2) which binyanim are simple (outer-most menorah branches), intensive (second-outer-most), causative (third-outer-most), and reflexive (center). Note that some binyanim have more than one meaning.
- In Hebrew (and in Arabic), many words that have a meaning related to writing contain the root K-T-B. (In Hebrew, due to a process called begadkefat, 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 Ḥ.) Thus:
- "he wrote" (simple active voice) is כָּתַב "kaˈtav", while "it was written" (simple passive voice) is נִכְתַּב "niḥˈtav"
- "he dictated" (causative active v.) is הִכְתִּיב "hiḥˈtiv", while "it was dictated" (causative passive v.) is הֻכְתַּב "huḥˈtav"
- כִּתֵּב "kiˈtːev" and כֻּתַּב "kuˈtːav" have a few meanings, none of which is commonly used, while "he corresponded" (intensive-reflexive) is הִתְכַּתֵּב "hitkaˈtːev"
- "he rewrote" is שִׁכְתֵּב "ṣiḥˈtev", while "it was rewritten" is שֻׁכְתַּב "ṣuḥˈtav" (though these two rare binyanim are used only with a few roots and thus are omitted from most of the discussion within this article).
- In Hebrew, many words that have a meaning related to clothing contain the root לב״ש L-B-SH (in Arabic, لبس L-B-S). When this root is put through the seven common binyanim, it changes its meaning similarly to the way the root כת״ב K-T-B does, but with a small difference. Here, the intensive reflexive form, הִתְלַבֵּשׁ "hitlaˈb:esh", does not connote reciprocity as with "he corresponded", so the meaning is "he dressed himself", not "he dressed the person who dressed him".
- The root גד״ל G-D-L is common to words related to growth. Thus:
- "he grew up" (simple act, either active or passive) is גָּדַל "gaˈdal"; the nifˈʕal binyan is not used with this root
- "he enlarged" is הִגְדִּיל "higˈdil", while "it was enlarged" is הֻגְדַּל "hugˈdal"
- "he grew apples" (intensive, active) is גִּדֵּל תַּפּוּחִים "giˈdːel tap:uħim", while "the apples were grown" (intensive, passive) is גֻּדְּלוּ הַתַּפּוּחִים "gudːəˈlu hat:ap:uħim ", and the intensive-reflexive form of this root (הִתְגַּדֵּל "hitgaˈd:el") is used almost exclusively in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic prayers.
As mentioned, some binyanim have more than one meaning. For example, הִפְעִיל hifˈʕil's second most common meaning is "become". Verbs like "became fat" (הִשְׁמִין "hiʃˈmin") and "turned pale" (הֶחְוִיר "heħˈvir") are in this binyan. This meaning of הִפְעִיל hifˈʕil is similar to that of the Arabic ninth derived stem, افعلّ ifʕalla, while הִפְעִיל hifˈʕil's main meaning is shared with its Arabic historical equivalent, the fourth derived stem, أفعل afʕala.
Present Tense (Present Participle)
A verb in the present tense (הוֹוֶה, hoˈve) agrees with its subject in gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural), so each verb has four present-tense forms:
|piˈʕel||גדל||מְגַדֵּל||מְגַדֶּלֶת||מְגַדְּלִים||מְגַדְּלוֹת||raises, grows (something)|
|hitpaˈʕel||בטל||מִתְבַּטֵּל||מִתְבַּטֶּלֶת||מִתְבַּטְּלִים||מִתְבַּטְּלוֹת||belittles oneself, loafs|
|hufˈʕal||קטן||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 below.
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 in Arabic, where the present and future tenses still share the same morphology, the one equivalent to the Hebrew future tense. The future tense is distinguished from the present tense by the use of prefixes.)
Past Tense (Past/ Perfect)
A verb in the past tense (עָבָר ʕaˈvar) 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 qaˈmats 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 niʃˈmar means "he was guarded" (or in old-fashioned perfective "he is/was guarded"), whereas the present tense נִשְׁמָר niʃˈmar means "he is being guarded".
Future Tense (Unpast/ Imperfect)
A verb in the future tense (עָתִיד ʕaˈtid) 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.
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.
|piˈʕel||גדל||גַּדֵּל||גַּדְּלִי||גַּדְּלוּ||גַּדֵּלְנָה||Raise, grow (it)|
|hitpaˈʕel||בטל||הִתְבַּטֵּל||הִתְבַּטְּלִי||הִתְבַּטְּלוּ||הִתְבַּטֵּלְנָה||Belittle yourself, loaf|
Except for the strictly passive binyaním (puˈʕal and hufˈʕal), 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., תִּפְתַּח /tifˈtaħ/ (singular, masc.) → פְּתַח /ˈpətaħ/ "open!", תִּשְׁמְרִי /tiʃməˈri/ (singular, fem.) → שִׁמְרִי /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 אַל /ˈal/ followed by the future-tense form. For example, אַל תִּדְאַג /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, תִּפְתַּח /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" (בְּבַקָּשָׁה /bə-vaq:aʃa/) 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, נָא לֹא לִפְתֹּחַ /ˈna ˈlo lifˈtoaħ/ means "please do not open". This might be more literally 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): נֵרוֹת בּוֹעֲרִים /neˈrot boʕaˈrim/ (burning candles), יַלְדָּה מַקְסִימָה /jalˈda maqsiˈma/ (charming girl).
Only the pa'al binyan has a true past participle: from כתב k-t-b we have כָּתוּב /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:
- הַסְּפָרִים כְּתוּבִים /hasːəfaˈrim kətuˈvim/ (the books are written)
while the present tense of nif'al indicates that the action continues:
- הַסְּפָרִים נִכְתָּבִים /hasːəfaˈrim nixtaˈvim/ (the books are being written)
The passive participle is commonly used as an adjective, as in הַפְּקֻדָּה הַכְּתוּבָה /hapːəquˈd:a 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 הֵאִיר /heˈʔir/ (lit) we get חֶדֶר מוּאָר /ˈħeder muˈʔar/ (lit room).
Infinitives (ʃəˈmot hapːoˈʕal) in Hebrew are primarily formed by adding the letter lamed (ל) to the front of the base form (tsuˈrat hamːaˈqor). The vowels change systematically according to the binyan.
- כָּתַב /kaˈtav/ (wrote, paʕal) → לִכְתֹּב /lixˈtov/ (to write)
- מְדַבֵּר /mədaˈb:er/ (speak, piʕel) → לְדַבֵּר /lədaˈb:er/ (to speak)
- הִתְחִיל /hitˈħil/ (started, hifʕil) → לְהַתְחִיל /ləhatˈħil/ (to start)
- הִתְפַּלֵּל /hitpaˈlel/ (prayed, hitpaʕel) → לְהִתְפַּלֵּל /ləhitpaˈl:el/ (to pray)
- נִפְגַשׁ /nifˈɡaʃ/ (met with, nifʕal) → לְהִפָּגֵשׁ /ləhip:aˈɡeʃ/ (to meet with)
Note that puʕal and hufʕal verbs do not have infinitives.
Gerunds (ʃəˈmot 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: paʕal, piʕel, hifʕil, hitpaʕel, and nifʕal. For example:
- שָׁמַר /ʃaˈmar/ (guarded — paˈʕal) → שְׁמִירָה /ʃəmiˈra/ (guarding, a watch)
- שָׁב /ˈʃav/ (returned — hollow paʕal) → שִׁיבָה /ʃiˈva/ (returning, a return)
- שָׁתָה /ʃaˈta/ (drank — final hey paʕal) → שְׁתִיָּה /ʃətiˈjːa/ (drinking, a drink)
- נִכְנַס /nixˈnas/ (enter — nifʕal) → הִכָּנְסוּת /hik:anˈsut/ (entering, an entrance)
- בִּקֵּר /biˈqːeʁ/ (visited — piʕel) → בִּקּוּר /biˈqːur/ (visiting, a visit)
- הִפְתִּיעַ /hifˈtiaʕ/ (surprised — hifʕil) → הַפְתָעָה /haftaˈʕa/ (surprising, a surprise)
- הִתְחַמֵּם /hitħaˈmːem/ (warmed — hitpaʕel) → 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.
"לוּ הָיָה לִי זְמַן, הָיִיתִי הוֹלֵךְ."
"לוּ מִישֶׁהוּ הָיָה טוֹרֵחַ לְסַפֵּר לִי, הָיִיתִי יוֹדֵעַ."
"פַּעַם הָיִיתִי הוֹלֵךְ הָמוֹן לַקּוֹלְנוֹעַ."
- 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.