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A Word on Biblical Hebrew Terminology

Learning Hebrew is a rewarding task. But it is also hard work. On top of all the grammatical rules, paradigms and vocabulary to memorize, there are many technical terms to learn. Moreover, once students begin to move beyond their introductory grammars and use some of the many resources available the situation gets even more complex (See my Mastering Biblical Hebrew page). This is especially so in relation to the Hebrew verbal system, which gives some indication of the controversy that surrounds its study. This brief discussion will hopefully help clear up some of the confusion.

Verbal Stems

Traditional Jewish grammarians called the first verbal stem Qal (“light”) because of its unaugmented form. The other verbal stems (patterns or binyanim) were named after their respective 3 m sg form of the paradigmatic verb פעל, thus the designations Nifal נִפְעָל, Piel פְּעֵל, Hifil הִפְעִיל, etc. However, because פעל is a middle guttural, it is not an ideal form for a paradigm. For this reason, and also to facilitate comparison with other Semitic languages, some grammars use designations based on the characteristic verbal affixes (an “affix” is any form that is attached to a verbal root, whether prefix, suffix, or infix). The Qal is the G stem (German Grundstamm, “basic stem”), the Nifal is dubbed the N stem on account of the prefixed nun, the Piel is called the D stem because of the characteristic doubling of the middle radical, and so on. There is also some variation in how weak verbs are described (see K. 54). Many grammars still follow the traditional system that refers to the first, second, and third root consonant in terms of the paradigmatic verb פעל. Thus a 1st Guttural is referred to as a Pe Guttural; a 1st א verb is called a Pe Alef (פ”א) verb; a 3rd ה verb is dubbed a Lamed Heh (ל”ה) verb, etc.

Verbal Forms

The terminology for the verbal forms (or conjugations) tends to vary the most. This is due to the problems with identifying the precise syntactic value of any given form. Many resources, therefore, use designations that describe the form of the verb and not its syntactic function. For example, while most introductory grammars indicate that the affix form can normally be translated by the English past tense (cf. K. §4.2c), this is not always the case. Thus instead of the traditional label "perfect" many prefer to use terms like suffix, affix or qtl; and instead of imperfect or future they use prefix or yqtl. The same tension is apparent in how the verbal forms with vav are described. Some prefer a designation that is strictly formal. Thus "vav relative + suffix conjugation" says little about the syntactic value of the verb form, while "vav consecutive perfect" has certain connotations. The label "vav reversive affix" (K.) is not as clear, because on the one hand affix describes the form of the verb (though as noted above, the term affix is usually used for all modifications of a verbal root, not just suffixes), and on the other hand vav reversive says something about the tense, i.e., that the vav “reverses” the tense.

In light of this confusion in regards to nomenclature, it is best at first just to be aware of the different terms used and to realize that while they might refer to the same forms, they often carry quite different connotations.

Nouns and Other Items

On the whole, there is not as much variance over nomenclature when it comes to Hebrew nominals (nouns). Nevertheless, there are a few differences in how the construct chain (or bound phrase) is described. Thus in בְּנֵי אלֹהִים “sons of God,” some refer to the noun in construct state (בְּנֵי) as the bound form, head, or the nomen regens (“governing noun”), while the noun in the absolute state (אלֹהִים) is called the free form, genitive, or nomen rectum (“governed noun”). On a final note, the sign of the definite direct object (אֶת) is sometimes referred to as the “marker of the definite accusative” or the “nota accusativi.”

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 July 2009 10:19