Hebrew Grammar is mostly analytical, expressing such forms as dative, ablative, and accusative using prepositional particles rather than grammatical cases. However inflection does play an important role in the formation of the verbs, nouns and the genitive construct, which is called smikhut (סְמִיכוּת). Words in smikhut are often combined with hyphens.
Hebrew, like English, possesses a definite article (in English the word "the") which in Hebrew is pronounced as a single syllable (ha — הַ) and directly precedes the noun which it modifies. It is a contraction of an earlier form — probably *hal — where the assimilation of the l has been replaced by an emphasis on the word that follows it. In smikhut, only the main noun (that is the noun to which the other nouns connect) can receive the article.
Subject and predicate
The two main parts of the Hebrew sentence (mishpat — מִשׁפָּט) are the subject (nose — נוֹשֵׂא) and the predicate (nasu — נָשׂוּא). They are adjusted to each other in gender and number. Thus, in a sentence אַנִי אוֹכֶל ani okhel (I eat/I am eating):
Word order of sentences is somewhat arbitrary, as sentences can be Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) or Verb-Subject-Object (VSO). Definite direct objects are marked with the special preposition את et, which has no analog in English. For example, the first sentence of the Hebrew Bible is VSO: ...ברא אלוהים את השמים... ...bara elohim et ha-shamayim... (...created God את the heavens...)
Direct objects and adjectives
Other parts of the Hebrew sentence are the direct object (musa — מֻשָּׂא), and the adjective (lvai — לְוַאי). In Hebrew, adjectives follow nouns, unlike in English, where they precede them. As well, adjectives, like verbs, must agree with the subject in gender, number and article. Thus in the sentence Ha-khatul ha-qatan akhal et ha-gvinah (The small cat ate the cheese):
|the cheese||ate||the small||the cat|
the subject is ha-khatul (הַחַתוּל) (the cat), the adjective is ha-qatan (הַקָטָן) (the small), the predicate is akhal (אַכַל) (ate), and the object is ha-gvinah (הַגְּבִינָה) (the cheese). Note that in this sentence, the adjective ha-qatan (the small) received the definite article as well as the subject. This constrasts with English where only the subject ha-hkatul (the cat) would have received it.
The Hebrew grammar distinguishes between various kinds of indirect objects, according to what they specify. Thus, there is a division between objects for time (te'ur zman), objects for place (te'ur makom), objects for reason (te'ur sibah) and many others. Additionally, Hebrew distinguishes between various kinds of verbless fragments according to their use, such as tmurah for elaboration, qri'ah for exclamation, pniyah for approach and hesger for disclosing the opinion of another party using direct speech (e.g. לדעת הרופא, העישון מזיק לבריאות l'da'at ha'rofe, ha'ishun mazik la'briut (in the doctor's opinion, smoking is harmful to health).
A sentence may lack a subject. In this case it is called סתמי stami, or indefinite. If several parts of the sentence have the same function and are attached to the same word, they are called kolel, or collective. Two or more sentences who do not share common parts and are separated by comma are called משפט מחובר mishpat mehubar, or joined sentences. In many cases, the second sentence uses a pronoun that stands for the other's subject; they are generally interconnected.
A sentence in which one or more of the parts are replaced by a clause (psukit) is called a mishpat murkav, or compound sentence. Compound sentences use the prepositionional syllable she-, meaning that. For example, in the sentence Yosi omer she-hu okhel., Yosi says that he is eating., Yosi omer (Yosi says) is the main sentence and hu okhel (he is eating) is the direct subject clause that follows it.
The Hebrew word for verb is פועל po'al, and as in English, verbs in Hebrew can express both action and status. Hebrew verbs stem from a root (שֹרֶש shoresh), consisting of 3 or 4 consonants, which is modified to bring the verb into different uses. Hebrew verbs can have one of 7 combinations of 4 voices (active, passive, causative, and reflexive) and three tenses (past, present, and future). Additionally, a verb can be conjugated into an imperative tense and into an infinitive.
Classification of roots
A root is classified according to the letters that appear in it. Roots that contain certain letters are conjugated differently.
Roots that contain a ו vav as the 2nd letters are called hollow roots. The ו vav rarely appears in any conjugation and it is usually not written as part of the root. Examples include: שר shar (sang), גר gar (lived), דן dan (discussed), dag (fished).
Roots that contain at least one the weak letters, י yod, נ nun, ח khet, ע ayin, א alef, and ה hei, are called weak roots. Each weak letter/position pairing results in a slightly different conjugation pattern. The largest group of these are those that end with ה hei. Examples include: שתה shata (drank), עלה ala (went up), ירד yarad (went down), נפל nafal (fell).
Roots that do no fit into the other 2 categories are called strong or complete roots.
Voice: the binyan
Verb roots can be conjugated according to one of seven forms, בניינים binyanim (buildings) , which indicate the voice of the verb.
|Nif'al||נִפְעַל||Passive or Reflexive of Pa'al|
|Pi'el||פִּיעֵל||Intensive of Pa'al or Simple Active|
|Pu'al||פּוּעַל||Passive of Pi'el|
|Hif'il||הִפְעִיל||Causative of Pa'al or Pi'el (with some exceptions)|
|Huf'al||הוּפְעַל||Passive of Hif'il|
|Hitpa'el||הִתְפַּעֵל||Reflexive or Co-operative of Pa'al or Pi'el (with some exceptions)|
|Simple||פָּעַל Pa'al||נִפְעַל Nif'al|
|Intense||פִּיעֵל Pi'el||פּוּעַל Pu'al||הִתְפַּעֵל Hitpa'el|
|Causative||הִפְעִיל Hif'il||הוּפְעַל Huf'al|
For example, using the root k-t-v (כתב), we might find the forms:
|Pa'al||katavti||כָּתַּבתִי||First person singular, past tense, active voice: “I wrote”|
|Nif'al||nikhtavim||נִכתַּבִים||Masculine plural, present tense, passive voice: “they are being written”|
|Hif'il||hakhtivi||הַכתִּבִי||Feminine singular imperative: “dictate!”|
|Hitpa'el||yitkatev||יִתכַּתֶב||Third person masculine singular, future tense: “he will correspond”|
There are relationships between these forms. Although they often accurately describe the relationship between the binyanim, there are many exceptions.
Intensification: Pa'al to Pi'el
Most verbs can only be conjugated into two to five of the forms. Pa'al and Pi'el are both really "simple active" forms and usually mutually exclusive; verbs that can be conjugated into one form cannot usually be conjugated into the other. But of those verbs which can be conjugated into both, the Pi'el form connotes an intensified form of the Pa'al form.
The interpersonal triangle: Pi'el, Pu'al, Hitpa'el
Often the Pi'el, Pu'al and Hitpa'el forms form a triangle of actions taken between two people (or between a person and him or herself). For instance, from the root g-l-kh (גלח):
|Pu'al||gulakh||גֻלַּח||Be shaved (by someone)|
Causative and co-operative: Hif'il, Hitpa'el
Hif'il is usually the causative of the Pa'al or Pi'el and the Hitpa'el is usually the reflexive, co-operative or "continuous passive". An example, with k-t-v (כתב):
hitgale'akh is an example of reflexive hitpa'el and hitkatev is co-operative hitpa'el. However there also exists a sort of "continuous passive" hitpa'el. With the root tz-l-m (צלמ):
The difference between tzulam and hitz'talem is this. Ani m'tzulam (אֲנִי מְצֻלָּם) means I am photographed (there exists a photo of me) while ani mitz'talem (אֲנִי מִצְטַלֵּם) means I am being photographed (I am in the act of being photographed).
Once a verb is cast into a certain form, it then undergoes conjugation into one of the three tenses: past, present, and future.
A verb in the present tense (הוֹוֶה hove) agrees with its subject in gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural), such that each verb has four present-tense forms:
|Huf'al||קטנ||מוּקְטָן||מוּקְטֶנֶת||מוּקְטָנִים||מוּקְטָנוֹת||Is shrunken by|
|Pi'el||גדל||מְגַדֵּל||מְגַדֶּלֶת||מְגַדְּלִים||מְגַדְּלוֹת||Raises, grows (something)|
|Hitpa'el||בטל||מִתְבַּטֵּל||מִתְבַּטֶּלֶת||מִתְבַּטְּלִים||מִתְבַּטְּלוֹת||Belittles oneself, loafs|
A verb in the past tense (עָבָר 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.
Personal pronouns are not necessary in the past tense and are often dropped, although colloquially they are sometimes used in the third person.
A verb in the future tense (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 were separate feminine forms for the second- and third-person plural (with a nah ending, as in tishmarnah or yigdalnah), but these are nowadays considered very archaic.
Like the past tense, personal pronouns are not strictly necessary in the future tense, as the verb forms are sufficient to identify the subject, but colloquially they are frequently used.
The imperative is created by dropping the first letter of the future tense (e.g. tiftakh (singular, masc.) → ptakh! "open!", tishmeri (singular, fem.) → shimri! "guard!"), except for the binyan hitpa'el, in which the imperative is created by replacing the first letter with an 'h' (titbatel → hitbatel "do nothing!"). The negative imperative requires the prefix אל al, e.g.: al tiftach "don’t open!"
In modern Hebrew though, future tense is commonly used as an imperative (e.g. tiftakh (masc.), tiftekhi (fem.), tiftekhu (plur.) "open!"). There is also a "general imperative" that applies to nobody in particular and is identical to the infinitive, e.g. lehakshiv! "everybody listen!" In the negative, this uses lo instead of al, e.g.: lo lazuz! "no moving!" This form is somewhat less polite.
The pu'al and huf'al binyanim have no imperative form.
Present participles are identical to present tense forms: nerot bo’arim “burning candles,” ha-yalda hi’ maqsima “the girl is charming.”
Only the pa’al binyan (the verb's construction) has a true past participle: from k-t-v we have katuv, “written.” This gives Hebrew a limited ability to distinguish between a completed action, e.g.:
- ha-sfarim ketuvim (“the books have been written”)
And, using the present tense of nif’al, which is often the passive of pa’al, a continuing action:
- ha-sfarim nikhtavim (“the books are being written”).
The passive participle can also be used as an adjective, as in ha-pekuda ha-ketuva, “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, e.g. from hif’il leha’ir we get kheder mu’ar “illuminated room.”
Infinitives (shem hapo'al) in Hebrew are primarily formed by adding the letter lamed (ל) to the front of the word. The vowels change systematically according to the binyan.
- כתב katav (wrote, pa'al) → לכתוב likhtov (to write)
- מדבר m'daber (speak, pi'el) → לדבר l'daber (to speak)
- התחיל hit'khil (start, hif'il) → להתחיל l'hat'khil (to start)
- התפלל hit'palel (pray, hit'pael) → להתפלל l'hit'palel (to pray)
- נפגש nif'gash (meet with, nif'al) → להיפגש l'hi'pagesh (to meet with)
There is no infinitive for Pu'al or Huf'al verbs.
Gerunds (shmot pe'ula) are nouns expressing an action. Gerunds are created in Hebrew by putting the root of a verb in a "mishqal" (which will be explained more thoroughly in the "Nouns" later on). Four of the binyanim have gerunds: pa'al, pi'el, hif'il, and hitpa'el. For example:
- שמר shamar
(guarded — pa'al) → שמירה sh'mira
- שב shav (returned — hollow pa'al) → שיבה shiva (a return)
- שתה shata (drank — weak pa'al) → שתייה sh'tiya (drinking)
- ביקר biker (visited — pi'el) → ביקור bikur (a visit)
- הפתיע hiftia (surprised — hif'il) → הפתעה hafta'a (a surprise)
- התחמם hitkhamem (warmed up — hitpa'el) → התחממות hitkham'mut (warming)
The Hebrew word for "noun" is שם עצם shem etsem.
Hebrew nouns are inflected by gender, number (and sometimes by possession) but not by case. Nouns are generally correlated to verbs (by shared roots), but their forming is not as systematic, often due to loanwords from foreign languages.
Hebrew distinguishes between masculine nouns—such as ספר sefer (book)—and feminine nouns—such as דלת delet (door).
Feminine nouns can generally be identified by the characteristic endings -a, or -t. There are a large number of nouns, especially ancient ones, that are in some way irregular in their gender. For example, זית zayit (olive) has a feminine ending, but is masculine and has a masculine plural. עיר ir (city) has a masculine ending and a masculine plural, but is feminine and takes feminine adjectives.
Generally, Hebrew distinguishes between singular and plural forms of a noun.
Masculine nouns generally form their plural by adding -im:
- מחשב makhshev (computer) → מחשבים makhshevim
The addition of the extra syllable often causes the vowel in the first syllable to shorten:
- דבר davar (thing) → דברים d'varim
Many common two-syllable masculine nouns, called segolates because most (but not all) of them have the vowel segol (-e-) in both syllables, undergo more drastic characteristic vowel changes in the plural:
- ילד yeled (boy) → ילדים y'ladim
- בוקר boker (morning) → בקרים b'karim
- חדר kheder (room) → חדרים khadarim
Feminine nouns ending in -a or -at generally drop this ending and add -ot, usually without any vowel changes:
- מיטה mita (bed) → מיטות mitot
- מסעדה mis'ada (restaurant) → מסעדות mis'adot
- צלחת tsalakhat (plate) → צלחות tsalakhot
Nouns ending in -et also replace this ending with -ot, with an -e- in the preceding syllable usually changing to -a:
- מחברת makhberet (notebook) → מחברות makhbarot
Nouns ending in -ut replace this ending with -uyot:
- חנות khanut (store) → חנויות khanuyot
Similarly, nouns ending in -it replace this ending with -iyot:
- אשכולית eshkolit (grapefruit) → אשכוליות eshkoliyot
A large number of masculine nouns take the "feminine" ending -ot in the plural:
- מקום makom (place) → מקומות m'komot
- חלון khalon (window) → חלונות khalonot
A small number of feminine nouns take the "masculine" ending -im:
- מילה mila (word) → מילים milim
- שנה shana (year) → שנים shanim
Many plurals simply cannot be predicted from the singular at all and must be separately memorized:
- עיר ir (city) → ערים arim
- עפרון iparon (pencil) → עפרונות efronot
- איש ish (man/person) → אנשים anashim
Hebrew also has a dual number, expressed in the ending -ayim, but even in ancient times its use was very restricted. In modern times it is used in expressions of time and number. These nouns have plurals as well, which are used for numbers higher than two, for example:
|פעם אחת pa'am akhat (once)||פעמיים pa'amayim (twice)||שלוש פעמים shalosh pa'amim (thrice)|
|שבוע אחד shavua ekhad (one week)||שבועיים shavuayim (two weeks)||שלושה שבועות shalosha shavuot (three weeks)|
|מאה mei'a (one hundred)||מאתיים mei'atayim (two hundred)||שלוש מאות shalosh me'ot (three hundred)|
The dual is also used for some body parts, for instance:
- רגל regel (leg) → רגליים raglayim (legs)
- אוזן ozen (ear) → אוזניים oznayim (ears)
In this case, even if there are more than two, the dual is still used, for instance לכלב יש ארבע רגליים l'kelev yeish arba raglayim (a dog has four legs).
The dual is also used for certain objects that are "inherently" dual. These words have no singular, for instance משקפיים mishkafayim (eyeglasses) and מספריים misparayim (scissors). As in the English "two pairs of pants", the plural of these words uses the word זוג zug (pair), e.g. שני זוגות מספריים shnai zugot misparayim (two pairs of scissors).
Possession is generally indicated by conjugating the possessive pronoun של shel (of, belonging to):
- הספר שלי ha'sefer sheli (my book)
- הדירה שלך ha'dira shelkha (your apartment).
- המשחק של אנדר ha'mis'khak shel ender (Ender's Game)
In literary style, nouns are inflected to show possession through noun declension; a personal suffix is added to the construct form of the noun (the same form used by the סמיכות smikhut). So, ספרי sifrei (books, construct form) can be inflected to form ספריי sifrai (my books), ספרייך sifreikha (your books), ספרינו sifreinu (our books) and so forth, while דירת dirat (apartment, construct form) gives דירתי dirati (my apartment), דירתך diratkha (your apartment), דירתינו dirateinu (our apartment), etc.
While the use of these forms is mostly restricted to formal and literary speech, they are in regular use in some colloquial phrases, for instance, מה שלומך ma shlomkha? ("what is your peace?" or "how are you?") or לדעתי l'da'ati (in my opinion).
In addition, the inflected possessive is commonly used for terms of kinship, for instance בני bni (my son), בתם bitam (their daughter), אשתו ishto (his wife) are preferred to הבן שלי ha-ben sheli, הבת שלכם ha-bat shelahem, and האשה שלו ha'isha shelo.
In the same way that Hebrew verbs are conjugated by applying various prefixes, suffixes and internal vowel combinations, Hebrew nouns can be formed by applying various "meters" (Hebrew mishqalim) to the same roots. Gerunds are one example (see above).
The words for many abstract concepts are derived by adding the ending -ut to another noun or a verb (usually hit'pael):
- ספר sefer (book) → ספרות sifrut (literature)
- התייעץ hitya'etz (consult) → התייעצות hitya'atzut (advice)
- התרגש hitragesh (get excited) → התרגשות hitrag'shut (excitement)
The katlan meter, applied to a verb, indicates "someone who does this":
- שיקר shiker (lie) → שקרן shakran (liar)
- פחד pakhad (be afraid) → פחדן pakhdan (coward)
The suffix -on denotes a smaller version of something:
- ספר sefer (book) → ספרון sifron (booklet)
- מחשב makhshev (computer) → מחשבון makhshevon (calculator)
Repeating the last two letters of a noun or adjective can also denote a smaller or lesser version:
- כלב kelev (dog) → כלבלב k'lavlav (puppy)
The katelet mishqal can have a variety of meanings:
- אדום adom (red) → אדמת ademet (measles)
- כלב kelev (dog) → כלבת kalevet (rabies)
- נייר n'yar (paper) → ניירת naiyeret (paperwork)
- כסף kesef (money) → כספת kasefet (a safe)
New nouns are also often formed by the addition of two existing stems:
- קול kol (sound) + נוע noa (motion) → קולנוע kolnoa (cinema)
The Hebrew adjective שם תואר shem toar comes after the noun and agrees with it in gender and number:
- ספר קטן sefer katan (small book)
- ספרים קטנים sfarim k'tanim (small books)
- בובה קטנה buba k'tana (small doll)
- בובות קטנות bubot k'tanot (small dolls)
Adjectives ending in -i' have slightly different forms:
- איש מקומי ish m'komi (a local man)
- אשה מקומית isha m'komit (a local woman)
- אנשים מקומיים anashim m'komiyim (local people)
- נשים מקומיות nashim m'komiyot (local women)
Masculine nouns that take the "feminine" plural ending -ot still take masculine plural adjectives, e.g. מקומות יפים m'komot yafim (beautiful places). The reverse goes for feminine plural nouns ending in -im, e.g. מילים ארוכות milim arukot (long words).
Note also that many adjectives, like segolate nouns, change their vowel structure in the feminine and plural.
Use of the definite article with adjectives
In Hebrew, unlike in English, an adjective that modifies a definite noun always takes the definite article:
- הספר הקטנים ha-sefer ha-katan (the small book)
- הבובות הקטנות ha-bubot ha-k'tanot (the small dolls)
- רותי הקטנה ruti ha-k'tana (little Ruthie; Ruthie the small)
Adjectives derived from verbs
Many adjectives in Hebrew are derived from the present tense of verbs. These adjectives are inflected the same way as the verbs they are derived from:
- סוער so'er (stormy, pa'al) → סוערת so'eret, סוערים so'arim, סוערות so'arot
- מנותק menutak (alienated, pu'al) gives מנותקת menuteket, מנותקים menutakim, מנותקות menutakot
- מרשים marshim (impressive, hif'il) gives מרשימה marshima, מרשימים marshimim, מרשימות marshimot
The Hebrew term for adverb is תואר הפועל toar ha'po'al.
Hebrew forms adverbs in several different ways.
A few common adjectives can use the masculine singular form as an adverb as well, for instance חזק khazak (strongly), יפה yafe (nicely) or ברור barur (clearly).
Some adjectives have a unique adverb that must be memorized, for instance מהר maher (quickly) or לאט l'at (slowly). These forms cannot be used as adjectives (the corresponding adjectives are מהיר mahir and איטי iti).
In most cases, though, the adverb will be expressed by some sort of adverbial phrase. Many adjectives prefer the prefix b'- plus a noun, for instance b'zehirut (carefully); בעדינות b'adinut (gently).
Others prefer באופן b'ofen (in a nature/fashion) plus a masculine singular adjective, or בצורה b'tsura (in a form) plus a feminine singular, e.g. באופן מאפיין b'ofen me'afyen (characteristically) or בצורה אלגניטית b'tsura elegantit (elegantly).
The use of one of these methods does not necessarily preclude the use of the others: even though לאט l'at exists, for instance, one may also use באיטיות b'itiut to express "slowly" in a more elegant way.
- Bolozky, Shmuel. 501 Hebrew Verbs, Barron's Educational Series, Inc.. ISBN 0-8120-9468-9.