When it comes to categorizing and labeling Hebrew verbs, we can do so in several ways. First, we can look at what general patterns (“stems” or בִּנְיָנִים) the verb appears. This is similar to Latin’s verb conjugations, by which nouns are categorized by the forms they take in the infinitive (whether -āre, -ēre, -ere, or -īre). In Hebrew, roots may appear generally in seven stems, though there are a few outliers here and there in peculiar stems as well, and we can label verbs as “qal” or “piel” or “hiphil” (or whatever stem they appear in by their nature).
Another common way to group Hebrew verbs is by the gutturals or vowel letters that they contain and the position in which they are found in the root.
The guttural letters are ʾalef (א), heh (ה), ḥet (ח), and ʿayin (ע). Resh (ר) is sometimes included in the list because it behaves similarly to them. The vowel letters (know in Latin as matres lectionis) are heh (ה), vav (ו), and yod (י). Notice that heh is both a guttural and a mater lectionis (sg. of matres lectionis). Since nun (נ) tends to assimilate into other letters, many roots with nun are also considered weak, depending on its position in the word. When these letters appear in a root, they mess up the normal pattern, and those mess-ups are predictable and regular.
For example, the normal pattern for qal imperfect 3ms is יִקְטֹל yiqṭōl. We see this in יִשְׁמֹר yišmōr “he will guard” and יִסְגֹּר yisgōr “he will close.” However, as soon as we put a guttural in the first position, we see that the i changes to a or e—sometimes even to ō or û! So, we find the qal imperfect 3ms forms יֶחְסַר yeḥsar “he will lack,” יַחְשֹׁב yaḥšōḇ “he will think,” יֹאכַל yōʾḵal “he will eat,” and יוּכַל yûḵal “he will be able,” granting that some verbs take an o-theme vowel while others take an a-theme vowel in the imperfect (in the tone syllable of the 3ms).
Roots that have vav or yod often see these letters either disappear completely (קוּם ← קָם) or coalesce into something else (יָלַד ← נוֹלַד). In my opinion, these are the most interesting verbs that we have in Hebrew. Who wants a boring old strong verb that never breaks the pattern when you can have a rebellious weak verb with vav or yod that shoots out on its own and demands attention?!
With that in mind, it’s even better to see that Hebrew has what are called doubly weak roots—roots that are weak in two of their letters. Seow (1995, p. 25) shares the following about weak radicals:
He then goes on to lay out these “idiosyncracies” as:
- Gutturals do not accept doubling with dagesh. They exhibit either compensatory lengthening or virtual doubling.
- Gutturals take composite sheva over vocal sheva.
- Gutturals prefer a-class vowels.
- Nun tends to assimilate into other consonants.
- Vav rarely stands at the beginning of a word. Roots that were originally I-Vav appear in Hebrew as if they were I-Yod.
- Original aw diphthong became ô (like מוֹת) when unstressed and ā́ve (like מָ֫וֶת) when stressed.
- Original ay became ê (like עֵין) when unstressed and áyi (like עַ֫יִן) when stressed.
- III-Heh roots are really III-Vav or III-Yod that have shifted over time.
With these rules, which Seow elucidates on pages 26–32 of his grammar, you can generally know what to expect with weak verbs. He gives several examples and breaks down the groups more clearly in those pages.
An interesting example of a doubly weak root is נכ״ה, which appears in the hiphil stem as הִכָּה “he struck.” We can already see the loss of the nun from the root. When we switch to the infinitive construct, we also lose the heh (which is really a yod, since III-Heh roots are really III-Yod), thus: לְהַכּוֹת “to strike.” The only letter of the root that we are left with is the kaf! This is the excitement that is weak verbs—recognizing the root of the word by its idiosyncrasies. If we know that infinitives ending in ◌וֹת almost always have a dropped ה in there, this returns two root letters to us—and if we know that I-Nun roots exhibit assimilation in the hiphil, then we can easily get the full root from these clues.
As you get into reading more and more Hebrew, I hope that you will get to the point of enjoying the weak verbs (and especially the doubly weak ones) for the treats that they are. You can be sure that these verbs are proud of their individuality, and once you’ve learned to recognize them (and to understand them upon sight), I’m sure that sense of pride will become yours as well! Here are just a couple of examples of some fun hiphil words for you to consider:
[The hiphil perfect 3ms pattern is הִקְטִיל.]
הִ◌ְ◌ִי◌ + נגע ← *הִנְגִּיע ← *הִגְגִּיע ← הִגִּיעַ
The hiphil perfect 3ms pattern is hiqṭîl (that is, hiCCîC in which C stands for any root consonant, represented by ◌ in the Hebrew above). When you plug the root letters נג״ע into that pattern (into the C or ◌ positions), you get hiNGîʿ. The nun assimilates to the sound of the gimel (ng → gg), creating a doubled gimel, which then reduces into gimel with dagesh forte (גג ← גּ). From here, the final ʿayin takes a “furtive patach” (since it follows a long vowel), and we get hingîʿ becoming higgîʿ and then finally becoming higgîaʿ, which is the final form for הִגִּיעַ “he arrived.” Identical to this is how the verb נָסַע “he traveled” becomes הִסִּיעַ hissîaʿ “he took (someone somewhere)” or “he gave (someone) a ride.”
[The hiphil infinitive construct pattern is לְהַקְטִיל.]
לְהַ◌ְ◌ִי◌ + נטה ← *לְהַנְטִיה ← *לְהַטְטִיה ← *לְהַטִּיה ← לְהַטּוֹת
The hiphil infinitive construct pattern is ləhaqṭîl (that is, ləhaCCîC in which C stands for any root consonant, represented by ◌ in the Hebrew above). When you plug the root letters נט״ה into that pattern (into the C or ◌ positions), you get ləhanṭîh. The nun assimilates to the sound of the tet (nṭ → ṭṭ), creating a doubled tet, which then reduces into tet with dagesh forte (טט ← טּ). From here, the final heh in the infinitive construct is dropped and replaced by ◌וֹת, and we get ləhanṭîh becoming ləhaṭṭîh and then finally becoming ləhaṭṭôṯ, which is the final form for לְהַטּוֹת “to slant, divert, lean (something) over.” Identical to this is how the root נכ״ה becomes לְהַכּוֹת ləhakkôṯ “to hit, strike.”
I know that’s a lot of information, and there’s so much more that could be discussed about weak verbs, but I just wanted to lay out a bit of what gets me excited about weak roots and how they behave. Especially those that are doubly weak. Good luck in your studies, and I hope that you feel free to ask any questions on this and on any other topic related to Hebrew!
Seow, C.L. (1995). A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. (Rev. Ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.