And God said, Let there be Verbs!

When I was a BA student in Tel-Aviv University, just before I started my professional training as a Hebrew teacher, my Semitistics teacher, professor Shlomo Izrael, had given us a seminar on Spoken Hebrew. Unlike many lecturers in the department, he was very determined that the most interesting language to research is the living, ever-changing spoken language.

For us the students, the difference was not well understood, though a few recorded sessions made it all clear – the language we think we speak differ dramatically from the one we actually do. For most of the readers, the technical details won’t be very interesting, though putting them straight forward might shed some light on topics that are interesting for all language students – pronunciation, conjugation, prepositions, word creation, sentence structure, etc.

I’ll try to explain as simply as possible some of those topics, using anecdotes and the useful examples, examples that might be very useful to those of you who study one thing at the Ulpan or at school, but tend to hear something different, and sometimes even “wrong” on the street. I have to give credits to my incredible Ulpan students who tend to ask me about things they hear, I never thought were so different then what I teach.

My favorite topic, and the one I’ll discuss today is “The Creation of Verbs”. A lot more often than we think, we find ourselves in a search for a new verb to describe what is it that we are doing at the moment. Especially during the last two decades, as technology evolves much faster than our language, a new verb or noun is needed. Native speakers will make one up – you can count on that, and they don’t even know they are doing so, they just do, and the matter they are using are what I call “the living Binyanim” (Binyan is the Hebrew word for the form in which roots are transformed into verbs, and means “constraction“).

Take the word SMS. Familiar? Now try to send one in Hebrew. It should be easily done, just by adding the verb לשלוח (lishloach = to send) before the noun. But it is, how to say, clumsy. Why not having a unique verb for that action – why not לסמס (lesam-mes = sending an sms, Binyan Pi’el)? Well, I believe there is not even one Israeli, familiar with that unique technology, who wouldn’t understand this fantastic new verb. And even if he hears it now for the first time, his mind will probably deconstruct and understand it before you even finished the sentence.

Let’s get even more presumptuous, as if I texted someone (סימסתי לו), he must have replied. And then me again. And he again. In a matter of seconds, we are both taking part in a conversation, that is considered a reciprocal action (or mutual action) in linguistics. And what would be the best form to put it in? It is the Binyan you might know as the reflexive one (but is being used for zillions of other things as well) – Hit-pa’-‘el. And tada – להסתמס (le’his’tam’mes) was born, and is understandable to all just like שלום (Shalom).

The trick here, is using the only Binyanim that are still alive, and by alive I mean that they are still in use in the creation of new verbs from nouns or from foreign words. Those Binyanim are Pi’el, its passive form Pu’al, and its reflexive form Hitpa’el. Other than those three, no other Binyan is being used for the creation of new verbs – at all.

So, next time you try to explain to someone, how in your dream the most peculiar thing has happened, and everything you touched became a wooden table, you can just use the verb לשלחן (le’shal’chen) – turning something or someone into a table, and to say that at the end of that dream you touched yourself and turned yourself into a table, well that’s just השתלחנתי (hish’tal’chan’ti), and trust me, as strange as it may sound, you will be understood.

Shavua Tov!

About the Author
Yaron Sivan is a Hebrew teacher at Ulpan Bayit and languages enthusiast. Living in Tel Aviv, he is living the language and is trying to restate the spoken Hebrew's status.