Hebrew verbs are based on roots. A root can provide different verbs through processes of derivation called binyanim. Each verb can be conjugated by in-fixing vowels. For instance (using the first person singular in the present), the verbs conjugate as such:

  • לשתות lištot, to drink -> שותה šoteh, I drink;
  • לישון lišon, to sleep -> ישן yašen, I sleep;
  • לצרוך liṣroḵ, to need -> צריך ṣariḵ, I need;
  • לפגוע lip̄goa, to hurt -> פוגע pogea, I hurt.

In those various conjugations different vowels are in-fixed to conjugate the present, namely:

  • o-e
  • a-e
  • a-i
  • 0-0

What are the rules which dictate what vowels are inserted into the root in the conjugation process? In other words: is it possible to infer the full conjugation and pronunciation from the root or infinitive of each verb? Again reformulated: how does one know liśon conjugates to yaśen and not yośen or yaśin?


4 Answers 4


I'm going to try to live up to Hillel's example and try to give you an answer short enough to answer while standing on one leg: It depends on which consonants are in the root, and where they fall.

Take the ordinary "vanilla" verb כתב (to write). The masculine singular present form in the pa'al binyan is כּוֹתֵב (kotev), with feminine singular present form כּוֹתֶבֶת (kotevet). There are many similar verbs:

דוֹפֵק (dofek)
פּוֹגֵשׁ (pogesh)
צוֹבֵט (tsovet)

and so on, and their feminine counterparts are:

דוֹפֶקֶת (dofeket)
פּוֹגֶשֶׁת (pogeshet)
צוֹבֶטֶת (tsovetet)

But there are several consonants that throw a wrench into the works: א ה ח י ו נ ע They have subtle sounds, some of which are or were guttural (pronounced in the throat). They generally influence the infix vowels in a predictable ("regular") way, but sometimes they do something oddball, and sometimes they fall out entirely.

Let's say you have ה in the final position. The pattern for the masculine forms is similar to what it was before:

שׁוֹתֶה (shoteh)
רוֹצֶה (rotseh)
קוֹנֶה (koneh)

but the pattern for the feminine forms becomes:

שׁוֹתָה (shotah)
רוֹצָה (rotsah)
קוֹנָה (konah)

So that's what you might call a regular irregular pattern. Whenever you have final ה, that's what you'll see.

Similarly, final ע causes a change:

שׁוֹמֵעַ (shomea')
פּוֹגֵעַ (pogea')
יוֹדֵעַ (yodea')

with feminine forms:

שׁוֹמַעַת (shoma'at)
פּוֹגַעַת (poga'at)
יוֹדַעַת (yoda'at)

(Note that פּוֹגֵעַ is the masculine singular present form of the verb in the active pa'al binyan; above, you had פַּגוּעַ, which is in the passive pu'al binyan.)

But there are some oddities. One of the verbs you chose, ישנ, is one of them. The initial י is the reason for the weirdness, but other words that begin with that letter are more regular (for example, יוֹדֵעַ, one of the verbs I listed above). Fortunately, this kind of weirdness is not common enough to hide the more regular patterns. Other oddities are the adjective-like verbs like צרכ, whose forms are quite different in the present, but I believe those can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

I really like Lewis Glinert's Modern Hebrew: An Essential Grammar, which is clear, practical, and thorough, but not scholarly. He goes into the subject of vowel changes within the binyanim in detail.

I confess that I didn't stand on one leg while I typed this, but I hope I at least answered your basic question and didn't squelch your interest in learning more.

  • It turns out that verbs like ישנ aren't as rare as I had thought. There are quite a few of them: יָשֵׁן (yashayn; he slept) גָדֵל (gadayl; he grew) רַעֵב (ra'ayv; he was thirsty) These are sometimes called stative verbs because they supposedly denote a state, but Glinert thinks this is more confusing than helpful, and I agree. I think it's probably best to think of them as "adjective-like verbs" but not to expect that all adjective-like verbs will behave like this, or that all verbs with this pattern are what an English speaker will think of as similar to adjectives.
    – Alan
    Commented Oct 6, 2012 at 23:44
  • 1
    From your transcriptions and descriptions it is absolutely not clear what kind of Hebrew you describe. If you meant Israeli Hebrew, than 1) both zere and segol denote the same phoneme /e/, for which neither "ay" nor "eh" are good approximations; 2) holam is pronounced the same way everywhere.
    – alephreish
    Commented Sep 5, 2014 at 19:36
  • @har-wradim, thanks for your comment. I modified my transcription and description accordingly. I'm used to seeing "ay" and "eh" in transliterations in the US, but "e" is better.
    – Alan
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 21:29

I'm not sure if you are asking about Modern or Biblical Hebrew: your transliterations suggest the latter, but I'm not certain.

What you are calling the "first person singular in the present" is actually a participle, which varies for number and gender, but not person. In Modern Hebrew this is thought of as a present tense, but historically it is simply a participle, construed with the copula.

אני כותב ('ani kotev) = I (am) one-who-writes

Your first example, שותה shoteh 'who drinks' is regular.

ישן yaśen, 'who sleeps' I haven't an answer to: it just appears to be irregular.

צריכ ẓarik, 'need' appears not to be a verbal form at all, but an adjective meaning 'needing', though Segal and Dagut's dictionary says "should, must (as prs. tense of הצטרך)" (hitztarekh - the hitpa'el from the same root). I think this means that it functions as though it were the present of that verb. They do not list לצרוכ liẓrok at all, but they don't necessarily list all infinitives.

Your last, פגוע pagu'a, is a different form, the passive participle, seen in ברוך (barukh) = 'blessed' and כתוב (katuv) = 'written'. The active פוגע (poge'a) means 'who strikes/offends'.

So in summary, one is regular, one appears to be irregular, one is a functionally different form which just happens to be used in a similar way, and the last is a different but parallel form.

One more point: I strongly advise that you don't think of the infinitive as the 'basic' or 'dictionary' form. We are used to doing this in Indo-European languages, but it tends to be unhelpful in Hebrew, because it sometimes omits a consonant of the root, as לשבת lashevet, from ישב yashav = 'sat' . Treat the 3sg perfective (or 'past', if you're talking about Modern Hebrew) as the basic form, and the infinitive as one of the derived forms.

  • Having read your other question, I would say that you are making it difficult for yourself. It's perfectly possible to learn a language without analysing it: all children do it, and many adults who learn by immersion. But if you're going to analyse it, you need to start with the existing analysis or you're just going to get off on the wrong foot. You asked about four "1st person singular present" forms, but only two of them are actually the same form. You're looking for patterns, but you don't know enough to recognise where there are patterns and where there aren't. Read up on the binyanim.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 15:34
  • Thanks Colin for your answer.Can you suggest a good source more extensive information on the subject. I know there are many ways of learning, and I work best with analysis. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 13:30
  • 1
    I don't know what books there are on Modern Hebrew. I've found van der Merwe, Naudê and Kroeze, A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar good.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 14:10

Yes, it is possible to infer the full conjugation and pronunciation from the root of each verb for each binyan. There are exceptions to the rules, but even the exceptions have rules!

The Binyanim are named after the form of the third person male past tense form, using the root פ-ע-ל. So the root ח-ש-ב in the binyan פָעָל would have the male past tense form חָשָב and in the binyan פִיעֵל would have the male past tense form חִישֵב.

The most basic binyan is called פָעָל and it is the first taught to new Hebrew speakers as it is very simply and widely used. You can find the binyan explained here: https://sites.google.com/site/makefjulis/subject-1-7-1

Once you understand that, you can move on to other binyanim, they are all here: http://www.morim.com/memento%20binyanim.htm

Note that second link uses כתב חסר when writing with vowel points, so in some places there will not be a yod where you might expect one. Just look at the tables, don't try to make sense of what is noted beyond that for the time being.

  • Thanks. I am not sure you are answering my question however. In your answer, you do not explain or provide a source information regarding what rules govern the infix of vowels. For instance why does liẓrox conjugate to ẓarik and not ẓorek? Why does liśtot conjugate to śoteh and not śateh? Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 14:58
  • The root of לשתות is ש ת ה and in the infinitive the ה is represented by a ת. It can be seen that the binyan of לשתות is פעל therefore the singular male present tense is שוֹתֵה, with the same outline as all other words in פעל binyan. All you need to do is replace the letters in the root. If we replace them with ז ר ק then we have לזרוק which for singular male present conjugates to זוֹרֵק. Note that the ו and the nikud are identical, only the letters of the root have been swapped out.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 20:27
  • "It can be seen that the binyan of לשתות is פעל." How so? Is לישונ not of the פעל binyan as well? If it is then why does it get a a-e in-fix and not a o-e infix like לשתות? Commented Jul 22, 2012 at 4:02
  • לישון is an exception. There are lots of exceptions!
    – dotancohen
    Commented Jul 22, 2012 at 8:38
  • "The Binyanim are named after the form of the second person male past tense form": Are you sure it's not third person?
    – Aspinea
    Commented Jul 23, 2012 at 13:00

We can tell that, for example, lishtot is a member of the pa'al binyan, because of how its infinitive looks. The infinitives of pa'al look like liCCoC. The infinitives for other binyanim look differently--for example in the pi'el binyan, the infinitive is ledaber, leCaCeC. Did that clarify anything? I'm a little new to linguistics.

  • OK, so can you clarify the relation between the infinitive in a binyan and the corresponding vowels in the present conjugation? Commented Jul 22, 2012 at 6:08

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