In this Duolingo discussion, 'S.Liebermann' mentions that in Hebrew and Arabic, "the verb needs to agree with the level of passive/active" and "Hebrew has 7 degrees of passive/active, while Arabic has 10 of them".

What is this passive/active agreement that he is speaking of in Hebrew, and if possible also in Arabic, and what are some examples of its use?

  • 3
    This can only a be a confusing way of referring to binyanim, which do have something to do with voice, but which don't have anything in particular to do with agreement as far as I know. They are just different verb conjugations that are all derived from a common consonantal (usually triliteral) root. Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 20:24
  • 5
    Are you aware of the proposal for an SE site just about Semitic languages? This question would be a perfect fit.
    – Keelan
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 20:33
  • 1
    @Keelan I have been really, really hoping it makes it to beta. I think it's a great idea, though for now Linguistics is the best SE for this question Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 0:06
  • @Keelan Done Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 0:17

1 Answer 1


Although I haven't heard of the term "degrees of passive/active" before, they are almost certainly talking about the verbal stems. This is a concept indeed alien to Western European (or broader) but common to all Semitic languages. The core idea is that the stems differentiate voice and Aktionsart.

In an earlier stage of the language (pre-1000 BCE) there must have been ten verbal stems, nine of which fit into a 3x3 grid of voice and Aktionsart:

            Unmarked Aktionsart   Verbal plurality    Causative
Active      G                     D                   C  (Š)
Reflexive   Gt                    Dt / tD             Ct (Št)

G is called G for the German Grundstamme. D is called D because of Doubling of the middle radical (/qatal/ > /qittel/). C is called C for Causativity. It is also called Š sometimes which better reflects phonology (although in Hebrew the marking consonant became /h/). Dt is often called tD because the /t/ became a prefix rather than an infix elsewhere.

Verbal plurality can be of subject, object or action, e.g. "they broke the glass" in G becomes "they shattered the glass (in many pieces) in D via object plurality, or "they repeatedly broke the glass" (action plurality) or "they all broke the glass" (subject plurality). Causativity is e.g. to cause to be seen, i.e. "to reveal". Thus you see that these distinctions are in English covered by lexicon rather than grammar (i.e., there are different verbs for different Aktionsarts, "broke"-"shattered" and "see"-"reveal").

Besides this nice symmetric system there was an N-stem, the original semantics of which are still debated but which probably had to do something with middle voice.

In Central Semitic, "internal passives" are developed for the three core stems G, D and C. In Arabic grammar these are usually not treated as separate stems, but in Hebrew and other languages they are:

Passive     Gp                    Dp                  Cp

This system developed differently in different languages. I cannot comment on the situation in Arabic (which as far as I can see from Wikipedia must also have developed the new L stem) because I don't know enough about it. In (Biblical) Hebrew, there was the issue that Gt, Gp and N both indicate relatively rare non-active voice unmarked for Aktionsart. This leads to the dropping of Gt and to a large extent that of Gp as well, whereas N takes on passive meanings and Dt takes over reflexive voice unmarked for Aktionsart. Also, Ct is almost not attested in Biblical Hebrew and as far as I know does not exist in Modern Hebrew because reflexive causativity is so rare. Thus in Hebrew the situation has become far less symmetric than it once was. On the other hand, in Syriac, the function of the passives was taken over by participles and the N disappeared, leading to a highly symmetric system of only 6 stems (in fact, like the original table above).

After this long detour I would still like to comment on the terminology of "degrees of passive/active". I'm sure that the author had his reasons for this term, but it doesn't seem to be accurate: it covers only one dimension of the system (voice) but neglects the other (Aktionsart). Thus, the verbal stems G, D and C all indicate active voice (the same "degree of passive/active"), whereas Gt/Dt/Ct all indicate reflexivity and Gp/Dp/Cp all indicate passive voice. (Only in Hebrew the system is more complicated, because N can indicate both middle and passive voice, thus being in between degrees).

Lastly, for your convenience a table of the more common names of the stems in language-specific grammars:

    Heb.         Arab.         Heb.     Arab.       Heb.    Arab.
G   qal          I         D   piel     II      C   hiphil  IV
Gp  qal-passive  –         Dp  pual     –       Cp  hophal  –
Gt  –            VIII      tD  hitpael  V       Ct  –       X

N   niphal       VII

L                III
tL               VI

A good diachronic overview paper with many references is Gzella, H. 2009. 'Voice in Classical Hebrew against Its Semitic Background', Orientalia 78(3), pp. 292–325.

  • Great suggestion above and an even greater answer. While you don't know what you don't know so I can't be sure if this is the idea to which he was referring, it seems like a good fit, and you described it fantastically, if in a bit of a complicated way for the layperson like me :) Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 0:09
  • 3
    "pre-1000 BCE" is not very old, as far as Semitic is concerned.
    – fdb
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 0:28
  • 1
    @fdb no, you are right. I will change "originally". Thanks!
    – Keelan
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 5:50
  • 1
    Ct does exist in one verb in Biblical Hebrew, the root חוי which makes השתחוה ("bow"). The original form was so obfuscated that it was analyzed at least since the middle ages as being of the form C with the root שחו
    – b a
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 13:34
  • 1
    @ba thanks, I actually learned that a couple of weeks ago but apparently it did not stick... I edited the answer.
    – Keelan
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 13:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.