The roots of verbs and most nouns in the Semitic languages are characterized as a sequence of consonants or "radicals" (hence the term consonantal root). Such abstract consonantal roots are used in the formation of actual words by adding the vowels and non-root consonants (or "transfixes") which go with a particular morphological category around the root consonants, in an appropriate way, generally following specific patterns. It is a peculiarity of Semitic linguistics that a large majority of these consonantal roots are triliterals (although there are a number of quadriliterals, and in some languages also biliterals).
Such roots are also common in other Afroasiatic languages. While Berber mostly has triconsonantal roots, Chadic, Omotic, and Cushitic have mostly biconsonantal roots, and Egyptian shows a mix of biconsonantal and triconsonantal roots.
According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Modern Hebrew (which he calls "Israeli") has many borrowed verbs that are more similar to other forms of apophony, rather than the Semitic transfixation.: 72 He argues that Semitic transfixation is productive (meaning that roots can be fitted into different templates) and motivated by semantics. Because many borrowed words in Modern Hebrew employ certain templates based on prosodic rather than semantic reasons, these verbs should not be said to employ Semitic transfixation, even though the borrowed words make use Semitic templates.: 71–2
The following are some of the forms which can be derived from the triconsonantal root k-t-b כ־ת־ב ك-ت-ب (general overall meaning "to write") in Hebrew and Arabic:
Note: The Hebrew fricatives stemming from begadkefat lenition are transcribed as "ḵ", "ṯ" and "ḇ", to retain their connection with the consonantal root כ־ת־ב k-t-b. They are pronounced [x], [θ], [β] in Biblical Hebrew and [χ], [t], [v] in Modern Hebrew respectively. Modern Hebrew has no gemination; where there was historically gemination, they are reduced to single consonants, with consonants in the begadkefat remaining the same.
|G verb stem||פָּעַל
|3rd Sg. M. Perfect||כתב||kāṯaḇ||كتب||kataba||He wrote|
|1st Pl. Perfect||כתבנו||kāṯaḇnū||كتبنا||katabnā||We wrote|
|3rd Sg. M. Imperfect||יכתוב||yiḵtoḇ||يكتب||yaktubu||He writes, will write|
|1st Pl. Imperfect||נכתוב||niḵtoḇ||نكتب||naktubu||We write, will write|
|Sg. M. Active Participle||כותב||kōṯēḇ||كاتب||kātib||Writer|
|Š verb stem||הִפְעִיל||hip̄‘īl||أَفْعَلَ||af‘ala
|3rd Sg. M. Perfect||הכתיב||hiḵtīḇ||أكتب||aktaba||He dictated|
|3rd Sg. M. Imperfect||יכתיב||yaḵtīḇ||يكتب||yuktibu||He dictates, will dictate|
|Št(D) verb stem||הִתְפָּעֵל||hiṯpā‘ēl||استَفْعَلَ||istaf‘ala
|3rd Sg. M. Perfect||התכתב||hiṯkattēḇ||استكتب||istaktaba||He corresponded (Hebrew),|
He asked (someone) to write (something),
had a copy made (Arabic)
|3rd Sg. M. Imperfect||יתכתב||yiṯkattēḇ||يستكتب||yastaktibu||(imperfect of above)|
|Noun with m- prefix
& original short vowels
In Hebrew grammatical terminology, the word binyan (Hebrew: בניין, plural בניינים binyanim) is used to refer to a verb derived stem or overall verb derivation pattern, while the word mishqal (or mishkal) is used to refer to a noun derivation pattern, and these words have gained some use in English-language linguistic terminology. The Arabic terms, called وزن wazn (plural أوزان, awzān) for the pattern and جذر jaḏr (plural جذور, juḏūr) for the root have not gained the same currency in cross-linguistic Semitic scholarship as the Hebrew equivalents, and Western grammarians continue to use "stem"/"form"/"pattern" for the former and "root" for the latter—though "form" and "pattern" are accurate translations of the Arabic grammatical term wazn (originally meaning 'weight, measure'), and "root" is a literal translation of jaḏr.
Biliteral origin of some triliteral roots
Although most roots in Hebrew seem to be triliteral, many of them were originally biliteral, cf. the relation between:
|ג־ז־ם||√g-z-m||prune, cut down|
|פ־ר־ז||√p-r-z||divide a city|
|פ־ר־ר||√p-r-r||crumble into pieces|
|פ־ר־ע||√p-r-‘||pay a debt |
The Hebrew root ש־ק־ף – √sh-q-p "look out/through" or "reflect" deriving from ק־ף – √q-p "bend, arch, lean towards" and similar verbs fit into the shaCCéC verb-pattern.
This verb-pattern sh-C-C is usually causative, cf.
|ט־ף||√ṭ-p||"wet"||ש־ט־ף||√sh-ṭ-p||"wash, rinse, make wet"|
|ל־ך||√l-k||"go".||ש־ל־ך||√sh-l-k||"cast off, throw down, cause to go"|
There is debate about whether both bi- or triconsonantal roots date back to Proto-Afroasiatic or whether one or the other of them was the original form of the Afroasiatic verb. According to one study of the Proto-Semitic lexicon, biconsonantal roots are more abundant for words denoting Stone Age materials, whereas materials discovered during the Neolithic are uniquely triconsonantal. This implies a change in Proto-Semitic language structure concomitant with the transition to agriculture. In particular monosyllabic biconsonantal names are associated with a pre-Natufian cultural background, more than 16,500 years ago. As we have no texts from any Semitic language older than 5,500 years ago, reconstructions of Proto-Semitic are inferred from these more recent Semitic texts.
A quadriliteral is a consonantal root containing a sequence of four consonants (instead of three consonants, as is more often the case). A quadriliteral form is a word derived from such a four-consonant root. For example, the abstract quadriliteral root t-r-g-m / t-r-j-m gives rise to the verb forms תרגם tirgem in Hebrew, ترجم tarjama in Arabic,ተረጐመ "täräggwämä" in Amharic, all meaning "he translated". In some cases, a quadriliteral root is actually a reduplication of a two-consonant sequence. So in Hebrew דגדג digdeg means "he tickled", and in Arabic زلزال zilzāl means "earthquake".
Generally, only a subset of the verb derivations formed from triliteral roots are allowed with quadriliteral roots. For example, in Hebrew, the Piʿel, Puʿal, and Hiṯpaʿel, and in Arabic, forms similar to the stem II and stem V forms of triliteral roots.
Another set of quadriliteral roots in modern Hebrew is the set of secondary roots. A secondary root is a root derived from a word that was derived from another root. For example, the root מ-ס-פ-ר m-s-p-r is secondary to the root ס-פ-ר s-p-r. סָפַר saphar, from the root s-p-r, means "counted"; מִסְפָּר mispar, from the same root, means "number"; and מִסְפֶּר misper, from the secondary root מ-ס-פ-ר, means "numbered".
An irregular quadriliteral verb made from a loanword is:
- נַשְׁפְּרִיץ Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine (/naʃˈprit͡s/) – "we will sprinkle" or "we will splash", from Yiddish spritz (from German spritzen)
A quinqueliteral is a consonantal root containing a sequence of five consonants. Traditionally, in Semitic languages, forms with more than four basic consonants (i.e. consonants not introduced by morphological inflection or derivation) were occasionally found in nouns, mainly in loanwords from other languages, but never in verbs. However, in modern Israeli Hebrew, syllables are allowed to begin with a sequence of two consonants (a relaxation of the situation in early Semitic, where only one consonant was allowed), which has opened the door for a very small set of loan words to manifest apparent five root-consonant forms, such as טלגרף tilgref "he telegraphed". However, -lgr- always appears as an indivisible cluster in the derivation of this verb and so the five root-consonant forms do not display any fundamentally different morphological patterns from four root-consonant forms (and the term "quinqueliteral" or "quinquiliteral" would be misleading if it implied otherwise). Only a few Hebrew quinqueliterals are recognized by the Academy of the Hebrew Language as proper, or standard; the rest are considered slang.
Other examples are:
- סִנְכְּרֵן Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine (/sinˈkren/ – "he synchronized"), via the English word from Greek
- חִנְטְרֵשׁ Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine (/χinˈtreʃ/ – "he did stupid things")
- הִתְפְלַרְטֵט Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine (/hitflarˈtet/ – "he had a flirt"), from the English or Yiddish past tense of the English word
In Amharic, there is a very small set of verbs which are conjugated as quinqueliteral roots. One example is wäšänäffärä 'rain fell with a strong wind' The conjugation of this small class of verb roots is explained by Wolf Leslau. Unlike the Hebrew examples, these roots conjugate in a manner more like regular verbs, producing no indivisible clusters.
- Arabic grammar
- Broken plural
- Indo-European ablaut
- Modern Hebrew grammar
- Nonconcatenative morphology
- Phono-semantic matching
- Proto-Indo-European root
- Hayward, Richard J. (2000). "Afroasiatic". In Heine, Bernd; Nurse, Derek (eds.). African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. pp. 74–98, here 93.
- *Stauder, Andréas (2023). "Egyptian Morphology in Afroasiatic Perspective". In Almansa-Villatoro, M. Victoria; Štubňová Nigrelli, Silvia (eds.). Ancient Egyptian and Afroasiatic: Rethinking the Origins. Eisenbrauns. pp. 53–136, here 81. ISBN 9781646022120.
- Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2020). Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199812790.
- See p. 1 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2003, ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.
- Güldemann, Tom (2018). "Historical linguistics and genealogical language classification in Africa". In Güldemann, Tom (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of Africa. The World of Linguistics, Volume 11. Berlin: De Mouton Gruyter. pp. 58–444, here 311. doi:10.1515/9783110421668-002. ISBN 9783110421668. S2CID 133888593.
- Agmon (2010:23)
- A New Arabic Grammar of the Written Language by J.A. Haywood and H.M. Nahmad (London: Lund Humphries, 1965), ISBN 0-85331-585-X, p. 261.
- "The inadequacy of the consonantal root: Modern Hebrew denominal verbs and Output-Output correspondence" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2013-07-22. Retrieved 2012-12-10..
- p. 153. Thomas Leiper Kane. 1990. Amharic-English Dictionary. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
- pp. 566–569, 1043. Wolf Leslau. Reference Grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
- Agmon, Noam (2010), "Materials and Language: Pre-Semitic Root Structure Change Concomitant with Transition to Agriculture" (PDF), Brill's Annual of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics, 2: 23–79, doi:10.1163/187666310X12688137960669
- Semitic Roots Repository
- Roots in Quranic Arabic
- Project Root List
- Learn Hebrew Verbs
- Alexis Amid Neme and Eric Laporte (2013), Pattern-and-root inflectional morphology: the Arabic broken plural |year=
- Alexis Amid Neme and Eric Laporte (2015), Do computer scientists deeply understand Arabic morphology? – هل يفهم المهندسون الحاسوبيّون علم الصرف فهماً عميقاً؟, available also in Arabic, Indonesian, French