Semitic root

(Redirected from Triliteral)

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,[1] and Egyptian shows a mix of biconsonantal and triconsonantal roots.[2]

Triconsonantal roots


A triliteral or triconsonantal root (Hebrew: שורש תלת־עיצורי, šoreš təlat-ʻiṣuri; Arabic: جذر ثلاثي, jiḏr ṯulāṯī; Syriac: ܫܪܫܐ, šeršā) is a root containing a sequence of three consonants.

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
or qāl
فَعَلَ fa‘ala
(Stem I)
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 Writing
Š verb stem הִפְעִיל hip̄‘īl أَفْعَلَ af‘ala
(Stem IV)
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
(Stem X)
3rd Sg. M. Perfect התכתב hiṯkattēḇ استكتب istaktaba He corresponded (Hebrew),
had a copy made (Arabic)
3rd Sg. M. Imperfect יתכתב yiṯkattēḇ يستكتب yastaktibu (imperfect of above)
Noun with m- prefix
& original short vowels
מִפְעָל mip̄‘āl مَفْعَل maf‘āl Singular מכתב miḵtāḇ مكتب maktab Letter (Hebrew),
Office (Arabic)

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 wazan (plural أوزان, awzān) for the pattern and جذر jiḏr (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 wazan (originally meaning 'weight, measure'), and "root" is a literal translation of jiḏr.

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 √g-z
ג־ז־ז √g-z-z shear
ג־ז־ם √g-z-m prune, cut down
ג־ז־ר √g-z-r cut
פ־ר‎ √p-r
פ־ר־ז √p-r-z divide a city
פ־ר־ט √p-r-ṭ give change
פ־ר־ר √p-r-r crumble into pieces
פ־ר־ע √p-r-‘ pay a debt [3]

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.

ק־פ‎ √q-p
ק־פ־א √q-p-'
ק־פ־ה √q-p-h
ק־פ־ח √q-p-ḥ
ק־פ־י √q-p-y

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".[3] 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.[4] According to one study of the Proto-Semitic lexicon,[5] 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.

Quadriliteral roots


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 תרגםtirgem in Hebrew, ترجمtarjama 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 דגדגdigdeg / Arabic دغدغdaġdaġa means "he tickled", and in Arabic زلزلzalzala means "he shook".

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-רm-s-p-r is secondary to the root ס-פ-רs-p-r. סָפַרsaphar, from the root s-p-r, means "counted"; מִסְפָּרmispar, from the same root, means "number"; and מִסְפֶּרmisper, from the secondary root מ-ס-פ-ר‎, means "numbered".

An irregular quadriliteral verb made from a loanword is:

  • נַשְׁפְּרִיץ[6] (/naʃˈprit͡s/) – "we will sprinkle" or "we will splash", from Yiddish spritz (from German spritzen)

Quinqueliteral roots


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.[7] 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 טלגרףtilgref "he telegraphed".[8] 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[9] (/sinˈkren/ – "he synchronized"), via the English word from Greek
  • חִנְטְרֵשׁ[10] (/χinˈtreʃ/ – "he did stupid things")
  • הִתְפְלַרְטֵט[11] (/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'.[12] The conjugation of this small class of verb roots is explained by Wolf Leslau.[13] Unlike the Hebrew examples, these roots conjugate in a manner more like regular verbs, producing no indivisible clusters.

See also



  1. ^ Hayward, Richard J. (2000). "Afroasiatic". In Heine, Bernd; Nurse, Derek (eds.). African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. pp. 74–98, here 93.
  2. ^ *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.
  3. ^ a b 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Agmon (2010:23)
  6. ^ Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "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..
  9. ^ Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ p. 153. Thomas Leiper Kane. 1990. Amharic-English Dictionary. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  13. ^ pp. 566–569, 1043. Wolf Leslau. Reference Grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.