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.
The first to propose that all Hebrew stems consist of three letters was the Andalusi grammar Judah ben David Hayyuj, who wrote several treaties about Hebrew grammar. 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 of Semitic templates.: 71–2
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
|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.
See also: Category:Triconsonantal 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:
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:
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.