Glamour of Grammar: Reason for pause

In Hebrew, the world is divided into two places: ha'aretz, "the land," and hutz la'aretz, "outside the land."

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit:)
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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In Hebrew, the world is divided into two places: ha'aretz, "the land," and hutz la'aretz, "outside the land." The former means "inside Israel," and the latter means "everywhere else." As chance would have it, you can be "in" either place. When you're in Israel, you are ba'aretz, and when you are not in Israel, you are in outside-of-Israel, b'hutz la'aretz, which more popularly goes by the abbreviation b'hul. But that's not today's point. Today our issue is that the word for "land" originally had two similar forms - eretz and aretz - and they used to mean the same thing. While they have now diverged in meaning, the former meaning any land and the latter referring specifically to The Land, the process that gave us the two forms is a widespread one. In Biblical Hebrew, words generally received word-final stress (though eretz and aretz are exceptions that we'll get to in a minute). So the word for "you" is aTA, the feminine imperative "speak" is dabRI, "they walked" is halCHU, etc. At the end of a phrase, though, stress could be shifted back one syllable. So rather than the usual aTA, we find AHta at the end of a phrase, as in Deuteronomy 9:6: "a stiff-necked people is what you are," in which the word for "you" is AHta. Sometimes this backward stress shift, technically called the "pausal" form, reveals an otherwise hidden vowel. "He walked" in Hebrew is halach. (And, as a review, remember that the vowel before the kaf turns it into a chaf.) "They walked" is halCHU. But at the end of a phrase, the word becomes haLAchu. That is, the penultimate syllable (-LA-) gets stressed, and, being stressed, its vowel cannot disappear as it otherwise would. (The rules of which vowels disappear are complicated. We'll cover that another day.) Psalm 119:3 ends with the words "in his ways they walked," that is, bidrachav haLAchu. The pausal form for the short word l'cha ("to you") is lach. The vowel /a/ gets added so that the stress can shift back to it, and then the final /a/ disappears. Psalm 33:22 ends, yihalnu lach, "we have yearned for you." Unfortunately, the pausal form of the masculine sounds the same as the ordinary form of the feminine, sometimes leading to misunderstanding by those who haven't mastered the pausal form. Some suffixes combine with the pausal form to introduce another unexpected vowel, this time a segol (/e/ sound). For example, "your land" is usually artz'CHA, but in pause, it's arTZEcha. Some Biblical Hebrew words (the "segolates" that keep popping up in these columns) already have stress on the penultimate syllable. YEled ("child") and SHEmesh ("sun") are examples. For these words, the pausal form consists of changing the penultimate vowel. That's why we find, in II Samuel 6:23, lo haya la YAled, "she had no child." "Sun" is usually SHEmesh, but at the end of a phrase, it can be SHAMesh, as in the well-known, "there's nothing new under the sun," ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh. Eretz and aretz work the same way. They both mean "land," and the latter is reserved for the pausal form, as in Isaiah 55:9, where the heavens are higher than the earth: gavhu shamayim mei-aretz. Surprisingly, however, we never find the form ha'eretz, but rather only ha'aretz. In other words, after the definite article "the," we find the pausal form even where it doesn't seem to belong. In terms of meaning, the biblical eretz and aretz are identical. They both can refer to any land at all; so can ha'aretz in the Bible. Somewhere along the line, though, the pausal form came to mean only Israel, that is, "The Land," while the ordinary forms eretz and ha'eretz assumed the more general meaning of "land." So in Modern Hebrew, "Israel is a great land" is ha'aretz hi eretz nehederet. While the pausal form (except in the remnant ha'aretz) did not survive into Israeli Hebrew, the modern language has its own backward stress shift. We see it in words like GLIda ("ice cream"), MOshe (Moses), and even in phrases like MA nishma ("what's up?") when the speaker wants to sound hip. But when and why this happens is a story for another week. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.