The Glamour of the Grammar: Say ah

Of all the Hebrew vowels, the kamatz is perhaps the most confusing.

Hebrew manuscripts 88 (photo credit:)
Hebrew manuscripts 88
(photo credit: )
Of all the Hebrew vowels, the kamatz is perhaps the most confusing. It looks like a little T under a letter, but, unlike most vowel symbols, it represents two different sounds: /a/ and /o/ (roughly the "o" in "dot" and "dote," respectively). Knowing when the vowel makes which sound is part of the subtle joy of learning Hebrew grammar. The "normal" kamatz, pronounced /a/ in Israeli Hebrew, is just called a kamatz, or, when necessary for disambiguation, a kamatz gadol, that is, a "big" kamatz. (Ashkenazi Hebrew pronounces the kamatz gadol as a sound roughly halfway between /a/ and /o/.) The normal or big kamatz has a little brother, called a kamatz katan ("little kamatz"). In Israeli Hebrew, it's usually pronounced /o/. Though modern typography sometimes distinguishes the two kamatz vowels - frequently with the ironic convention of making the small kamatz bigger - traditionally readers have had to apply grammatical rules to know how to pronounce the kamatz. Which rules? I'll tell you. The most basic is that a kamatz in a closed, unaccented syllable is a kamatz katan, and is pronounced /o/. By "unaccented" we mean what we always mean: The accent falls elsewhere in the word. You can tell which syllable is accented just by listening. But "closed" is a little harder. Hebrew grammars often try to help by explaining that a closed syllable is one that ends with a silent shva (two vertical dots), but then, because there are thus two kinds of shva, these grammars have to add that a silent shva ends a closed syllable. It might be true, but it doesn't help. (We'll cover the shva another week.) Just to give you an idea, the first syllable of lishmor ("to keep") is closed, but the first syllable of bishmor ("by keeping") is open. So what's a closed syllable? To understand it properly, we need the notion of "base word." A base word is usually the masculine, singular and, for verbs, third-person form, except that for a group of penultimately-accented words called segolates the base form is harder to identify. So halach ("he went") is a base form, but not halcha ("she went"), halachnu ("we went"), etc. Kotev ("[he is] writing") is a base form, but not kotvim. Stoodent ("student") is a base form. Infinitives, like lishmor, are also base forms. A closed syllable is a syllable that, in the base form, ends with a consonant, and an open syllable is a syllable that's not closed. A consonant between two vowels starts a syllable rather than ending it. So kotev (a base form) has an open syllable (ko-) followed by a closed syllable (-tev). Kotvim, however, not being a base form, gets judged by its base. Kot- is not closed. Remember why we (might) care? It's because a kamatz in a closed, unaccented syllable is a kamatz katan. So the common word het-kaf-mem-heh ("wisdom") has a kamatz under the het and a shva under the kaf. The kamatz, appearing as it does in a closed, unaccented syllable, gets pronounced /o/: hochMA. Similarly, alef-mem-nun-mem is omNAM, not amNAM. The biblical Hebrew word vav-yud-kuf-mem, with a kamatz under the kuf and the accent shifted to the second syllable, is pronounced vaYAkom. And so forth. There are other times we find a kamatz katan, including any hataf-kamatz, that is, a kamatz with a shva written next to it. So "ship" is oniya. A kamatz copied from a kamatz katan (as I described some time ago) is also katan: tzohorayim, not tzaharayim, in spite of the Jerusalemites who prefer the latter. Finally, in addition to the closed-unaccented rule and the hataf-kamatz rule, a kamatz in a present-tense imperative is katan: kotVEnu ("write us," frequently translated during the High Holy days as "inscribe us"), not katvenu. As it happens, the famous commentator Rashi, whose 1,000th birthday is coming up in about 30 years, used the term "kamatz katan" to mean what we now call a tzereh and write as two dots side by side. He also used the term "little patah" (patah katan) for what we now call a segol (three dots in a triangle). In general, patah and kamatz are related, and, because they usually denote the same sound, they are easy to mix up - as even in this column some weeks ago. (Thank you to the many readers who pounced and let me know.) Of course there's a story behind Rashi's big and little vowels, but it will have to wait. I'm out of space. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.