Glamour of Grammar: And yet another thing

Recently we saw the power of the word "and" in Hebrew. But who would have thought it could be so hard to say?

Recently we saw the power of the word "and" in Hebrew. But who would have thought it could be so hard to say? Though it's always written as a prefixed vav, the word enjoys no fewer than seven pronunciations. The basic version is simply v'-. So "and Tel Aviv" is just v'tel aviv. But Hebrew doesn't stop there. Always available is the option of pronouncing v'- as va-, though usually we find that longer form only between two short words of a pair, as in yom valaila, "day and night." The letters bet, vav, mem and peh, which go by the acronym bumaf, form an interesting class. When these labials (so called because they represent sounds made with the lips) start a word, they change the prefix meaning "and" from v'- to u-. So, properly speaking, "and Miriam" in Hebrew is not v'miryam but rather umiryam. "And what?" is uma? Because the letters that change v'- into u- are the "bumaf" letters, grammarians call this rule bumaf. (See, metonymy pops up all over the place.) Now, the bumaf rule in Israeli Hebrew is largely prescriptive, which is to say, a "rule" that's usually ignored. Why should we care about it at all, then? For two reasons. Careful speakers and newscasters still follow it, and we find it in biblical Hebrew. Interestingly, even Israelis who don't use this rule understand those who do. Another time we find u- instead of v'- is when a word starts with two consonantal sounds. Hebrew spelling makes it hard to see the consonant/vowel mix of a word, because the vowels usually aren't written. Words look like they have nothing but consonants. The Hebrew "vowel" sh'va, though, represents the lack of a vowel, so when a word has a sh'va under its first letter, we know it starts with two consonantal sounds. For example, shtayim (two) begins with the two consonantal sounds sh and t, a fact which is represented by a sh'va under the shin. Our third rule - the "sh'va rule" -- dictates ushtayim for "and two." If bumaf is Rule 2 and the sh'va rule is Rule 3, we now turn to Rule 3a, which supersedes Rule 3. If the word that starts with a sh'va also begins with a yud, rather than u-, we get vi-. And the sh'va disappears. So while "Jerusalem" is y'rushalayim, "and Jerusalem" is virushalayim, and it has but five syllables. Our next class of variations for "and" comes from an arcane aspect of Masoretic grammar. We'll cover the Masoretes another time, but for now we note that their system dates from the end of the first millennium. Even though it is no longer followed in its entirety, it forms the foundation of modern Israeli Hebrew. One Masoretic rule forbids the letters alef, ayin, heh and het from taking a sh'va in certain circumstances. A complex system of rules assigns these letters a vowel instead. This vowel-in-place-of-a-sh'va is called a hataf vowel, and it is written as a vowel next to a sh'va. Because hataf vowels are pronounced exactly the same as their non-hataf counterparts, the sh'va isn't always written. But poetry books, children's books and dictionaries will let you know when you have a hataf. The reason you (might) care is that when a vav meaning "and" comes before a hataf vowel, the vav assumes that vowel. For example, the word ani (I) starts with a hataf. So "and I" is va'ani, not v'ani. Emet (truth) also starts with a hataf. "And truth" is ve'emet. So far our variations on v-, while perhaps not part of day-to-day Israeli speech, still fall within the realm of normality. Our final pronunciation is more bizarre. In addition to the sounds a and e, Hebrew offers a hataf version of o. "Ship" is oniyah, with a hataf at the beginning. Accordingly, "and a ship" is not v'oniya, but rather the truly astonishing vo'oniya. We're almost done. Our final rule applies only to God's name. Elohim (God) begins with a hataf-segol (/e/ sound). However, "and God" is not ve'elohim but rather the trisyllabic veilohim. The vav takes a tzere (ei sound for many speakers), and the alef becomes silent. The alef in Adonai (the Lord or Adonai) also becomes silent. "And Adonai" is the trisyllabic vadonai. And there you have it. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.