Glamour of Grammar: Dot dot dot

The most common variety of dot is a dagesh.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
(photo credit: )
The sixth stanza of the famous 16th-century kabbalistic poem "'Lecha Dodi'" ends with the word 'tilah', "on its tel." (A tel is a hill or mound formed from rocks, soil, and ruins of successive cities built on the same spot.) The word caught my eye because each letter of the word has a dot in it, and I began wondering what the longest such word is. (A seven-letter answer appears at the end of the column.) The challenge of finding Hebrew words comprised only of letters with dots in them also serves as a review of the kinds of dots that can go in letters. The most common variety of dot is a 'dagesh', a topic we've covered here extensively (though not exhaustively). There are essentially two kinds of 'dagesh', the light 'dagesh' ('dagesh kal') that appears in the 'beged kefet' letters unless they follow a vowel, and the strong 'dagesh' ('dagesh hazak') that marks a doubled letter. The 'dagesh' in the 'tav' of the word 'tilah' is a 'dagesh kal', and the 'dagesh' in the 'lamed' - reminding informed readers that the word comes from the root 't.l.l' - is a 'dagesh hazak'. Two other kinds of dots can appear in letters, though only one of them has a name. Generally, a 'heh' at the end of word indicates the vowel sound /'a'/. But when a word actually ends with the consonant "h," the 'heh' gets a dot called a 'mappik'. (Tradition insists that this 'heh' was pronounced, but even if so, in Israeli Hebrew it is not.) The name "Sarah" is spelled 's-r-h', and, because the 'heh' at the end marks the vowel /'a'/, it has no dot. By contrast, the suffix -'ah' meaning "her" is always spelled with a 'mappik', so 'sarah' with a 'mappik' in the 'heh' means "her 'sar'," that is, "her minister." The dot in the final 'heh' of 'tilah' is likewise a 'mappik'. The third, nameless, kind of dot appears in a 'vav' to indicate that its sound is /'u'/. For example, when a 'vav' meaning "and" appears before a bilabial letter (the "'bumaf'" rule), the 'vav' is pronounced /'u'/ and therefore gets a dot in it. (Because a 'vav' can also take a 'dagesh hazak', a 'vav' with a dot is not always pronounced /'u'/. Sometimes it's /'v'/. The Hebrew for "peacock" is 'tavas', spelled 'tet-vav-samech', with a 'dagesh' in the 'vav'.) So how might these three kinds of dots combine to create a fully dotted word? The easiest way to start is with a 'beged kefet' letter. That's how we get 'tilah'. "Her drum," 'tupah', works the same way. The word can't start with /'u'/ meaning "and," because any letter after /'u'/ will be left without a 'dagesh'. On the other side, we need a 'heh' with a 'mappik' or a 'vav' pronounced as /'u'/ to end the word. Rarely, the last letter of a word will have a 'dagesh kal' (the biblical 'vayavk', "he cried," demonstrates) or a 'dagesh hazak' (as in the exceptional 'at', "you"), but either way, the penultimate letter in such a word will be dotless. To get a dot in the middle letters, we need a 'dagesh hazak', because a 'dagesh kal' will fall out after a vowel - our word will need vowels - and the sound /'u'/ written with a 'vav' will all but ensure that the following letter has no dagesh. So we need doubled letters. Getting two of those in a row is hard but not impossible. The 'niph'al' verb 'tisabu' means "you will spin around," and thanks to a dropped nun and a double 'samech', it has four all-dotted letters. Three prefixes induce a dagesh in the letter they precede: 'ha'- ("the"), 'she'- ("that") and 'mi'- (from). The 'heh' doesn't help because it can't take a dot. But the others can. 'Mitilah' ("from its tel") has a 'dagesh' in the final three letters, but not the 'mem'. 'Shemitlah' ("that from its tel") has four out of five dotted letters. Can we get a dot in the 'shin'? The word 'ma' ("what") rescues us, because it has the rare property of inducing a 'dagesh' in the first letter of the next word. So in the phrase ma 'shemitilah', all five letters, 'sh-m-t-l-h', have a dot. To get to six, we reverse the prefixes ('mishe'-, "from the time that") and add them to a verb. And for seven, we add another 'she'-: ('ma') 'shemishetisabu', "[what] that from the time that you spun around..." Homework is to use these odd phrases in a sentence that makes sense. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.