Glamour of Grammar: Modern stress

In a curious nod to Yiddish and the religious culture it represents, Israelis usually prefer a Yiddish-esque pronunciation of religious words.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
(photo credit: )
Last time we noted that, traditionally, Hebrew words were accented on the last syllable unless one of a handful of rules moved the stress back one syllable. Modern spoken Hebrew is more complicated. Some of the traditional rules still apply to spoken Hebrew. The segolates, like 'YEled' (boy) still get penultimate stress, as do words with a stolen /'a'/, like 'KO'ah' (strength). The set of suffixes that reject stress has grown. In addition to -'ti', -'ta', etc. (as in, 'aHAVti', "I loved," or 'aHAVta', "you loved"), we find that -'tem' (plural you) has decided to get rid of the stress in its life. The biblical 'ahavTEM' (you loved) has become the modern 'aHAVtem'. The pausal form has also gone the way of the dodo. Biblical Hebrew had two ways to say "they kept," 'shamRU', the normal form, and 'shaMAru', the pausal form, used at the end of a phrase. Modern Hebrew has just the one form, 'shamRU'. This also means that modern Hebrew has abandoned the pausal word 'lach' (to you), which is now only a feminine form, not a masculine form in pause, at it used to be. The do-not-put-two-stressed-syllables-in-a-row-if-you-can-avoid-it plan has also disappeared from the modern language. For example, the traditional blessing over food includes the phrase 'haMOtzi LEhem' (who brings bread). But nowadays Israelis say 'hamoTZI LEhem', shoving two stressed syllables together. In a curious nod to Yiddish and the religious culture it represents, Israelis usually (without knowing it) prefer a Yiddish-esque pronunciation of religious words. A bar mitzva in Israel is a 'bar MITZva', not a 'bar mitzVA'. But a yarmulke is still a 'kiPA'. Another innovation augments the segolates with a whole new, somewhat arbitrary class of words in which the stress slides backward. A banana in Hebrew is a 'bahNAHna', not a 'bahnahNA'. A battery is a 'bataRIya'. And a bus is an 'OHtobus'. This last word is particularly interesting because it moves stress where it never could have been before. Hebrew always used to require word stress on one of the final two syllables. Frequently, the stressed syllables in this new kind of word refuse to relinquish their stress even when suffixes are added to the words. So in addition to 'bahNAHna', we find 'bahNAHnot' (bananas) and 'OHtobusim' (buses) with word stress fully four syllables back. Sometimes modern Hebrew words do have word-final stress, but that stress still refuses to move when it used to be that it should have. A university student is a 'stooDENT'; more than one is 'stooDENtim', not 'stoodenTIM'. While a lot of these non-final-stress words are modern, like 'bahnahna' or 'stoodent', equally often they are re-stressed words of old. The very common word "where" is now 'EIfo' among all, but the most formal of speakers. "Ice cream," pronounced properly as 'gliDA', is now 'GLIda'. Perhaps the most interesting innovation is one that started as a limited kind of slang. Some modern Hebrew names have word-final stress, but, in colloquial situations, the stress moves back. "Simeon" is 'ShimON' in Hebrew, but once you get to know him better, you should feel free to call him 'SHIMon'. "Moses" is 'MoSHE', but 'MOshe' to his friends. And so forth. This pattern is reminiscent of the now-defunct pausal forms, though the change happens in a very different circumstance. The old stress shift was purely syntactic. The modern one is sociolinguistic in nature. Like the people whose names change, some places have two names, a formal one and a colloquial one. The port city of Haifa is 'HeiFA', but once you've lived there a while, call it 'HAIfa' (the change from /ei/ to /ai/ is complicated). With Israel being such an informal society, we perhaps shouldn't be surprised that other, impersonal nouns are trying to get in on the "just between friends" stress-shift game. The word for cake is 'ooGA', but the word 'OOga' has been creeping into the language. To some speakers, it sounds just plain silly. To others, it has a sense of lower-class slang. But more and more, it also conveys a uniquely Israeli flavor of informality. While 'ani rotzeh ooGA' (I want cake) is perfectly fine, 'ani rotzeh OOga' brings joy and a playful capriciousness to the conversation. And it is perhaps a fitting tribute that the modern language of Israel has managed to turn stress into joy. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.