Glamour of Grammar: Stress management

With several exceptions, Hebrew words traditionally enjoy word-final stress. That is, the final syllable is usually accented.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
(photo credit: )
With several exceptions, Hebrew words traditionally enjoy word-final stress. That is, the final syllable is usually accented. So "Abraham" in classical Hebrew is 'avraHAM'; "Israel" is 'yisraEL'; "where" is 'eiFO', etc. Today we'll look at eight of the exceptions, when stress shifts back a syllable, and next time we'll look at modern Hebrew. In a class of words called "segolates," the stress always falls on the penultimate (second to last) syllable. These words are frequently marked by a 'segol' (/e/ sound, written as a triangle of three dots) under the penultimate letter. Examples are 'YEled' ("boy"), 'SHEmesh' ("sun"), and 'BOker' ("morning"). While the first syllable often has a segol too, like in 'YEled', it's the second segol that counts. Some present-tense feminine singular verbs act like segolates also, such as 'oHEvet' ("she loves"). When the ultimate or penultimate letter of the segolate is a guttural, the /e/ sound may change to /a/. So we have 'MElah' ("salt"), 'NA'ar' ("youth"), 'yoDA'at' ("she knows"), and so forth. When the ultimate or penultimate letter is a yud, the /e/ becomes /i/, as in 'BAyit' ("house") or 'YOfi' ("beauty"). That's the first class of exceptions. Second, we come to suffixes that tend to reject stress. They include the past-tense verbal suffixes -ti ("I"), -ta ("you" [masculine, singular]), -nu ("we" or "us"); and the future-tense verbal suffix -na (feminine plural). When these suffixes occur at the end of a word, the accent usually lies just behind them. So we have 'aHAVti' ("I loved"), 'aHAVta' ("you loved"), 'aHAVnu' ("we loved"), 'toHAVna' ("they will love" [feminine]), etc. The suffixes are actually even more complicated, but that's enough for now. Third, the dual-form features penultimate stress. So "two times" (which you and I call "twice") is 'pa'aMAyim', "two days" is 'yoMAyim', etc. Though this category could be part of the first (segolates) or the second (stressaphobic suffixes), we'll make it its own category, if for no other reason than I'm particularly fond of the dual (you have been using it, haven't you?). The fourth category involves the conversive vav - the one that seems to reverse past and future but actually has a more interesting story behind it. In addition to everything else, the conversive vav mucks with stress. "He will stand" is 'yaKUM', but "he stood" is 'vaYAkom'. Similarly, "he will say" is 'yoMAR', but "he said" is vaYOmer (the vowels change for complicated reasons). Fifth, and perhaps most interestingly, many words entertain a "pausal" form. When a word appears at the end of a phrase, technically called "in pause," its final accent can shift back one syllable. So "I" is 'aNI'. But at the end of a phrase, it can be 'Ani'. Sometimes a new vowel seems to get inserted in the pausal form to support the penultimate word stress. "They kept" is 'shamRU', but the pausal form is 'shaMAru'. (It's a fine point, but, in fact, the /a/ vowel in that word isn't really added. Rather, in the normal form, the vowel /a/ - part of the word because the singular is 'shaMAR' - first gets unstressed and then deleted in the regular plural form. But in the pausal form the stressed /a/ stays.) Speaking of the pausal forms, "To you" (masculine) is 'l'cha', but in pause, the accent shifts back one syllable, and the vowel /a/ is again added to support the shift. In addition the final /a/ disappears. So the pausal form for l'cha is 'lach', which happens also to be the feminine non-pausal form, a coincidence that frequently confounds new students of classical Hebrew. Sixth (we're almost done), most words that end in the guttural het, ayin, or consonantal heh get an extra /a/ sound before the final letter. This /a/ (called "stolen"), is unstressed. So: 'shaVU'a' ("week"), 'KO'ah' ("strength") and even 'elOH'a' ("God"). Seventh, some verbal forms attract stress. The /i/ sound near the end of hiph'il falls in this category. So "they sacrificed" is 'hikRIvu', not 'hikriVU'. Finally for today, Hebrew sometimes moves the stress back one syllable to avoid two stressed syllables in a row, as in Exodus 18:20, 'YEL'chu BA' ("they will walk thereupon"), rather than 'yel'CHU BA'. There's more, but that's it for the basics. Hebrew grammar is frequently more complicated that it seems at first, but I guess no one should be surprised that stress is such a problem. Next time we'll see how this plays out in Modern Hebrew. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.