The Glamour of the Grammar: I'll buy a vowel

Hebrew doesn't like words that start with too many consonants. In fact, two is the limit.

Hebrew doesn't like words that start with too many consonants. In fact, two is the limit. But let's be clear. Because Hebrew writing is basically consonantal, most written words look like they have nothing but consonants. We're talking about sounds, though, not spelling (or if you prefer technical terms, about phonology, not orthography). The lack of a vowel sound in Hebrew is indicated by a shva (which looks like a colon), so a word that starts with two consonantal sounds has a shva under the first letter, but only when the vowels are written. (I know. There are various kinds of shva: "resting," "mobile" and "floating." Some other week we'll sort through that mess. For now, yes, a shva marks the lack of a vowel.) Because of the consonantal nature of Hebrew writing, it's often easier to use English transliteration to see where the consonants and vowels lie. For example, the words sefer (book) and sfarad (Spain) both begin with samech-peh-resh, but only sfarad begins with two consonants; sefer begins with a consonant and a vowel. Shtayim (two) also begins with two consonants, though here the English confusingly makes it look like three. Hebrew words cannot start with three consonants. When they otherwise would, the vowel sound /i/ is inserted between the first and second consonants and a hirik (single dot) is written under the first letter. This insertion of a vowel is called epenthesis, and the hirik is an epenthetic vowel. (Hebrew is not the only language that exhibits epenthesis, though details differ from language to language, as in the Spanish word for "Spanish," which starts not sp-, but rather esp-, with an epenthetic "e.") There are three and sometimes four Hebrew prefixes that are frequently involved with epenthesis:k- (like), l- (to), b- (in) and sometimes v- (and). K'sefer means "like a book," l'sefer "to a book," etc. But "like Spain" is kisfarad (not ksfarad); "to Spain" is lisfarad; and "in Spain" is bisfarad. V- is more complicated, because usually it becomes u- before two consonants, but when it doesn't, as in the biblical vihyitem (you will be), the v- gets an epenthetic /i/, too. We've already seen some other examples of epenthesis. In a previous column, we noted that in the infinitive, the prefix l- has four varieties. One variety has no vowel under it, another has a hirik. We now recognize that the words we saw then - l'daber (to speak) and lishmor (to keep) - demonstrate general patterns about Hebrew, not specific patterns about the infinitive. Lishmor is different because the l- comes before two consonants. The tri-consonantal lshm becomes lishm. Epenthesis is even more general in Hebrew. Prefixes indicate agreement in the future tense. From the base daber ("speak") we get y'daber (he will speak), t'daber (she will speak or you will speak), etc. A shva appears beneath each prefix to mark the lack of a vowel. But when a verbal base starts with two consonants, the verbal prefixes get an epenthetic /i/. From the base sgor (close) we get yisgor (he will close), tisgor, etc. Some grammars mistakenly attribute this extra /i/ to the verbal paradigm, or binyan. But the vowel is part of a bigger and more general system. (Hebrew verbs come in seven paradigms. We'll address them another week.) One passive binyan, nif'al, is marked by a prefixed nun. When the nun comes before two consonants, that prefix, too, gets a hirik to indicate an epenthetic /i/. So nisgar (was closed) is the nif'al verb from the root s-g-r. Yet another binyan, pi'el, is usually marked by a doubled middle letter, though Hebrew spelling makes it hard to see the double letter, because a dagesh, that is, a dot in the letter, marks its duplicity. Diber (he spoke) is an example. It comes from dbber, which would have too many consonants at the beginning of the word. So an /i/ is inserted, yielding dibber. By and large, almost all of the vowels of all Hebrew verbs and most Hebrew nouns are predictable, a topic we'll continue to investigate in future weeks. In the meantime, readers may wish to try to figure out the rules for some other vowels on their own. To get started, here's a puzzle: what do the /a/ sounds in katav (wrote), namas (melted) and lavo (to come) have in common? The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.