The Glamour of the Grammar: 'What the...?'

A reader writes: "I'm confused by the definite article in Hebrew. Can you help?" Yes.

A reader writes: "I'm confused by the definite article in Hebrew. Can you help?" Yes. Like many seemingly simple things in Hebrew, the definite article, that is, the word "the," has more complexity behind it than might be expected, and its spelling and pronunciation involve three rules and five sub-rules. Fortunately, they combine to create only six patterns; and two of the patterns are the same except for the names they enjoy. We'll work through them all, and I'll summarize the results at the end. The basic word for "the," ha-, consists of three parts: the letter heh, a patah (single horizontal line representing the sound /a/) under it, and a dagesh (dot) in the next letter. So, "the cola" is hakola, and "the house" is habayit. The dagesh is important. (I know. I've been promising for months to explain it more fully. I will. Really.) Without the dagesh, "the house" would be havayit, just as "to a house" is l'vayit. Rule number one is that "the" is pronounced ha-. To understand Rules 2 and 3, we need the term tashlum dagesh, literally, "instead of the dagesh." The guttural letters alef, heh, het, ayin and resh cannot take a dagesh. In its place, the vowel before the letter sometimes changes. That's called tashlum dagesh. (The technical linguistic term for this is "compensatory lengthening.") Rules 2 and 3 are both instances of tashlum dagesh. Rule 2 applies to all five gutturals. Case 1 of Rule 2 involves alef, ayin and resh. After the definite article, these three letters induce tashlum dagesh, causing the patah under the heh to become a kamatz (which looks like a T). Most people don't care, because in most dialects of Hebrew the patah and the kamatz are pronounced identically. Examples include ha'ish (the man), ha'ayin (the eye) and haradyo (the radio). In all three, the patah under the heh becomes a kamatz. Case 2 of Rule 2 involves the remaining two gutturals, heh and het, as well as my favorite Hebrew grammatical term. These two letters don't induce tashlum dagesh, but, rather than passively noting that nothing happens, we call the process by which the vowel under the heh doesn't change ein tashlum dagesh, literally, "no tashlum dagesh." So, in Rule 2: alef, ayin and resh cause tashlum dagesh; heh and het cause ein tashlum dagesh. Not that it matters. It still sounds exactly the same. Rule 3 is where things start to get really interesting, so pay attention. Sometimes the kamatz (T-vowel), which used to be a patah (single line) but got changed because of tashlum dagesh gets changed even more in a process called dissimilation. Before another kamatz, the first kamatz sometimes becomes a segol (three dots that make the sound /e/.) So the word for "the mountains" is not haharim, but, rather, heharim. The segol under the heh started off as a patah, then got tashlum-dagesh'd into a kamatz, and finally dissimilated into a segol. Unlike Rule 2, which only changes spelling, Rule 3 changes the pronunciation of words (though, it's worth pointing out that most modern speakers don't follow Rule 3 in their speech). Case 1 of Rule 3 is a het with a kamatz under under it: Ha- becomes he-. So we have hehag (the holiday), hehatul (the cat), etc. Cases 2 and 3 of Rule 3, the most complicated of the lot, apply to the letters heh and ayin. These gutturals induce dissimilation only when they are unaccented. The best-known example is heharim. The heh in harim has a patah under it, and the syllable is unaccented, so the word "the" is pronounced he-. He-arim (the cities) works the same way. I've arbitrarily called an unaccented patah under heh and ayin "Case 2" and an accented syllable "Case 3." So ha- becomes he- only in Cases 1 and 2 of Rule 2. To summarize, then, "the" is pronounced ha-, except he- when (1) it comes before a het with a kamatz; (2) it comes before an unaccented heh with a kamatz; or (3) it comes before an unaccented ayin with a kamatz. As it happens, the word for "what," ma, follows all of the same rules. For example, "what's new" is meh hadash. So the good news is you get two results for the price of understanding just one. It's a bargain. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.