Silent and vocal shəva

Here’s a question that was recently sent to us regarding our treatment of the shəva (see Lesson 3 specifically).


In the text book, it says that a shəva is vocal only if it appears at the beginning of a word, or if it is the second of two consecutive shəvas. In any other circumstance it is silent. However, that would seem to mean that a shəva following a long vowel (in a qal pft 3fs verb, for example) would be silent. My understanding is that a shəva after a long vowel is vocal.



Two related principles form the background of our teaching on the shəva.

First, we hesitate to provide full descriptions of complex issues in an introductory textbook. There are some ambiguities concerning where the shəva is vocal. For example, modern textbooks will often call it a vowel when it represents what historically was a vowel that has been reduced (e.g., in the 3fs perfect form, כָּתְבָה /kɔt’əvɔ/ ‘she wrote’) or when it follows a “long” vowel. But the Masoretes were not historical linguists in the sense of modern comparative-historical Semitics. And so, as Joshua Blau notes in his Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew (LSAWS 2; Eisenbrauns 2010),

Since the pronunciation of the Bible text as regards the alternation of an ultra-short vowel and zero largely depended on the reader, and even the same reader would have varied in articulation in accordance with changing circumstances, the presentation of an archetype of the biblical text differentiating the two kinds of šwa was not feasible. Therefore, the Masoretes did the only thing possible: they marked both kinds of šwa with the same sign. (113-14)

Certainly, the other indicator that the shəva may be vocal in כָּתְבָה is that the ב lacks a dagesh, i.e., is spirantized (which implies a vowel sound preceding it). But this is not a perfect indicator, either, since the כ in מַלְכֵי also lacks a dagesh but we never consider the preceding shəva vocal in that word. So Blau suggests that the Masoretic signal that the qameṣ in כָּתְבָה was the use of the meteg, which they used to mark both secondary word stress and that the syllable was open, meaning that any following shəva is vocal.

Now, this is all compelling and may make good sense to those of us who have read large portions of the Hebrew Bible and so can recognize the patterns with a minimum of effort. However, will it make any sense to first-year students?

And this brings me to our second principle behind our presentation of the shəva in the textbook: pedagogy. We had very long conversations on a multitude of issues just like this thorny shəva problem: the two questions we tried to balance were 1) how do we present the grammar and accurately, and 2) how do we present the grammar simply and clearly for beginning students.

In many cases, we freely admit that we present a simplified view of Hebrew grammar because we determined that this is pedagogically justified. We believe that this is acceptable because 1) the students will learn the language more quickly if we do not burden them we cumbersome rules and complex descriptions (we focus on teaching language for use, not grammar for analysis in this textbook), and 2) they will learn the nuances in later years of Hebrew instruction.

We hope this clarifies our choice, as well as perhaps some of the complexities of the shəva.