Before anyone can answer this question, you need to ask yourself: Why do you need to know?
If the answer is that you just need a way to pronounce the words for yourself
, then I recommend going with the basic principle of Modern Hebrew, which is that you don't pronounce it unless the word would be difficult to pronounce without it (the actual rules of how it's pronounced in Modern Hebrew are more complicated, but that's OK if you're not actually learning Modern Hebrew).
If the answer is that you want to pronounce the words the way the Tiberian Masoretes pronounced them
, then you're out of luck, because we don't really know much about how they actually
pronounced them. If you want to know more about how much we don't know, I recommend Joel Hoffman's In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language
If the answer is that you want to better understand Hebrew morphology
, then we need to forget about the two issues of how you should
pronounce them and how they were actually
pronounced, and then we can continue on to answer your real question:
Firstly, there are actually three types of שוא shva
- שוא נע shva na: literally "mobile shva", because it "moves" from being a full vowel to being a shva (this is the one that most people would say is "vocal", but we don't care about this because we've forgotten about the issue of how it was actually pronounced)
- שוא נח shva nach: literally "resting shva", because it doesn't "move", but is always a shva (this is the one most people would say is "silent", but we don't care about this because we've forgotten about the issue of how it was actually pronounced)
- שוא מרחף shva merachef: literally "floating shva", because it has some properties of each of the other two above (this is the one that all the debate is about, but again we don't care about this because we've forgotten about the issue of how it was actually pronounced)
An important thing to remember is that identifying the types of shva can require putting together bits and pieces of knowledge of the phonology, morphology, lexicon, and historical development of Hebrew, and that isn't always enough; sometimes you just have to recognize that it cannot be determined. This is why there is no definitive explanation.
Also keep in mind that all these rules have exceptions.
Now, we can get into the properties of these types of shva and some ways you can identify them. To make things easier, in transliterations I will indicate the shva na
with a schwa character (ə), the shva merachef
with a superscript schwa (ᵊ), and the shva nach
with nothing (but please don't take this to mean anything about the things we've forgotten about
- The shva na and the shva merachef both result from the reduction of a short vowel in an open syllable, but in slightly different ways. Basically at some point in the history of Hebrew, all short vowels in open syllables were either lengthened or reduced (or dropped in final position). In the simple case, the reduction results in a shva na:
But when there are two short-open syllables in a row and the first one is supposed to be reduced, if the second one is lengthened, the first one is reduced as usual to a shva na, but if the second one is reduced, it closes the first syllable, blocking it from reduction, and so the first vowel remains short, while the second one becomes a shva merachef:
- מָקוֹם ("place"): māqōm < *maqōm(i)
- מְקוֹמוֹת ("places"): məqōmōṯ < *maqōmōt(i)
- מְלָכִים ("kings"): məlāḵīm < *malakīm(a)1
- מַלְכֵי ("kings of"): malᵊḵē < *malakay1
- The shva nach is found between consonants in a consonant cluster where there never was a vowel to begin with. However, when the consonant cluster formerly occurred at the end of a word, it is broken up by the insertion of a vowel (these words are often called segolates, because this vowel is usually a segol, depending on the consonants involved). This vowel is never stressed, and reverts back to a shva nach when a suffix is added to the word:
- מֶלֶךְ2 ("king"): méleḵ < *malk(i)1
- מַלְכִּי ("my king"): malkī < *malkī1
- After shva na and shva merachef, these letters are fricatievs (there is no dagesh qal), because there used to be a vowel there (see the examples in the previous section).
- After shva nach, these letters are plosives (there is a dagesh qal), because there never was a vowel there (see the examples in the previous section).
- A shva na does not close the preceding syllable. It can be counted either as its own syllable or as part of the next syllable (take your pick, it really makes no difference):
- אָכְלָה3 ("she ate"): ʾāḵəlā < *ʾakalat, syllabification: ʾā-ḵə-lā or ʾā-ḵəlā
- A shva nach or a shva merachef closes the preceding syllable:
- אָכְלָה3 ("eat!"): ʾoḵᵊlā < *ʾukula, syllabification: ʾoḵᵊ-lā
- אָכְלָה3 ("food"): ʾoḵlā < *ʾuklat(i), syllabification: ʾoḵ-lā
- A shva na cannot occur before another shva, because the original vowel would not have been reduced in the first place (see the rules in the "Background" section above). It is the only shva that can occur at the beginning of a word, after a dagesh chazaq, or after another shva (and this other shva can only be a shva nach):
- דַּבְּרוּ ("speak!"): dabbərū < *dabbirū
- אִשְׁתְּךָ ("your wife"): ʾištəḵā < *ʾištika
- שְׁמִי ("my name"): šəmī < *šimī
- A shva merachef can only occur after a short vowel.
- לִשְׁמִי ("to my name"): lišᵊmī < *lišimī
- A shva nach can only occur after a short vowel, or after a lengthened vowel in a stressed syllable:
- קֵדְמָה ("eastward"): qḗḏmā < *qidma
- A shva na or a shva merachef cannot occur under a guttural, because it would always be replaced with a chataf vowel:
- בָּעֲלוּ ("they had dominion over"): bāʿălū < *baʿalū (would have been a shva na)
- בַּעֲלֵי ("masters of"): baʿălē < *baʿalay (would have been a shva merachef)
- A shva nach under a guttural can sometimes become a chataf vowel, but can also remain a shva nach; therefore, a shva under a guttural is always a shva nach:
- בַּעְלִי ("my husband"): baʿlī < *baʿlī
- נַעֲרִי ("my boy"): naʿărī < *naʿrī (would have been a shva nach)
Many naive authors of Hebrew grammars will have you believe that the meteg indicates a long vowel. This is simply not true (there are many cases where a meteg occurs on a short vowel, even on qamatz qatan
). A meteg really indicates secondary stress. The rules for secondary stress are beyond my understand. But there is one rule I'm particularly sure of:
- Secondary stress usually never occurs on a short vowel that is followed by a shva nach or shva merachef:
- וַיִּרְא֤וּ (Genesis 6:2, "and they saw", no meteg): wayyirʾū < *wayyirʾ(ay)ū
- Thus, usually if a vowel has a meteg and is followed by shva, then the shva is a shva na, and the vowel is long:
- וַיִּֽרְא֣וּ (Joshua 4:14, "and they saw", meteg under chiriq): wayyīrəʾū < *wayyīraʾū
- Remember that the vowels qamatz, chiriq, and shuruq/qubutz are all ambiguous. Qamatz can represent short o or long ā, chiriq can represent short i or long ī, and shuruq and qubutz can each represent either short u or long ū. This meteg rule can sometimes be the only way to distinguish them, as in the examples above.
A note about final shvas:
- Sometimes a word ends in a consonant cluster or geminated consonant. This occurs when a final short vowel was reduced or dropped after the time that vowels had already been inserted into final consonant clusters. This typically occurs with the second-person feminine pronoun and singular suffix-conjugation endings, as well in the jussive and vav-consecutive prefix-conjugation forms of verbs with final radical y or w. A shva is written under the last letter in these cases:
Most authors treat this final shva as silent, but it is conceivable that it was meant to be pronounced. I would say you can choose to treat it as either shva nach or shva na, or just give it its own category.
- אָמַרְתְּ ("you said"): ʾāmart(ə?) < *ʾamarti
- וַיֵּשְׁתְּ ("and he drank"): wayyēšt(ə?) < *wayyišti
- In a special case of this, with the root ראה, the א is elided in the final consonant cluster:
It is even less clear how exactly to interpret this because of the additional question of whether the glottal stop is meant to be pronounced.
- וַיַּרְא ("and he saw"): wayyar(ə?)(ʾ?) < *wayyirʾa
- שְׁתַּיִם ("two") < *šintaym(i): This can be interpreted as either štáyim, šətáyim, or šəttáyim. Each makes sense in its own way, and each breaks unbreakable rules.
- וֶהְיֵה ("and be"): The shva here either breaks the guttural rule, or the chataf segol that would have been a shva na irregularly turns into a shva nach. Then when you take into account that this is (always?) spelled with a meteg under the segol, you may end up thinking the ה was dropped. Who knows really.
There is probably a lot more I could say, but my brain is all dried out thinking about this.
- Segolate nouns like מלך actually have different stems in the singular and in the plural, the singular stem having been originally *malk- and the plural stem having been originally *malak-. This is why the plural is מְלָכִים məlāḵīm rather than מַלְכִּים malkīm.
- A shva is always written on the final letter ך when it has no vowel. This shva should probably be ignored completely, being just an orthographic quirk of this particular letter, while other letters in this position would not have a shva (compare also the squiggle in the final form of the equivalent Arabic letter ك). But it is also possible that in the pronunciation of the Tiberian Masoretes, final ך was always followed by some sort of vowel sound.
- These three words have the exact same vocalization. The only way to tell them apart is to know what they are. This is one of the reasons there are no definitive rules for identifying shvas.