The sheva of Hebrew is a great little marker. If you are learning Biblical Hebrew, I want to pass along a basic observation that may be helpful in your study of the language.
There is a pattern of sheva usage which I call sheva-glue. When endings are attached to words, the sheva (simple or complex) is often the glue that appears between the two. The following verb chart will illustrate this for the verbs (click on the chart and you’ll be taken to Page Kelley’s Biblical Hebrew, an Introductory Grammar).
Verb endings are attached to words by sheva-glue. When this happens, the sheva serves as a syllable divider. At the same time, the new endings will try to pull the accent to themselves. They don’t always succeed, but it is their tendency to try. Endings attract the accent, and they often require sheva-glue. I will take up these two subjects (starting with sheva-glue).
Words in their lexical form tend to have an empty slot, as it were, under/following their final root letter (that is, they don’t have a vowel under the final letter). Verify this with a lexicon or look through a list of Hebrew words. You’ll notice that most words end in a consonant (i.e., no final vowel under the final consonant). That empty slot under the final consonant is where shevas get placed when endings are added. The empty place-holder is ready to be inhabited when endings come along, and words often get coupled to endings with shevas.
Sometimes, endings join up to words by bringing their own glue with them. That is, they don’t need sheva-glue since they have their own vowels that attach to the root. When this happens, the sheva usually insists on getting its way (or its say) and will show up under the first available letter to the right. Inspect the above verb chart and check it out yourself. The sheva is everywhere present where endings are attached. I am not giving the technical reason for all of this, I am just pointing out a pattern.
The moral of the story: When you add to a word, sheva-glue is how you do it.
This works on the front or back of a word. Attaching to the front of a word is a little tricker because there is not an empty slot waiting for glue. When letters are attached to the front of a verb, there is usually a sheva that glues the prefix in place and that sheva has to sit where there was once a vowel (again, this is not a technical explanation, just a phenomological one). One exception to this is the nif’al imperfect. If you study the above verb chart, these kinds of patterns will reveal themselves to you.
At Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Stephen Andrews teaches a method of verb inspection that he calls Hebrew Detective. Knowing that endings are trying to steal accents and that sheva-glue is a cover-up, the Hebrew Detective is able to work backwards and discover root words. This will best be illustrated by looking at some real crime scenes.
Exception and Example of a Masculine Plural Ending
Take the word for scroll:
When we make it masculine plural, the ending provides its own glue:
Did you see the crime? The ending stole the accent! This is important information. For, if you are to be a Hebrew Detective, you must find these clues. Knowing that the accent has moved, you can see what happened to the rest of the word (namely, its vowels).
In nouns, the syllable right before the accent is what Dr. Andrews calls a privileged position. Couple that with the fact that an open syllable will take a long vowel if it can, and you see why there is a lengthened vowel (qamates) that appeared — lengthening is part of its privilege! As a good detective, you will also know that the syllable that is two away from the accent is a problem position. For that reason, it reduces to a lesser vowel value. In essences, the first letter loses its full-vowel status and loses its right to be its own syllable (it unites with the following letter to join its syllable).
Exception and Example of a Feminine Plural Ending
Eretz is feminine. The accent is on the first syllable. When we add the plural ending we see that it brings its own glue. It has a vowel that it uses to attach to the word. Most important is the fact that the ending changes how the word’s syllables are divvied-up:
The key, then, is that the accent moved and the syllable before the accent is in a privileged position and so the syllable remains open (and open, unaccented syllables like long vowels). That leaves us with the sheva appearing under the first letter.
Hebrew words are made up of syllables. As seen above, for nouns, the syllable before the accent is called a privileged position (and its vowel may lengthen) while the syllable two or more before the accent is called the problem position (and its vowel will shorten). This behavior is evident when additions are made to the end of a noun.
Vowel Reduction in Construct Nouns
Nouns in construct state lose their accent completely. As we saw above, when an accent goes to the end of a word, vowels change. Even more reduction happens when the accent leaves completely. All open syllables will reduce.
For example, the word for queen in its lexical (absolute) singular form is:
Adding the plural ending (which brings its own glue with it):
This plural ending makes the word longer, and so in an attempt to get down to two syllables, the front of the word experiences vowel reduction. The patach becomes a sheva.
This same plural word in construct state will make it so that the accent leaves the word:
In construct state, the loss of the accent causes vowel reduction in all open syllables. However, when that happens, the front syllable has two shevas, and so it restores the first to a patach. Two shevas at the front of a word make for an unpleasant consonant cluster, and a vowel must be provided.
We have seen how sheva can be thought of as a kind of glue. When endings are glued onto words, they can use the sheva or bring their own glue. These same endings will try to attract the accent to themselves. We have seen how a moving accent causes vowel reduction in open syllables.
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