What Are All These Dots, Then? Part 3. Originally Published February 21-22, 2020.

Schwa Picture

Well.  We have pierced enough letters with dagesh kal and hazak.  But we still see dots before our eyes!  Last week we mentioned the schwa.  As Mrs. Gallagher taught us in fourth grade and our parents before us, a schwa is written thus:  ǝ.  Did she know that the original word is שְׁוָא which derives from a root meaning “nothingness”?  We wonder.

Remember we discussed “closed” and “open” syllables?  “Hotdog” has two closed syllables, though not a Hebrew word.  Closed Hebrew syllables, if not accentuated, nearly always contain short vowels.  Open syllables generally have long vowels, unless accentuated.  Mull on that while you consider the schwa.  One is right there, under the in “שְׁוָא” — more  dots!  A schwa is sometimes referred to as a half-vowel, sitting there looking like a colon underneath a letter.  The lesson books say we should think of how we pronounce the first “a” in “banana” or the “o” in “police” (unless dialectically otherwise prescribed).  Sometimes a schwa has friends, giving a flavor to the tiny half-vowel it represents, thus:


Schwa Chart

Sometimes the schwa is not enunciated, as in the word נִקְטֹל; it closes the syllable.  If it occurs under the first consonant of a syllable, it is sounded, as in מְזוּזָה.  If two occur together, the first generally is silent while the second is sounded:  יִשְׁמְרוּ “yishmǝru.”  Occasionally there are two together at the end of a word, as in וַיֵּבְךְּ, recalling Andrew’s bar mitzvah portion a couple months ago.  If two happen at the beginning of a word, especially where a preposition has been added, the schwa converts, as in לִבְרָכָה rather than לְבְרָכָה.  Four of the guttural letters take composite (also called augmented) schwa (with flavors added):     א ה ח ע .   The א seems to prefer אֱ but the others have no preference.

Your dotty correspondent notes that khaf sofit and kaf sofit ך ךּ seem always to need a vowel (we have yet to learn why), whereas other “final” letters do not need one, but some may have one (such as וַתֵּצֶאןָ from the Torah portion Beshallah, in which we also note that the א has no vowel).   There is so much yet to learn.