Why do we sing “OH-zee v’zimrat ya”? What is that vowel, anyway? Originally published March 16-17, 2018

Last week’s column sparked questions about Hebrew vowels, especially about the vowel that looks like a tiny “T” and is pronounced by many Conservative Jews as “ah” and by many Orthodox Jews as “oo” as in “look” or “u” as in “put” (in the International Phonetic Alphabet it is ʊ).

Called a kamatz, it turns out there are two (or more) forms of that vowel:  a kamatz katan and a kamatz gadolKamatz gadol is the one we see most often, and we pronounce it “ah,” as mentioned above.  Counter-intuitively, the kamats katan is the larger of the two, is more rare, and is pronounced “o,” as in “toe.”  Take a look below at the Ma Tovu.  Both underlined words are pronounced the same:

In some printing, the kamatz katan is printed longer as it is here, from the Siddur Lev Shalem.  In some, the horizontal line is separated from the bottom (Siddur Sim Shalom, for instance).

Most permutations of the word כּל have a kamatz katan:  “coal.”

And that is why, in Shirat Hayam (p. 143) and in Hallel (p. 320), we sing “OH-zee v’zimrat ya.”