Home ] Up ]

All schwas were vocal


The Masoretes worked to accurately preserve the synchronic phonetics. They created plenty of signs to mark minute differences in articulation. If the two types of schwa were pronounced differently, Masoretes would have denoted them with different signs. At the Masoretes’ time, all schwas were pronounced similarly.

What was that sound? The Masoretes marked absence of dagesh with rofeh, and, theoretically, they could have denoted absence of sound with schwa. The attested phenomenon of vocal schwa argues against that scenario: vocalization of silent schwa is unlikely. On the contrary, even vocal schwa tends to lose its sound.

The Masoretes also differentiated schwa from the shortest vowels, like segol and hatefs. Specifically, hatefs cover all range of the very short vowels. That Masoretes differentiated schwa from hatefs suggests that the schwa was not a vowel.

The schwa was plausibly pronounced as apostrophe or [u]. Earlier, schwas were more distinct (Rebekkah, Esebon in the LXX).

All Hebrew words had CV structure. Each consonant is followed by vowel or the trace of vowel’s reduction, schwa. All schwas are reduced vowels. Only long [a]-based vowels are reduced to schwa: kamatz, tzere (ae), and holam (au).

Pre-tonic schwas lose their sound to accented vowel, and become silent (hit’lA.bbesh – hitlA.bbesh).[1] Pro-pre-tonic schwas do not lose their sound to faraway accented vowel, and long remained vocal. Germanized pronunciation, accustomed to consonantal clusters in unaccented syllables, made pro-pre-tonic schwas silent (d’varO - dvarO). The schwas semi-stressed for syntactical reasons (b(E)milOn), remained vocal. Schwas also remained vocal to avoid unpleasant clusters: Jetro – Iothor, Calneh – Halanni.

Pre-tonic schwa in 2fs FT (tict’vi) remained vocal to avoid long cluster (*tictvi). Pre-tonic position being unnatural for vocal schwa, its sound practically elongated into full vowel (tictevi).

The epenthesis (h’t’labesh – hitlabesh; c’t’vei – citvei; n’c’tev – nictav) appropriated the second schwa’s breath for hirek, and additionally silenced the schwas.

The schwa under final tav in 2fs verb suffix might be a reduction of the unstressed final vowel a (catAvta – catavt’). That schwa might be added specifically for chanting because the tav-cluster (catavt) is impossible to sing.

The schwa under khaf final might reflect an epenthetic sound. The five sophit consonants are written differently because they sounded differently from their non-final counterparts. By the time of the Masoretes, only khaf sophit retained that peculiar pronunciation [c’].

Vocal schwa after prepositions is distinct for the syntactical reason. Vocal schwa clearly distinguishes preposition from the word.


Every non-final consonant is followed by vowel or schwa. All schwas were vocal. Pre-tonic schwas became silent.


[1] Accented syllables pull the adjacent consonants, and squeeze the pre-tonic schwa, hit’lA-besh.