The cart before the horse

Randall Buth ButhFam at
Mon Jan 7 04:32:39 EST 2002

shalom Hevre

A question came in this week that illustrates an important point for our
It gets to the heart of the matter about how a person will learn Biblical 

>When the vowel sign for (Qames or Qames-Hatuph) is right before a >sheva ,
how does one know if the vowel is a Qames or Qames-Hatuph? 
>Also please list some extra rules if they apply.<

I assume that Yosef (the questioner) is asking about the difference between
words like 
  kot-va "her writing" (as e.g., vayhi bexotva 'now after she wrote ...')
  ka-t-va "she wrote". (as e.g. ha-isha katva 'the women wrote')

One can give an answer in English, but that answer will mask a deeper, 
more basic problem. 

The question shows that he is trying to learn Hebrew by building up a 
strong "monitor", to use terminology from Stephen Krashen's Natural 
Language Approach. Eventually he will build a strong enough monitor to 
answer his questions, but in the meantime he may have imprisoned himself 
from ever learning the language ('acquiring the language',  in terminology
from linguistics, i.e., internalizing the language.) After 300 to 600 study

hours (typical for 1 and 2-year Biblical Hebrew programs) will he be able 
to listen to a Biblical narrative at normal conversational speed and follow

along or will it be a blur? How about after ten years of working with
Hebrew in a rule-and-reading oriented approach? The old joke is still 
sometimes true that many Semitists know German better than Hebrew. I've 
met many who could speak and think in German, but not in the language of
their study, even when spoken to in pure 'biblical Hebrew'. May the day
come when this is not true. 

The above is an illustration of what I would call "the cart before the
Our field may need to recognize that we may be doing our students a 
grave disservice in the way that we teach Hebrew. "Monitors" are good and 
certainly necessary, when they monitor an otherwise fluent control of the 
language, but they are not the main or best vehicle for really learning any

language. (At least, personal experience has taught me that in every
that I have learned to speak as an adult.)

braxot leshana tova

Randall Buth, PhD
Director, Biblical Language Center
and Lecturer, Biblical Hebrew
Rothberg International School
Hebrew University

PS: the English answer to the question is first, "you need to know the 
forms so well that you would pronounce them correctly without the 
vowels". Secondly, in some manuscripts in some places, the form 
ka-t-va has a little ga`ya mark after the first qamats to mark its long, 
open-vowel status. Unfortunately, one cannot depend on those marks 
being used in a texts. Historically, of course, there was no problem 
since Tiverian qamats seems to have been pronounced close to "au" (as in 
"aw, shucks") whether in a closed, un-accented syllable, or not. Our
standard pronunications are based on the older "sefardi" system, where 
a transfer rule is taught to explain how to divide up qamats from the 
Tiverian 7-8 vowel system into the sefardi/QimHian 5-vowel system. 

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list