Qametz Qaton

This is the first in a series of articles related to Hebrew Grammar, so I’m going to use it as the “guinea pig” for a number of issues such as testing my ability to get Hebrew characters into this blog.

One of the issues that bedevils not only new students of Hebrew but veterans as well is pronouncing words which contain the Hebrew vowel qametz qaton. The overwhelming majority of instances of the vowel qametz are pronounced a as in father. But a small percentage (less than 10%) are pronounced o as in hole. One well understood example of this is the Hebrew word כָּל which is pronounced kol (to rhyme with hole). This word means all or everything and and is common enough for most people to remember.

The Hebrew word כָּל is not in its most basic state, which for nouns is often termed the absolute state. Take a look at how the word is spelled in the absolute state: כֹּל. So if כָּל is not in the absolute state, what state is it in? The answer to that is the construct state. If you don’t know enough Hebrew grammar to understand this yet, no worries, its not relevant to to this article. If you know a little English or other European language grammar, it might help to know that the Hebrew construct state is similar to what we call the genitive case. But, again, there is no reason to worry about this now. I use the example because the word is so common that if you have had any experience with Biblical or any other period of Hebrew, you have probably seen this word.

The point is this–the absolute state of the word shows its base level pronunciation, and the vowel is clearly o as in hole. When a word is put into the construct state, the effect is to slightly hurry the pronunciation. Theoretically this means that the vowel of כָּל should be pronounced a bit more hurriedly, slightly slurred from the longer כֹּל, but in practice, most Hebrew speakers do not audibly differentiate the two sounds.

You might by this time be wondering what, if anything, is the difference in meaning between כֹּל and כָּל. You can get a better understanding of this in the article explaining construct state (not wrtitten yet–the italics will turn into a link when I write it). For now, all you need to know is that כֹּל means all or each or every (depending on context) while כָּל means all of or each of or every (also depending on context). Some examples should help this along:

  • He created everything בָּרָא אֵת הַכֹּל
  • All of the land כָּל הָאָרֶץ
  • Every person in the country כָּל אָדָם בָּאָרֶץ

(Sorry, I have to figure out how to format colums before the above will look right.)

(Future article: what is the relationship of these vowel signs to other Masoretic systems and pronunciations?)

This illustrates that there is some relationship between the vowel holem and the vowel qametz. Many other examples could be provided. When the vowel qametz is pronounced o as in hole it is referred to as qametz qaton (the small or short qametz). In most books which feature vocalized Hebrew (dictionaries, Bibles, etc) there is no difference in the printing of the qametz regardless of whether the normally pronounced (a as in father) or the o pronunciation. However, especially in prayer books, there has been a gradual movement to identify the qametz qaton by drawing it differently from the ordinary qametz. In the case of the first prayer books typeset in Israel (Siddur Rinat Yisrael) and in several American versions, the qametz qaton is printed with a large descender (a little counter-intuitive givent that it indicates the “small” qametz). I have also seen a few versions that identify the qametz qaton by drawing it as a patah with a dot below. This is an interesting round trip because the original Masoretic sign qametz (any qametz) was exactly that—a patah with point below. This was gradually morphed into the t shaped vowel we are familiar with today. But in case you’re getting lost, the important point (so to speak) here is that what the printers are trying to do is make the qametz qaton stand out so the reader will easily recognize it.

One more point about the pronunciation of the qametz qaton before I proceed to explain the rule. The audible distinction between the ordinary qametz and the qametz qaton has been preserved only in the Sephardic side of the Jewish population. In the Ashkenazi pronunciation, both are the same: aw as in claw. Although I’m not certain of the dating, I believe the decision to use the Sephardic differentiation in Modern (Israeli) Hebrew goes back to Eliezer ben Yehuda and a deliberate effort to de-emphasize Ashkenazi (Eastern European) culture in the Jewish revivalist circles of Turkish, Mandate and post-Mandate Palestine.

At long last it is time to give you the rule so that you will know exactly when to pronounce the qametz as a and when to pronounce it o.

A qametz (אָ) which is contained within a closed, unaccented syllable is regarded (and pronounced) as a qametz qaton.

(printed here with the consonant אָ until I can figure out how to position a qametz below a dash.)

That’s the whole rule. Of course, as they say, “the devil is in the details.” How do you know what is a closed syllable and what is an open syllable, and how do you know whether the syllable is accented or not? For Classical (Biblical and some Rabbinic) Hebrew, some of the guesswork is removed by the full vocalization (both vowel marks and accent marks) of the text. If you are using a fully vocalized text, then the Masoretes indicated every accented syllable. There are a few quirks to their system (better suited for an article on the accentuation system), but by and large you will be able to identify an unaccented syllable by the lack of an accent sign in the syllable.

The notion of closed or open sylables is related to the tendency of Hebrew to have logical syllables formed by either a consonant/vowel (open) or consonant/vowel/consonant (closed). Lets take a look at our previous example: כָּל. This is a monosyllabic word which consists of consonant/vowel/consonant. So it is not just a word, but also a closed syllable. From the rule I stated above, you should conclude that the qametz would be normal and pronounced a as in father. But, in fact, whenever this word is written in the Hebrew Bible (unless it is the word כֹּלwhich we have explained is the same word in the absolute state), it is written with the Masorete’s version of a hyphen, a sign called a maqef. Thus, you will see this type of construction:


The accent, or trope mark, will appear in the word אָדָם and there will be no accent mark in the word כָּל, so by this means you can see that כָּל is a closed, unaccented syllable and the qametz is qaton and pronounced o as in hole.