A friendly reminder – The Shewa

The shewa (סְ) – those two vertical dots under the consonants – come in 2 varieties, though they will look alike.

Characteristics

  1. Silent Shewa
    • Usually preceded by a short vowel: מַלְכִּי
      • The shewa under the lamed is silent because it follows a short vowel, the patah
    • Never falls on the first letter of a word!
    • Will be found on the last letter of a word: מֶלֶךְ
      • The shewa in the final kaf is silent because it is at the end of a word.
  2. Vocal Shewa
    • Usually preceded by a long vowel: קֹטְלִים
      • The shewa under the tet is vocal because it is preceded by the long holem.
    • Will fall on the first letter of a word: דְּבָרִים
    • Will not fall on the last letter of a word.

Special Considerations

  1. What about words that have two shewas in the middle of a word, like תִּקְטְלוּ?
    • In this situation the shewa on the right is always silent.
      • Notice the short hireq preceding the shewa under the qof.
    • The shewa on the left is always vocal.
  2. What if a consonant has a dagesh and a shewa, like קִטְּלוּ?
    • In situations like this, because of the dagesh, the shewa is vocal.
    • But there is a short vowel preceding the shewa!
      • Yes, but because of the dagesh, the shewa is vocal.
  3. What if a word ends with two shewas, like קָטַלְתְּ?
    • A word can end with 2 silent shewas.
    • If you see this, the two shewas are always silent.
  4. Sometimes I see shewas with vowels next to them, like עֱ עֳ עֲ :
    • These are called composite shewas.
    • They are another type of vocal shewa.
    • They are primarily found under guttural letters.
      • See my post on Guttural letters under the Hebrew 101 link.
    • Don’t think of these as a vowel + shewa!
      • NO!  These are vocal shewas, pure and simple.

Pronunciation

A shewa is essentially the absence of a vowel.

  1. Silent Shewa – the absence of sound.  When pronouncing a word with a silent shewa, the sound stops when you hit the silent shewa.  Take for example the variant spelling of my last name McDonald:
    • MacDonald: when you pronounce this word, the sound stops on the ‘c’ and then picks up again with the ‘D’
      • Mac | Donald
    • In Hebrew: תִקְטֹל
      • tiq | tōl
  2. Vocal Shewa – a very quick sound.  When pronouncing a word with a vocal shewa, the sound is made quickly as you move from one syllable to the next.
    • In English, the ‘e’ in the word ‘because’ is quickly pronounced as you move from the ‘b’ to the ‘c.’
    • Also in English, the ‘o’ in ‘police’ is almost non-existent when we pronounce it: pǝlice
    • In Hebrew: קֹטְלִים
      • qōtǝlīm

References:

  • Fuller and Choi, Invitation to Biblical Hebrew, ch. 3.
  • Gesenius-Katuzsch, §10.
  • Joüon-Muraoka, §8.

Published by Richard C. McDonald

I am married to Nancy McDonald and we have two boys, Noah and Stephen. I am a high school history teacher at Whitefield Academy in Louisville, KY. I am also an adjunct instructor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. I am a fan of LSU, and college football in general. My family and I are members at Sojourn Church-JTown in Louisville, KY.

5 thoughts on “A friendly reminder – The Shewa

  1. The following words have a silent Shewa and I understand that one of the reasons is because the preceding vowel is a short vowel:

    אַלְמֻגִּים
    אַלְמֹן

    On the other hand, the following word has a vocal Shewa and I do not know why:

    אַלְלַי

    Your article was very helpful to me. For instance, the dagesh and the Shewa.

    Like

    1. It’s possible that the lamed with the shewa is implying a dagesh forte, which would make the shewa vocal. Certain letters, and lamed is one of them, that have a dagesh forte and a vocal shewa may omit the dagesh. That could be the case here.

      Like

      1. Dear Richard,

        First of all, thanks for your Website and for your support! I think I found the answer to my question regarding אַלְלַי and why it has a vocal or mobile Shewa. I found it under Joüon, P., & Muraoka, T. (2006). A grammar of biblical Hebrew (pp. 48–49). Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico. Under the main Shewa section, the authors give the “Five rules formulated by Elias Levita (15th c.) for identifying a shva mobile.” For my question, we are particularly interested in the 5th rule:
        5) “Under the first of two identical consonants, e.g. רוֹמְמוּ.”
        Another example would be the one I provided, אַלְלַי.

        Very best wishes from Chile, Gregorio Billikopf

        Like

  2. I couldn’t find a condition like- if a composite shewa precedes the simple shewa which occurs together in the beginning of the syllable what would be the condition? Or how do we change this composite shewa with respect to simple Shewa…?

    Like

    1. Good question! A syllable can’t begin with 2 shewas, even if it was a composite followed by a simple shewa. If a syllable begins with a composite shewa followed by a simple shewa, there would be a “shewa fight.” The composite shewa would then go to a patah.

      Like

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