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 Kamatz Katan (Vocalization mark)

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Kamatz Katan (Vocalization mark)

Kamatz Katan (the Little Kamatz, read as "O" in modern Hebrew) is one of the first confusions every Hebrew student is facing. Why, for God's sake, it's the same sign as Kamatz Gadol (the Big Kamatz, read as "A")? How is the reader supposed to distinguish between them? Can I just learn all the "exceptions" with Kamatz Katan?


Have to mention, in Ashkenazi tradition (well, as far as I know) any Kamatz is being read as an "O" sound: שַׁבָּת [shabos], שָׁלוֹם [sholom],  חָכְמָה [chokhmo], הָאָרֶץ [ho-oretz].

The explanation usually given is that "probably" the two sounds were too close, or maybe the two sounds were allophonic or maybe the difference between them was found only in some Hebrew dialects. What we know for sure, is that Ashkenazi tradition was based on so called Masoretic or Tiberian vocalization (used today in all Jewish communities), which does not distinguish between Kamatz Gadol and Kamatz Katan, i.e., the graphical sign is the same for both sounds. At the same time Sephardic pronunciation was based on so called Palestinian vocalization system, which is distinguishing between the Kmatzhim. Now, modern Israeli pronunciation is synthetic, while some phonemes are following Ashkenazic tradition, but Kamatz Katan in particular is following Sephardic pronunciation.

How to distinguish?

To distinguish between the two sounds, there is a common rule:

A Kamatz is Kamatz Katan if the syllable is unstressed and closed.

Here is the most common example, the word חָכְמָה [khokhma] (wisdom). The stress falls on the last syllable (which is normal situation in Hebrew), while the first syllable stays unstressed and closed.

If you know how the syllables work in Hebrew morphology, or if all the texts you read have syllable accents marked, then just the statement in the frame will be sufficient for you to never confuse between the two Kmatzim.

Can I just learn all the "exceptions"?

Some good news for those who's only learning the modern Hebrew. Here is a list of "exceptions", or the words with Kamatz Katan, which you will find in everyday use. Which is even better, modern Hebrew uses Ktiv Maleh everywhere (meaning: writing without vocalization, but using a lot of Vavs and Yods). Therefor, those words will be written in most cases with a Vav for the "O" sound:

כָּל - most oftenly is written just this way: כל דבר, כל אדם, כל אחד, but זה הכול

חָכְמָה (wisdom) written without vocalization as either חוכמה or חכמה

תָּכְנָה (software) written without vocalization as either תוכנה or תכנה

תָּכְנִית (program, plan) written without vocalization as either  תוכנית or  תכנית

תָּכְנִיתָן (programmer) is usually written as תוכניתן

תִּקְשָׁרְתִּי (of media, media's) without vocalization is almost always written as תקשורתי -- from תקשורת (media)

חָפְשִׁי (free) without vocalization is almost always written as חופשי -- from חופש (freedom, vacation)

פָּתְחָן (opener) as this is a totally new word, in non-vocalized form it's always written with the Vav

You may find more words similar to חופשי and תקשורתי, but again, if you see it written in modern (non-vocalized) Hebrew in the media and modern books, most probably you'll find the Vav there.

Some people argue that you can't really speak of Kamatz Katan in all those words, since vocalization is so rarely used in modern Hebrew, that the words should be considered as only written in non-vocalized form: תוכנה, תוכנית, תוכניתן

Kamatz in combination with Khataf-Kamatz (ֳ) is always Khataf-Kamatz:

מָעֳבָר   [mo`ovar]   --  "transferred"  - as well as all the Hophal verbs in all three tenses: הָעֳבָר,מָעֳבָר  , תָּעֳבָר.

Also, here are two common words:

צָהֳרַיִם  [tzohorayim]  --  "noon"

מָחֳרָת  [mokhorat]  --  "the next day" (compare with מָחָר - "tomorrow")

מָחֳרָתַיִם  [mokhoratayim]  --  "day after tomorrow"

Again, you'll probably find מעבר written as מועבר, but there might be confusion with מחרת, צהרים, and מחרתים, which are almost always written without the Vav. So, you might add it to your list of "exceptions", it has Kamatz Katan and It's [tzohorayim] not [tzaharayim].

One real exception is the word שָרָשים, where the first Kamatz is Katan: [shorashim]. No rule, just because. Again, in Ktiv Maleh it's written as שורשים.


Classic Hebrew (Torah reading)

Unfortunately, there are no real "exceptions" in ancient Hebrew. The differences between Kamatz Gadol and Kamatz Katan solely depend on Kamatz' position in the word (which speaks to the benefit of "allophonic" explanation.) With the time you might learn to recognize the "patterns", which will ease your work; but still some hard work is required.

Let's see the real cases, where Kamatz Katan is coming from.


1. Before Khataf-Kamatz:

Like we said before, kamatz before a guttural with Khataf-Kamatz regardless of grammatic constructs and syllable stress:

בָּאֳנִיָּה, פָּעֳלוֹ.

With the Khataf-Kamatz you can't be wrong: the preceding Kamatz is Katan. Period.

2. Verbs

There are two forms commonly found in the Scriptures, although almost not used today:

לְשָבְרָה, בְּעָבְדוֹ, בְּשָמְרוֹ etc - you can rarely find this construct this in modern Hebrew text; however, in the Scriptures it's everywhere. You could figure it out if you "catch" how the word breaks into syllables.

וַיָּקָם, וַיָּגָר and similar - this form simply does not exist in modern language; however, it's found all over the place in Torah. The accent in this is shifted to the syllable before the last, and thus the last syllable becomes unstressed: [va-yaqom], [va-yagor].

Also, it might appear in compoind words: אַל-תִּזְכָּר-לָנוּ  and similar combinations. When two or more words are connected with makaf (the dash sign), then from syllable accent perspective they are considered one word. The accent is on the last word always, and therefore the Kamatz is Kamatz Katan: [ al-tizkor-lanu ].

3. Most common case

Kamatz Katan is derived from a Holam as a result of noun transformation

  • in Segolate nouns
  • in nouns with a Segolate ending
  • even
    for words with a "theoretical" Segolate basis

Note, that the accent is shifted from its "Segolate" position on the syllable before the last -- to the last syllable:

חֹדֶשׁ   [khodesh] -> חָדְשׁוֹ   [khodshо]  "his month"

כֹּתֶל   [kotel] -> כָּתְלוֹ    [kotlo]  (his Wall)

כְּתֹבֶת   [ktovet] -> כְּתָבְתָּם   [ktovtam]  (their address) - not sure this word is found in Torah though... :)

תִּלְבֹּשֶׁת   [tilboshet] -> תִּלְבָּשְׁתָּהּ   [tilboshtah] (her dress)

The last two words are called Pseudo-Segolate, because their ending is similar to Segolate nouns.

Speaking of Segolate and Kamatz Katan, here is a good example. In modern Hebrew the word תָּכְנָה [tokhna] ("software") derived from the word תֹּכֶן [tokhen] ("content") - here we can see both masculinum and femininum form of the Segolate noun (both basic words, no "permutations", no "declension", no tricks), when the Kholam Khaser becomes Kamatz Katan.

The word חָכְמָה ("wisdom") belongs here too, as it's structured exactly like תָּכְנָה.

The words we've mentioned before, which are derived from either Segolate or Pseudo-Segolate:


You probably can notice, that the words we've mentioned early above like חָפְשי and תקשָרְתי are structured in the same way; and they are also derived from חׂפֶש and תִּקְשֹׁרֶת, while both word models have Kamatz Katan.

And the last but not the least, the wordsחָרבָּן (destruction) andקָרבָּן (sacrifice, victim) which do not really have the Segolate base as a separate word existing in the language (or at least, not known to me).

Another word with a non-standard declension (which I'm aware of):

Root:  רנן   =>   the word "singing": רֹן  [ron]  =>  "his singing": רָנּוֹ [rono]

 !  And here is a little exercise for you: try to explain case 3 (Segolate etc) using the "unstressed and closed syllable" rule. Learn to intuitively recognize this case.


Hope it helps.

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