The Definite Article and the Conjunction

Two more aspects of Hebrew that I need to revise the details of: the article and the conjunction. I am embarrassed to say that I had a quick glance at an old first-year Hebrew exam paper the other day, and I got stuck on the question that said something along the lines of  “Add the correct definite article to these words, ensuring that the pointing is correct”.

Both the article and the conjunction are spectacularly easy to spot in Hebrew: the initial ה + daghesh forte for the article and the ו for the conjuction. The conjuction is especially easy. I can’t remember the exact number, but there are only a handful of (rare) words in the OT which begin with a ו. So, if you see a ו on the front of a word – it’s almost definitely the conjuction!

Nevertheless, there are some subtleties regarding the pointing of each which I should know, but don’t!

The Article

The definte article (‘the book’ as opposed to ‘a book’*) is prefixed to the start of nouns, adjectives and participles to make them definite.† As mentioned above the basic form of the article is הַ + a daghesh forte in the first letter of the word. The exceptions are as follows

  • the gutturals א ע and ר cannot take the daghesh forte of the article, and so the patach of the article undergoes compensatory lengthening to give הָ without any daghesh (e.g. הָאִישׁ).
  • the guttural ה and ח undergo virtual doubling. They cannot take the daghesh forte either, but the pretend to do so. Therefore the article stays the same (הַ) but the daghesh goes away on holiday (e.g. הַהֵיכָל).
  • With words beginning with an unaccented עָ or הָ, or a חָ whether accented or not the article changes to הֶ with no daghesh (e.g. הֶחָכָם).
  • Initial יְ and מְ also undergo virtual doubling (e.g. הַיְלָדִים).

* Hebrew doesn’t have an indefinite article. The absence of the definite article does the same job.

† Proper nouns and possessive nouns are also considered definite. This is significant in construct chains. If one noun is definite the whole chain is definite, and yet it is possible for a noun to be definite without the article.

The Conjuction

As with the article, the conjuction has the basic form וְ but undergoes certain changes when placed next to certain letters.

  • before labial consonants (those sounds made with the lips, i.e. בּ, מ, פּ) and before words beginning with a vocal shewa the conjunction changes to a shureq (וּ).
  • before words beginning with a composite shewa, the conjuction takes the corresponding short vowel
  • before monosyllabic and words with stress on the first syllable (segholates), the conjuction is וָ.

3 thoughts on “The Definite Article and the Conjunction

  1. Is the vowel of the definite article affected by a composite shewa under the next consonant? I know that the inseparable prepositions are; that they take the corresponding short vowel. This leads to some confusion in words that begin with a guttural and composite shewa. For instance, how can you tell the difference between “in a dream” and “in the dream”? Because as far as I can tell, the article would be the same in both cases.

    1. Hi Anne, good question! As far as I understand, the presence of a composite shewa does not alter the article pointing, so yes, there is room for morphological ambiguity in certain causes. But the context and discourse features should make clear whether or not the article is present.

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