Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the past few months, I've become more aware of the distinction between the vowels shva na (voiced) and shva nach (unvoiced). (For a good introduction to the concept, read the beginning of this post and this Philologos article.) While there are some words where the proper pronunciation affects the meaning (for example, the word וְיִירְאוּ in Tehilim 67:8), I think in general it is a good idea to improve my reading, particularly in prayer. I have also recently become aware that there are disagreements among the scholars as to the whether a particular shva is na or nach - some of which come in rather important sections of prayer. For example, in the Kriyat Shma, Devarim 6:7, there are those who say that the first bet in וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ has a shva na, others say a shva nach. How do we properly recite this word in the regular prayers? This is an issue I'm still researching; maybe I'll have a post about it in the future.

But while I've only recently become curious about the Hebrew shva, I've been aware of the English cousin "schwa" for many years, ever since I noticed the interesting rotated "e" back in elementary school:

However, until I started this blog, I had never thought about how strange it was that this English word would have been borrowed from Hebrew. How did this happen?

From the Oxford English Dictionary, we see that the word "schwa" entered English in 1895, borrowed from German. But English had other forms of the word for the Hebrew vowel, such as:

  • Like to a silent Hebrew Scheua (1589)
  • the Sheva of the Hebrews (1818)
  • When no vowel is expressed, then as in the Hebrew, a Sheva..will be implied and read accordingly (1837)
There are similar older quotes in French and German.

But the question remains - why would European linguists borrow a Hebrew word? The word shva only shows up in Medieval Hebrew, so it didn't have any of the Biblical sentiment that the Christian scholars might have attached to it. My guess? It was a matter of necessity. Until more recent linguistics, European languages could suffice with the Latin letters for all of their vowels. But when they "found" a vowel that couldn't be represented by any of the existing letters - it was convenient to use a foreign word. And here the Hebrew shva was a perfect fit. I'm still curious to see exactly what Hebrew texts were read by Christian scholars when they discovered the word, but that may be lost to history...

What about the etymology of the Hebrew word shva? The most well-known etymology (as suggested by the OED) is that it comes from the Hebrew שוא shav - "nothing, vanity" (also "lie, falsehood".) However, Klein provides a different source:

borrowed from Syr. שויא (= the seven points), lit.: ‘even’ or ‘equal’ (points) ... related to Hebrew שוה (was even, smooth, or like)
But Ben-Yehuda, while providing the same theory as Klein, does also mention the "nothingness" theory in the name of earlier Hebrew scholars. And I admit, it's what my first guess was...

(Thanks to my new friends at the Discussion Forums, for helping me find some of the sources.)

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