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The Gems of Gemination

Whether you call it Shabbat, Shabbos, Shubbis, or Sabbath (more on that last one in upcoming columns), chances are you spell it with two b's. Why? Why is it that certain words, such as Sabbath, tefillah, tallit, siddur, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah are normally written the way they have been written here, with a doubled letter? The answer to this is a broad linguistic phenomenon that occurrs across hundreds of languages, known as gemination.

Gemination, simply stated in linguistic terms, is the doubling of a consonant. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Griphook the Goblin says that the objects in the Lestranges’ vault have a "gemino" spell placed upon them, causing the objects to multiply. In Latin, “gemino” (which comes from geminus) is an adjective meaning “twin”—the plural is “gemini”—out of which we derive the English word “gemination.” (As it happens, nearly all of the spells and many of the names in Rowling's popular heptalogy come from Latin and Greek. A notable exception is Avada Kedavra—the Killing Curse—which possibly originates from Aramaic אבדא כדברא, meaning "I destroy as I speak".)

In order to better understand the concept of gemination as it pertains to Hebrew, let’s first give some general and much-needed background information:

Words in the Hebrew language are composed mainly of consonants and vowels (including half-vowels—more on that later). Consonants can be any letter of the alphabet; vowels are the little dots and lines that tell us whether to add the sound of a, i, e, o, u, etc to a particular consonant. Together, consonants and vowels create syllables, which in turn create words.

If a consonant does not have a vowel associated with it, two vertical dots known as a שווא נח (silent or quiescent sh’va) are placed underneath it, indicating that the consonant stands alone. For example, יִלְמַד and שֻׁלְחָן both have two vertical dots underneath the respective second consonant to indicate that the sound is not “la” or “li” or “loo”, etc., but rather, just “l”.

By convention, we do not ordinarily place these two dots under a vowelless consonant which concludes a word. However, what the dots represent—i.e. that the consonant has no vowel associated with it—also holds true at the end of words. To clarify, the words שָׁלוֹם and כֶּלֶב can be written שָׁלוֹםְ and כֶּלֶבְ, respectively (and would still sound the same); we just don’t do it.

Slightly complicating matters is the fact that the aforementioned two vertical dots can actually indicate a half-vowel associated with a given consonant, known as a שווא נע (mobile sh’va). For now, suffice it to say that a שווא underneath the first letter of the word is נע, i.e., representing a half-vowel, prononuced by most of us as a quick “eh” or “ih”, as in מְלַמֵּד or שְׁמַע.

And now we arrive at gemination.

In Hebrew, this notion of doubling a consonant is expressed by a particular dot in a letter, known as a דגש חזק. To illustrate, the primary difference between יָמִים and יַמִּים is that the latter has three מ’s in it—the first מ, the one implied by the dot in this מ, and the last מ—while the former only has two. (The former means “days” and the latter means “oceans” or “seas”.) The first word, then, is read יָ – מִים and the second is read יַמְ – מִים, with a שווא נח underneath the first מ. When pronouncing the word as one unit and not as two separate ones (yam, mim) we find that the מ sound is slightly prolonged, indicating the two מ’s actually present. Think of an enthusiastic person exclaiming “Amazing!” and note how the “m” in that word quite often is stretched out. Similarly, if you listen to a Muslim saying “Allahu Akbar”, you will hear the “l” of “Allahu” stretched out momentarily. Once again, this is gemination at work; whatever letter has the dot should sound as if there were another identical letter next to it.

There are several reasons as to why gemination takes place. Often, it is there to compensate for a previous, identical letter that went missing. For example, the word מְגִלָּה has a דגש חזק in the lamed, because the root of that word is ג.ל.ל., and the dot in the ל tells you that there is another, unseen ל within the word. Other examples include תְּפִלִּין and תְּפִלָּה (root is פ.ל.ל.), סֻכָּה (ס.כ.כ.), חִצִּים (ח.צ.צ.) and חֻקִּים (ח.ק.ק.).

(If you have read La Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, you can liken this image to that of the first image drawn by the narrator: a picture which looks like a hat but is actually a boa constrictor that swallows an elephant whole; it is as if the unwritten letter is swallowed by the following letter, and rests in the belly of the swallowing letter in the form of a דגש. If you did not understand any of this, that’s okay; I still recommend you read La Petit Prince.)

Not always, though, is the missing letter the same as the one with the דגש חזק. Frequently, it is a completely different letter that gets assimilated into the dotted letter, i.e., the sound of the dropped letter becomes the same as the sound of the following—now dotted—letter. The letter נ, in particular, is susceptible to assimilation when it has no vowel associated with it. Words like הַצָּלָה, “the act of saving” and הַפָּלָה, “miscarriage”, have a דגש חזק in the צ and פ, respectively, because the first root-letter of each of those words is a נ.

This process of assimilation and consequent gemination is found in English, as well. Take the word “fallible” and negate it. “Infallible”, great. Now take the word “legal” and negate it. “Inlegal,” right? What about the antonym of regular? Is it “inregular”? The words that we know, “illegal” and “irregular,” are merely English equivalents of a דגש חזק, assimilating the “n” of the prefix “in-“ into the following letter, thereby doubling it. There is also a concept of partial assimilation, where the letter “n” changes to another letter, most often an “m”, i.e., “inmeasureable” becoming “immeasureable.”

(Note: there are many factors that decide whether or not a letter will be assimilated into the next. For example, there are different classes of English prefixes, each of which behaves differently: inregular becomes irregular, but unreal does not become urreal. )

Sometimes, the opposite holds true, and a letter undergoes degemination, meaning the removal of a דגש from a letter. Let’s take the Hebrew word בַּת, meaning daughter. The plural of the word is בָּנוֹת, indicating that there should be a נ somewhere in בַּת. However, there is nothing in the ת that indicates as such. Why is that?

To answer, we need to turn to Arabic.

In Arabic, the word for “girl” or “daughter” is بنت (“bint”). It is, as you may have guessed, related to Hebrew “בַּת,” but how? The answer lies in degemination, the removal of a דגש חזק from a letter. The Hebrew form should have been similar to its Arabic counterpart, but the former favored the assimilation of the נ into the following ת, resulting first in a structure such as “בַּתּ,” and followed by a degemination resulting in the word we know –  בַּת. This same phenomenon can be observed in the aforementioned words חִצִּים (whose שורש is ח.צ.צ.) is and חֻקִּים (whose שורש is ח.ק.ק.). The singular forms should be חִץּ and חֻקּ, but Hebrew’s reluctance to have a דגש in final, vowelless consonants renders the actual forms חֵץ and חֹק, respectively.

(The reason for the vowel-changes is due to a process called “compensatory lengthening”, whereby the loss of the דגש is “compensated” by a short vowel’s changing into a long vowel. Also, incidentally, the reason for the “i” vowel changing into an “a” vowel is due to a separate phenomenon known as Philipi’s Law, which states that under certain circumstances “I”  will change to “a” in closed, stressed syllables. The same phenomenon can be seen in the word גַּת, meaning “wine-press” as compared to גִּתִּי, “my wine-press.”)

On a food-related note (another Jewish holiday is coming up, after all), the Hebrew word “הוֹדוּ,” meaning “give thanks” is not related to the word “הֹדּוּ,” meaning “India.” In the latter, the דגש חזק in the ד is there to compensate for—you guessed it—a dropped נ, indicating the full name of the country, India. And this is how gemination can be life-saving, particularly if you are a turkey –  תרנגול-הֹדּוּ in Hebrew.

Hapy Hanukah! (Just doesn’t look the same, does it?)


Yair Shahak is Instructor of Hebrew at Yeshiva University.