Distinguishing between a Kamatz Gadol and Kamatz Katan

Background Needed to Understand this Article:

1) what a syllable is

2) what a consonant and vowel are

3) general understand of what a שוא נע נח

4) know that the accent is generally on the last syllable, and know that sometimes it changes


Of the twelve unique vowel signs the most misunderstood is the kamatz.  There are several factors which lead to confusion. One being that the kamatz is unique in that all other vowel signs only represent one sound but the kamatz represents two separate sounds, the kamatz gadol and kamatz katan. This factor prevents many people from realizing that this vowel sign produces two different sounds.

Another cause of confusion is that the reasons that cause a difference between the two are unfamiliar to most, even to those with a firm grasp of Hebrew grammar. Also, for those interested in learning the differences there are few clear resources.  The differences might be thought of as non-consequential and therefore trivial to learn but they’re important to know because of the role they play in correct pronunciation for all pronunciation systems and sometimes even the meaning of words.

Kamatz Katan in Print:

Some siddurim do however differentiate between the two.  One method of distinguishing the two is by printing a kamatz katan with a long vertical line.  Since this is counter intuitive to the name ‘kamatz katan,’ this method has been criticized as being confusing.  It’s also hard to discern the difference when reading quickly.  Another method used to differentiate is to bold the kamatz katan.  The advantage of this method is it easily focuses the attention of the reading to the more uncommon kamataz katan.  This method is commonly used in tikkunim.  Outside of siddurim and tikkunim the practice of differentiated in print between a kamatz gadol and kamatz katan are virtually nonexistent.

Differences in Pronunciation:

The differences in the pronunciation vary between Ashkenazi, Sefardi, and Temani pronunciation.  In the pronunciation of the vowel itself the difference is audible only for followers of the Sefardic tradition who pronounce a kamatz katan as a cholem, ‘o’ (IPA oʊ).  For Ashkenazim and Temanim there isn’t a difference in pronunciation of the letter itself, they both pronounce the kamatz katan the same as a kamatz gadol, ‘uh’. (IPA ʌ)

The type of kamatz plays a role in pronunciation of the word beyond just the vowel underneath the letter.  This is due to the fact that one of five rules which determine if a shva is a shva nach or shva na is if the based on if the preceding vowel is a long vowel or a short vowel.  The type of kamatz determines the type of shva.

A shva after the vowel will be Type of Vowel
na long
nach short

A kamatz gadol is a long vowel making the following shva a shva na.  A kamatz katan is a short vowel making the following shva a shva nach.

Open and Closed Syllables:

Any syllable can be defined as either open or closed.  The description of being open or closed isn’t limited to syllables at the end of a sentence; it can also describe syllables in the middle of a word.

A “closed syllable” refers to a syllable that has a consonant after it.  The consonant ‘closes’ the sound of the syllable.  For example the word דָּג. The gimmel closes the sound of the kamatz before it.

An “open syllable” refers to a vowel that doesn’t have a consonant after it.  There isn’t a consonant to ‘close’ the sound of the vowel.  For example the word עָשִׁיתָ ends without a consonant “closing” the kamatz under the tav.

There are two different kinds of open syllables nach nirah and nach nister.  The word nach is derived from the root נוח meaning rest, to describe how the syllable ‘rests’ i.e. how it ends.

A nach nister is a type of open syllable that doesn’t have any letters written after the vowel sound.  Referring back to our example earlier, the tav of עָשִׁיתָ lacks any thing written after the final vowel sound.

In contrast, nach nirah is a type of open vowel that has an unpronounced letter after the vowel sound which ‘closes the vowel’ in writing but not in pronunciation. For example the resh in the word בָּרָא is pronounced with an open vowel, the kamatz under the reish.  The aleph isn’t pronounced but in writing it ‘closes off’ the vowel making it a nach nirah.  It’s referred to as a nach nirah because the ‘resting’ (or finishing) of the vowel is visible, nirah, in writing.  Non-consonant letters that close a vowel making a word end in a nach nirah are א, ה, כף סופית with a קמץ, or ת with a kamatz.

Diagram of Vowels Types:

Diagram of Vowels Types








Rules for Distinguishing:

After having established the difference in pronunciation and grammar it’s important to explain how one can grammatically distinguish between a kamatz gadol and kamatz katan.

In order for a kamatz to be a kamatz katan it has to meet two criteria: 1) the kamatz is closed syllable 2) the syllable is unaccented.  The following are five general rules for telling if a kamatz meets those requirements and is therefore a kamatz katan.

1.  A kamatz before a shva (and the letter with a kamatz doesn’t have a  טעםor מתג)

Example: קָרְבָּן

2.  A קמץ before a letter with a דגש

Example: שמות טו:ב עָזִּי

3.  A chataf kamatz is always a kamatz katan

Example: קֳדָשִׁים

4.  This rule only applies to two words connected by a מקף and the first word in the pair meets two conditions.  The first condition is that the penultimate letter has a kamatz and the second condition is that the word ends in a nach nirah.

Example: תִּזְכָּר-לָנוּ

5.   This rule only occurs with roots that have a ו”ו as the middle root like קום or גור or שוב. The change is a result of a ו”ו ההיפוך changing the word from future to past.  Each root letter takes a kamatz underneath and the second kamatz is a kamatz katan.

While the application of this rule would seem limited it occurs several times in the Torah like in בראשית כד:סא with the word וַתָּקָם

This form doesn’t exist in Modern Hebrew because it lacks the ו”ו ההיפוך.

What causes a Kamatz Katan:

After discussing the differences between a קמץ גדול and קמץ קטן and how to distinguish them it’s worthwhile to understand what causes a קמץ קטן.

Why Rule 1 Produces a Kamatz Katan:

Many regular nouns, mostly segolate nouns, change their spelling when put into their plural forms () or possessive suffixes are added (e.g. חַרְבּוֹ חֶרֶב+וֹ←).  This change in spelling is normally occurs without complication. A problem does arise however with spelling changes involving a cholem, the cholem changes to a kamatz.  When the cholem becomes a kamatz it comes before a shva nach and in an unstressed position, resulting in fulfilling both criteria for a kamatz katan. For example, אֹזֶן, when a possessive suffix is added forms  .אָזְנוֹ Notice how the vowel under the first letter which was a חולם is now קמץ.

Why Rule 2 Produces a Kamatz Katan:

A similar phenomenon occurs with the word עֹז changed into the possessive form becoming עָזִּי.  Notice again a letter that had a cholem now has a קמץ.  The kamatz comes before a zayin with a dagesh chazak.  A dagesh chazak acts as a doubled consonant, the first of which is nach, as if it were written עָזְזִי.  Therefore the dagesh chazak makes it as if the kamatz was before a shva nach.

We see that the second rule could be thought of as an extension of the first rule.  That by having a kamatz before a letter with dagesh it’s as if the kamatz is before a shva nach.

Why Rule 3 Produces a Kamatz Katan:

The word קֹדֶשׁ has a חולם above the ק.  When changed into the plural it becomes קֳדָשִׁים.  The kamatz underneath the kuf is a chataf kamatz, which is always a kamatz katan.  The question that logically follows is why did the cholem change into a chataf kamatz.

In short, this change is very similar to the way nekudos change when conjugating other words.  For example לוֹמְדִים ← לוֹמֵד.  The tzere becomes a shva when conjugated.  Similar verbs will follow this pattern, the second root letter will take a shva.  However, a problem occurs when the letter that is supposed to take a shva is a guttural letter (א ה ח ע), there is rule that a guttural letter can’t have a shva underneath it.  Instead, a shva combines with another symbol making a chataf, ֱ ֲ ֳ.  In the case of שׁוֹאֵל becoming שׁואֲלִים.

שׁואֲלִים ← שׁוֹאֵל

In a similar case, דַּבַר changes to דְּבָרִים.  The patach underneath the daled changed to a shva.  When a similar word such as קֹדֶשׁ is conjugated, a shva should be placed underneath the first letter.  However, since it’s guttural, the shva underneath the guttural combines with a kamatz forming a chataf kamatz.  What previously was a cholem is not a kamatz katan.

Why Rule 4 Produces a Kamatz Katan:

The first word if not connected with a מקף would be would have the accent on the last syllable.  When it’s connected to another word the accent shifts to the second word.  The fulfills the criteria of a kamatz katan occurring in an unaccented syllable.  If the first word also ends in a nach nistar it’s fulfilled both criteria and is a kamatz katan.

One still might wonder why the kamatz under the khof of כל is a kamatz to begin with.   Words often change their spelling when they are in their smichut form.  Words connected with a מקף are also put into their smichut forms.  For example, the regular spelling of ‘כֹּל,’ but when combined with a מקף changes to its smichut spelling, כָּל. For example בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ.  The kamatz of כל also fulfills both criteria, its unaccented because the accent has shifted to the second word and it ends in a nach nira, the lamed closes the sound.

Why Rule 5 Produces a Kamatz Katan:

In a word similar to וַתָּקָם the kamatz underneath the kuf is

Generally, in Hebrew the accent is on the last sound of a word.  יָקוּֽם.  But when a word has a ו”ו ההיפוך the word becomes מלעיל i.e. the accent moves to the penultimate vowel,  .וַתָּֽקָםThe last kamatz now fulfills both criteria for a kamatz katan, closed and unaccented.

The word is מלעיל (the accent isn’t on the last syllable) because of the ו”ו ההיפוך.

Other Methods of Distinguishing:

As a rule, most kamatzim are kamatzim gedolim.  Another rule is that if a trope or a meteg is on a kamatz it will always be a kamatz gadol (גר”א).  This is because a trope or meteg means the kamatz is accented and a kamatz katan can only occur in an unaccented syllable.

A trick can be used to determine the type of kamatz. If a siddur marks the difference between a shva na and shva nach by any means (a common methods are bolding the shva or by placing a symbol above a shva that is na). If the shva after a kamatz is nach the kamatz will be a kamatz katan.

Leave a Reply