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Why does a segol change to a kamatz at the end of a pasuk (or on an esnachta), as in the word for bread in the last paragraph of the birkat hamazon? (I know that is the pattern. The question is why.)

This question seems different from the various questions on this change that have been asked before, such as: Etnachta on גֶשם vs. גָשם. The answer to that question leads to a dissertation that describes this change as "pausal lengthening" and describes that as "a normal prosodic effect" but does not give a reason for this change. I am seeking a reason rather than just descriptions of when it occurs.

  • Are you asking about a reason for pausal forms in general or just the segol-kamatz kind? Pausal lengthening is just the normal way people talk in general. Try recording someone talking and they will spend more time on the last word in a sentence on average – Double AA Feb 17 at 15:24
  • There's also Patach->Kamatz shifts, like on מצרים or מרדכי at the end of a verse. And fuller forms like יאכלו yokhLU -> yoKHElu. Are you not interested in those as well? – Double AA Feb 17 at 15:34
  • @DoubleAA I am interested in the pausal lengthening of the segol-kamatz. If the explanation of that is in terms of a more general explanation, that is fine. – Yehuda W Feb 17 at 15:36
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    @DoubleAA I think the motivation behind this question is clear. The author noticed a particular pattern of vowel transformation and wants to understand the reason behind it. It happens to be that of the examples of pausal form you listed, this one is the one he noticed and asked about, which isn't surprising, given the extra salience lent to it by it ubiquity and by the very clear distinction in contemporary Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation schemes between segol and kamatz. As Yehuda W indicated, answers that put this issue in a broader context are welcome. – Isaac Moses Feb 18 at 20:07
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I assume that the question is focused on segol-kamatz because segol and kamatz sound very different (at least to English speaking ears). The underlying vowel phoneme in such cases is always /a/, which is called a "changeable vowel" by some grammar books. segol is a form of vowel reduction (like sheva) that can apply to either /a/ or /e/. When words like גֶשם are not lengthened, the vowel takes this reduced form. (Also, note that in some communities - notably the Teimanim - segol is pronounced like the "a" in the "apple". So ancient segol might have been closer in sound to kamatz than tzere. Of course, no one knows for sure.)

  • I’m not sure that this actually answers the question of why pausal lengthening occurs, so much as just describing how it happens. – DonielF May 20 at 1:43
  • Fair point. I read the question to be about the specific relation between segol and kamatz. I don't know the cause of pausal lengthening in general. However, it might be a common Semitic language pattern. For example, Classical Arabic typically drops case endings at the end of a sentence, which has a similar effect. – pandichef May 20 at 5:56

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