Clitics and Cliticization in Hebrew, Part 1

— Note: this post is part of an encyclopedia entry just finished, with a question for readers at the end —

Clitic (from Greek κλίνειν ‘incline, lean’) is the term in traditional grammar for a word that could not bear primary word stress and thus ‘leans’ on an adjacent stress-bearing word (the clitic host). A clitic leaning on a following word is a ‘proclitic’; one leaning on a preceding word is an ‘enclitic’. Clitics exhibit characteristics of both words and affixes and yet do not fall fully into either category: they are like single-word syntactic constituents in that they function as heads, arguments, or modifiers within phrases, but like affixes in that they are “dependent”, in some way or another, on adjacent words” (Zwicky 1994:xii).

Arnold Zwicky, in his seminal study of clitics, identified three classes: special clitics, simple clitics, and bound words. Both special and simple clitics are unaccented bound variants of stressed free morphemes; both types share the semantics and basic phonological core of their respective free forms, but special clitics differ from the syntax of their free forms whereas simple clitics exhibit identical syntax as their free variants (1977:3-6). Bound words do not have a free variant: this type of clitic exists only in an unaccented form with another word serving as its attachment host. Zwicky notes that bound words are often “associated with an entire constituent while being phonologically attached to one word of this constituent” and are typically attached “at the margins of the word, standing outside even inflectional affixes” (1977:6).

Since many clitics exhibit an intriguing combination of both phonological and syntactic properties, their precise linguistic nature has been the subject of considerable study, first within the context of Indo-European philology and then since the 1970s within modern morphology and syntax. Jakob Wackernagel (1892) is perhaps most famously associated with the early study of clitics, and the category of clitics that must be placed in the second position (that is, immediately after either the first syntactic constituent or the first phonological word, as with Greek δέ) of a clause are called ‘Wackernagel clitics’ (and his observation is sometimes referred to as ‘Wackernagel’s Law’). Nearly a century later, Judith Klavans (1985) concluded that clitics are “phrasal affixes” based on her observation that for some clitics the phonological host and syntactic host may be distinct.

A significant focus of the the renewed interest in clitics since the 1970s has been the attempt to establish a typology of clitics, including their characteristics vis-à-vis words, on the one hand, and affixes, on the other (see, especially, the seminal contributions of Zwicky 1977, Zwicky and Pullum 1983, and Klavans 1982, 1985). For example, the typical word carries an independent accent, whereas the typical affix does not; in many languages the order of words varies without semantic difference, whereas affix order is fixed (and a different affix order results in different semantics); and affix placement is specified by morphological rules concerning what word class the affix may attach to, whereas word placement is governed by syntactic rules concerning phrasal categories rather than word classes. (For more discussion, see, among others, Zwicky 1977; Borer 2003; and Anderson 2005.)

Where do clitics fit in the word-versus-affix distinctions? Since clitics often look more like affixes than words, Zwicky and Pullum (1983) focused on the clitic-versus-affix problem and identified six criteria for distinguishing the clitics from inflectional affixes:

1) whereas affixes may attach to a defined set of hosts (e.g., the Hebrew verbal suffixes תָּ‎, תְּ‎, תִּי‎ are agreement morphs that affix only to the perfect verb), clitics are not as constrained concerning their phonological host — as ‘phrasal affixes’, clitics may attach to nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.

2) clitics are productive; affixes are not: for a given clitic there is no expected host that is arbitrarily disallowed; in contrast, inflectional affixation, for example, can arbitrarily not apply, as with the lack of a clear past participle for ‘to stride’ (i.e., ‘he has stridden?/strided?/strode?’; Pinker 1999:125).

3) morphological idiosyncrasies are not characteristic of clitics: whereas typical inflectional affixation paradigms may be interrupted by suppletion (e.g., שָׁתָה ‘drink’ / הִשְׁקָה ‘give a drink’ and the monosyllabic – singular/bisyllabic – plural base variation in the Hebrew segholate nouns) or ablaut (e.g., English foot/feet, not *foots), the attachment of clitics does not affect the host word in phonologically or morphologically unexpected ways.

4) semantic idiosyncrasies are not characteristic of clitics; when clitics attach to a host, the result is predictable, whereas inflectional affixes may combine with a host to produce a complex with an unpredictable meaning, such as when the affixation of the plural morpheme produces something other than a countable plural, e.g., דָּם ‘blood’, but דָּמִים ‘blood-shed’ (i.e., blood that has been spilled).

5) a clitic and host combination are not subject to syntactic rules whereas words exhibiting affixation are treated as single syntactic items.

6) clitics can attach to material already containing clitics, but affixes cannot attach to material already containing clitics.

With the various characteristics and criteria above in mind, it becomes clear that there are a number of clitics (mostly proclitic) in pre-modern Hebrew, although (excepting Dresher 2009; see below) the category as such has not yet been given adequate linguistic attention. Most obviously belonging to the category of clitic are the conjunction – וְ, the article – הַ, the monoconsonantal prepositions – בְּ‎, – כְּ‎, and – לְ‎ (which have rarely used free forms,בְּמוֹ‎, כְּמוֹ, and לְמוֹ, respectively), the preposition מִן (with bound variants – מִ and – מֵ and its rare free form מִנִּי), the interrogative – הֲ, and the nominalizers אֲשֶׁר and – שֶׁ. However, beyond these items, the complexity of sorting out cliticization increases considerably.

Within the scope of commonly used biblical reference grammars, the identification of clitics is erratic. See Gesenius-Kautzsch 1910:§§35l, 136d; Waltke and O’Connor 1990:§§4.2.1a; 11.1.2c; Joüon and Muraoka 2006:§§13a-d, 34). Note that Waltke and O’Connor explicitly do not include the monoconsonantal prepositions in this category but classify them as “prefixes” (§11.1.2c; see, in contrast, Joüon and Muraoka 2006:§34, note 4).

At the heart of the discussion about cliticization in Biblical Hebrew is the מַקֵּף (maqqef), a graphemic sign much like a hypen that indicates two or more orthographic words form a single prosodic word. The apparently inconsistent use of the maqqef (Joüon and Muraoka 2006:§13b) obscures any simple correlation between the maqqef and clitics: bound words (i.e., words that exhibit the construct form) are not always followed by a maqqef and the maqqef is occasionally used with words not normally identified as clitics, e.g, וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב ‘and evening was’ (Gen. 1.8), הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ ‘Noah walked’ (Gen. 6.9), and גֵּר־יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה ‘alien, orphan, and widow’ (Deut. 27.19) (Gesenius-Kautzsch 1910:§16b; Joüon and Muraoka 2006:§13d; Dresher 2009:106).

B. Elan Dresher’s 2009 work on the Tiberian Word unravels many of the complexities regarding cliticization in Biblical Hebrew (at least, as it is represented in the Masoretic Text). According to Dresher cliticization in Tiberian Hebrew involves more than simply identifying words to classify as clitics. Rather, he argues, “the principles governing cliticization are … particularly complex, because, being situated at the interface between word and phrase, they involve general principles of phrasing as well as particular idiosyncrasies of lexical items” (2009:100). Besides asserting that the maqqef does signify that the unstressed word is a clitic, he builds on Breuer 1982 and identifies three principle categories of cliticization in Hebrew: small words, simplification of phrasing, and clash avoidance.

The first principle, small words, includes function words such as those listed above — monosyllabic words that are typically proclitic even though they have corresponding free forms, that is, forms without a maqqef, with their own accent, and often with a vowel change (see Table 1).

Small function words that can be cliticized to any word 

אֵת עַל אֶל מִן עַד עִם אִם אַל בַּל פֶּן אַף מַה כָּל בֶּן בַּת עֶת

Small (mostly) content words that can be cliticized to short words 

גַּם אַךְ רַק יַד כַּף עַם דַּם דְּבַר הַר שַׂר גַּן רַב חַג רַךְ נְאֻם אַף מַס גַּל קַשׁ פַּת גַּת שֵׁן חָק מָר תָּם תַּם שַׁל רַד חַי אַתְּ זֶה בְּעַד נְקַם שְׁגַר לְבֶן מְלָך

Table 1: Small words that have an inherent tendency to be cliticized (modified from Dresher 2009:101-102)


The ‘small words’ in Table 1 represent common function words that have clitic forms (the first grouping) and mostly monosyllabic nouns (the second grouping) whose clitic forms are often more frequent than their free forms. As Dresher notes,”the tendency to cliticize depends on a variety of factors, including phonological weight, morphological/syntactic class, semantic function, and commonness” (2009:102; see 100-103 for further discussion of Breuer’s list of small words).

The second principle, simplification of phrasing, concerns the reduction of disjunctive accents to produce a smoother phrasing. The third principle, clash avoidance, addresses the unexpected cliticization in cases like וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב ‘and evening was’ (Gen. 1.8). Dresher argues that cliticization is used to prevent a stress clash, which he describes as follows: “In Tiberian Hebrew, a stress clash occurs between two words in the same phonological phrase when the first word has final stress and the second word has initial stress. If the first word ends in a superheavy syllable (a phonologically long vowel in a closed syllable), no clash is considered to occur” (2009:105). In cases like וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב, the prosodic options to avoid the clash are either stress retraction or cliticization (the latter was the applied solution in Gen 1.8).

The final issue concerning cliticization is the status of words that exhibit a bound form (the construct) but are not monosyllabic. The challenge, as indicated above, is that many such clear cases of cliticization are not marked by a maqqef, which is the normal Masoretic indicator of a clitic. The phrase עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם ‘upon the surface of the water’ in Gen 1.2 is illustrative: the maqqef signals the clitic status of the preposition עַל, but the bound word פְּנֵי is not connected to its clitic host הַמָּיִם by a maqqef. Yet the clitic status of construct/bound forms is not only suggested by the examples that do appear with a maqqef (e.g., אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ ‘land of holiness [= holy land]’, Exod. 3.5) but also by the vocalization differences between the free and bound forms: assuming an underlying /dabar/ for ‘word’, the free form, which has a primary word stress, דָּבָר exhibits pretonic and tonic backing and raising ([a] to [å̄], IPA [ɔ]), whereas the bound form דְּבַר exhibits no tonic change and pretonic reduction to schwa, suggesting that originally the form did not carry primary word stress.

Here is where I leave you with the question: so, what do we do with the construct/bound form issue? Are they clitics or not? If yes, then what do we say about the non-use of the maqqef and the presence of an independent accent? If no, then what do we call these forms, since they obviously “lean” on the following word?

My own thoughts, for which I am indebted significantly to Elan Dresher, will follow in a few days with Part 2 of this topic.



Anderson, Stephen R. 2005. Aspects of the Theory of Clitics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Borer, Hagit. 2003. “Clitics: Overview.” International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 2nd edition (e-reference edition), ed. William J. Frawley. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (accessed 30 June 2010

Breuer, Mordecai. 1982. The Biblical Accents in the Twenty-One Books and in the Three Books (in Hebrew). Jerusalem: Mikhlala

Caink, Andrew D. 2006. “Clitics.” Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition, volume 2, ed. Keith Brown, 491-95. Oxford: Elsevier.

Dresher, B. Elan. 1994. “The Prosodic Basis of the Tiberian Hebrew System of Accents.” Language70 (1):1-52.

———. 2009. The Word in Tiberian Hebrew. The Nature of the Word: Essays in Honor of Paul Kiparsky, ed. K. Hanson and S. Inkelas, 95-111. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (see here for a draft pdf)

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2010. “Review of Morphologies of Africa and Asia, edited by Alan S. Kaye.” Review of Biblical Literature 6:4. (go here)

Joüon, Paul, and Takamitsu Muraoka. 2006. A grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Rev. ed. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Klavans, Judith L. 1982. “Some problems in a theory of clitics.” Bloomington, IN: University Linguistics Club.

———. 1985. “The independence of syntax and phonology in cliticization.” Language 61:95-120.

Pinker, Steven. 1999. Word and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. New York: Basic Books.

Wackernagel Jakob. 1892. “Über ein Gesetz der indogermanischen Wortstellung.” Indogermanische Forschungen 1:333–436.

Zwicky, Arnold M. 1977. “On clitics.” Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club. (go here)

———. 1985. “Clitics and particles.” Language 61 (2):283-305. (go here)

———. 1994. “What is a clitic?” Clitics: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1892-1991, ed. J. A. Nevis, B. D. Joseph, D. Wanner and A. M. Zwicky, xii-xx. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (go here)

Zwicky, Arnold M., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 1983. “Cliticization vs. inflection: English N’T.” Language 59 (3):502-13. (go here)

Waltke, Bruce K., and M. O’Connor. 1990. An introduction to Biblical Hebrew syntax. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.


4 Responses to “Clitics and Cliticization in Hebrew, Part 1”

  1. John Hobbins Says:

    Hi Rob,

    Very helpful introduction, though I would be happier if you provides a bit more exemplification. I’m used to seeing French or Italian cited. They certainly have interesting examples of clitics.

    My files and books are currently in disarray since my new office is literally under construction, but here are some responses off the cuff.

    The rules that govern destressing or encliticization (the latter is Selkirk’s term; I recommend her volume, “Phonology and Syntax,” an MIT Press “Classic”) and decliticization in Tiberian Masoretic Hebrew are complex and have been investigated by others before Dresher, but Dresher is one of the first if not the first to contextualize the rules in terms of modern linguistic debates and Fragestellungen.

    A famous feature of Tiberian Masoretic Hebrew prosody is its variable grain over a pasuq: take a look a Psalm 94:1 for a straightforward example. On the other hand, since it is easy to show that the pasuq is a prosodic unit which corresponds to the conventions of liturgical chant tradition and is not a straightforward reflection of underlying prosodic units, it needs to be noted that discrete levels of analysis and investigation are called for.

    Another scholar whose work deserves to metabolized by linguists investigating ancient Hebrew is Draga Zec.

    Sorry I can’t add more to the pot at the moment. More anon.

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      Thanks for the reference and off-cuff thoughts.

      The length of the encyclopedia (and editorial direction) prohibits citing much non-Hebrew. And I’m hoping readers of the encyclopedia entry judge there to be enough Hebrew exemplification. In any case, the data you desire is all easily retrievable on the web — and I hope interested readers are motivated to do a bit of their own investigation. Clitics are fascinating items.

      I am aware of some of the previous studies on Tiberian Hebrew prosody (although certainly not all, since it’s not my primary — or even secondary — area of concentration). However, my interest in the discussion of clitics comes from the direction of syntax. And what’s really interesting from a syntactic perspective is the significant lack of clarity in any work on BH that I’m aware of. Clitics aren’t just the domain of prosodics. And even if they are primarily — not exclusively — so, since prosodic work on Hebrew is a very small niche, most folks wouldn’t hear about them if they were only discussed in such works.

      I look forward to any more, not-so-off-the-cuff remarks.


  2. Chip Hardy Says:

    Just as an aside, but I wonder if some of your list of “Small (mostly) content words that can be cliticized to short words” like שׂר may be understood as classifiers in Hebrew…

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      I missed this comment — apologies.

      That’s an interesting idea. Some of these might fit such a notion, but it would be awfully hard to make a case for others.

      I’ll have to give this some thought…

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