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Pronunciation — Hebrew — Part 2: Alphabet

March 25, 2012

Alphabet

Dagesh-and-shva

Image via Wikipedia

The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are here listed in order above a description of pronunciations. The letters are right aligned since Hebrew is written from right to left. Where two letters are written together on the same line, they are two forms of the same letter. The first form (on the right) is the usual form, and the second form (on the left) is the form used at the end of words.

The letters are also used to represent numbers in contexts like numbering chapters in a book for example. A person reading should be familiar with this usage. When it occurs in the actual text, the number is marked either with a single geresh after the number or a double geresh before the last letter representing a number.

This discussion focuses only on the letters themselves. The nikkudot, including the effect of a dagesh, are not generally discussed in this post although the post to follow will include that discussion. Only when the dagesh changes the basic pronunciation of the letter will it be mentioned.

א

Alef, Aleph

Anc.

This letter represented originally a smooth glottal stop. In English, it occurs as the sound of the slight pause between words in the phrase the elephant as these words are pronounced distinctly.

The transition of pronunciation from a pure stop to a silent or null sound is commonly attested in various languages such as in ancient Greek where previously distinct but adjacent vowels form a diphthong in a later stage of the language (as when two omikrons in the Homeric form become later an omega).

Sf.

Most Sephardic traditions will pronounce this letter as described immediately above, but others will treat it as simply silent. In the latter case, vowels separated by this letter with tend to elide and in the former case they will not.

Ash.

The letter is always silent.

Is.

The letter is always silent.

ב

Beit; Beis

Anc.

English: Hebrew dagesh sign

Beit with a dagesh

In early antiquity, this letter was pronounced like a slightly aspirated English letter b and hence something like the b+h of the word clubhouse, albeit blending the two sounds. By late antiquity, syllable initial instances of the letter had solidified into a sound like English b and elsewhere the sound of the letter had become like English v. The former were marked with a dagesh.

The transition of b+h→v occurred in Irish as well between the ancient and modern forms of the language. The transition b+h→b is simply equivalent to a loss of aspiration which is attested in many languages using the Latin alphabet in which the letter h (a pure aspirant) has become silent over time, as in most romance languages.

Sf.

Where the letter is written with a dagesh, it is pronounced like an English b and elsewhere like an English v. In a very few cases, this b sound may not be syllable initial anymore but almost always it is.

Ash.

Where the letter is written with a dagesh, it is pronounced like an English b and elsewhere like an English v. In a very few cases, this b sound may not be syllable initial anymore but almost always it is.

Is.

Where the letter is written with a dagesh, it is pronounced like an English b and elsewhere like an English v. In a very few cases, this b sound may not be syllable initial anymore but almost always it is.

ג

Gimel

Anc.

In early antiquity, this was pronounced as an aspirated hard g, somewhat like the initial g of the English goat except that it would sound as if one were pronouncing a slight h at the same time. In later antiquity, the sound developed into the hard g sound like the Latin g or as in English goat syllable initially (when it was marked with a dagesh) and elsewhere it became a voiced hard aspirate similar to the hard German ch or the Scottish ch in loch except that it differs by voicing in identically the same way that a Latin g differs from a Latin c or English k. In both cases, this letter is the voiced analog of the letter kaf below.

These transitions and those described immediately below have left their marks in languages like English and Italian.

Sf.

In most Sephardic dialects, this letter is always pronounced as the (hard) Latin g or like the English g of goat. A few dialects still distinguish in pronunciation the sounds made with and without a dagesh, although again the former is no longer always syllable initial. Of those that do make this distinction, most pronounce this letter with and without a dagesh similarly to the pronunciation used in late antiquity. A notable exception is the Temani dialect (common in communities in or from the area of Yemen) which pronounce this letter when it is without a dagesh like the English j of joy or the Italian g of giorno.

Ash.

Always a hard g like Latin g or English g of goat.

Is.

Normally, the letter is always pronounced like a hard g, like the English g of goat. However, the letter is also used (when marked with a geresh ג׳) to represent in borrowed words the sound like English j of joy or Italian g of giorno.

ד

Dalet, Daled

Anc.

The sound this letter represented in early antiquity was a silently aspirated d sound, rather like the d+h combination in the English word bloodhound when spoken quickly but without the usual stop between syllables. In later antiquity, the letter became syllable initially like the d of English dog and elsewhere like the th of English that or modern Greek δ.

Here again the transition is attested in Greek.

Sf.

A few dialects preserve the pronunciation without a dagesh similar to late antiquity but in most dialects this letter is always pronounced like the d in English dog.

Ash.

This letter is always pronounced like the d in English dog.

Is.

This letter is always pronounced like the d in English dog.

ה

Hei

Anc.

Originally, this letter represented a pure aspiration like an ancient Greek rough breathing or like the English h of hat. In later antiquity, it became silent at the end of words except where acting as a suffix in which case it was marked with a mappiq (which looks identical to a dagesh).

The transision of a smooth aspirate h to silent is attested in the Romance language and Greek among other languages.

Sf.

This letter usually represents a pure aspiration like an ancient Greek rough breathing or like the English h of hat, but at the end of words it generally becomes silent.

Ash.

This letter represents a pure aspiration like an ancient Greek rough breathing or like the English h of hat word initially but is typically silent otherwise unless marked by a mappiq.

Is.

While in theory this letter represents a pure aspiration like an ancient Greek rough breathing or like the English h of hat, in reality the letter is most often not enunciated.

ו

Vav

Anc.

In early antiquity, this letter represented a pure semi-vowel, much like the Welsh w or Latin v. The sound was something between the consonant w of English way and the vowel u of Spanish mucho. A decent approximation can be made by trying to enunciate both sounds at precisely the same time but not one after the other.

English: Hebrew shuruk sign

Shuruq

By later antiquity the semi-vowel had given way to a pure consonant pronounced like the w of English way and to a pure vowel pronounced like the u of Spanish mucho. The consonant, being more common, was written as the plain letter but to the vowel was added a dot similar to a dagesh but called q shuruq וּ, shown in the picture to the right.

At the time, the cholam was simply a consonant with a nikkud indicating a vowel o to follow but the sounds quickly formed a diphthong which over time hardened to a pure o sound.

Such transitions are well attested in Latin as well as a number of other languages as well.

Sf.

English: Hebrew holam-male sign

Cholam

In most dialects, the consonant has hardened to the v of English valve, but in the Temani dialect it retains the sound of the w in English way. The sound of the shuruq וּ remains like the u in Spanish mucho. Additionally, the holam וֹ has become a pure o sound like in Spanish ocho. This use of the letter is now regarded as a pure vowel.

Ash.

The consonant has entirely hardened to the v of English valve. The sound of the shuruq וּ remains like the u in Spanish mucho in many dialects but in the Galacian dialect is sometimes pronounced like the i in English machine. Additionally, the cholam וֹ is most often a pure o sound like in Spanish ocho, but in some dialects it has become pronounced like the oy in English boy. This use of the letter is now regarded as a pure vowel.

Is.

This letter is used to represent the vowels o and u respectively as in English no and in Spanish mucho. Additionally it is used to represent the consonants v as in English voice and w as in English way. Where ambiguity could arise in the voice, either a cholam or a shuruq is written, even when no nikkudot are used. Where a consonant is used in a position which would normally be assumed to represent a vowel, the letter is written twice, although it will never be written more than twice in a row. Written twice initially, the letter represents a sound like the w in English way; this sound occurs only in borrowed words.

ז

Zayin

Anc.

This letter represented a voice simple silibant like the sound of z in English zebra, albeit in early antiquity a mild aspiration was associated. In later antiquity, where the dagesh occurred, the mild aspiration associated with the letter initially was dropped. I have seen an opinion that in later antiquity this letter without a dagesh was pronounced like the z in English azure, but I’m not convinced this is the case, even though it makes sense.

Sf.

This letter represents a voice simple silibant like the sound of z in English zebra.

Ash.

This letter represents a voice simple silibant like the sound of z in English zebra.

Is.

This letter represents a voice simple silibant like the sound of z in English zebra. When followed by a geresh, the letter sounds like the z in English azure (as pronounced in America) or Russian ж.

ח

Chet, Het; Ches, Hes

Anc.

This letter is similar to the ch of Scottish loch except that it is also guttural. One can think of makes the sound of Scottish ch in loch while swallowing slightly.

Sf.

Primarily, the letter is pronounced as in antiquity, but a remarkable number of slight variations exist. For example, a friend of mine whose learned pronunciation among Syrian Jews but who was himself American was told by his rav to imagine himself breathing like Darth Vader (from the original Star Wars) when pronouncing this letter.

Ash.

The letter is simply pronounced like the ch of Scottish loch.

Is.

Most often, the letter is pronounced just like the ch of Scottish loch but guttural pronunciations are also heard.

ט

Tet; Tes

Anc.

This letter represented a retroflect t like that found in Sanskrit and many modern Indian languages. To pronounce the letter, one should try to pronounce a letter t in English table but instead of having the tongue forward on the teeth, the tip of the tongue should initially touch the back of the palate. As always, in earlier antiquity the letter involved heavier breathing than one might otherwise associate with the letter. When in later antiquity this letter occurred syllable initially, this aspiration was dropped.

Sf.

The letter is always pronounced simply like the t of English table.

Ash.

The letter is always pronounced simply like the t of English table.

Is.

The letter is always pronounced simply like the t of English table.

י

Yud, Yod

Anc.

In earlier antiquity, this letter represented a true semi-vowel like the Latin i. To pronounce it, one can try to pronounce at the same time the sounds like the i in English machine and the y of English yes but without pronouncing them one after the other; in other words, the actual sound is something between these two sounds.

In later antiquity, the letter has become used to represent both a consonant like the y of English yes and a vowel like the i in English machine. Whenever a dagesh occurs with the letter, it acts as a consonant.

Sf.

In later antiquity, the letter has become used to represent both a consonant like the y of English yes and a vowel like the i in English machine. Whenever a dagesh occurs with the letter, it acts as a consonant.

Ash.

In later antiquity, the letter has become used to represent both a consonant like the y of English yes and a vowel like the i in English machine. Whenever a dagesh occurs with the letter, it acts as a consonant.

Is.

In later antiquity, the letter has become used to represent both a consonant like the y of English yes and a vowel like the i in English machine. Whenever a dagesh occurs with the letter, it acts as a consonant. Without nikkudot, where a vowel would be expected, the letter is written double to indicate a consonant but the letter is never written more than twice in a row.

כ ך

Kaf, Kaph

Anc.

Like the ancient Greek letter khi χ, this letter in earlier antiquity represented a k sound (similar to English ketchup) pronounced at the same time as a heavy aspiration so that it is often represented as k+h. By the time of later antiquity (as the term is used here throughout as per the Introduction) the sound had become syllable initially a simple k like English ketchup; in these cases, the letter was marked with a dagesh. Elsewhere the older pronunciation was retained.

Sf.

The chief difference between this letter (without a dagesh) and the chet is that this letter is not guttural and so is pronounced like the ch is Scottish loch.

When a dagesh is present, the letter is pronounced like the k in English ketchup.

Ash.

The chief difference between this letter (without a dagesh) and the chet is that this letter is not guttural and so is pronounced like the ch is Scottish loch.

When a dagesh is present, the letter is pronounced like the k in English ketchup.

Is.

The chief difference between this letter (without a dagesh) and the chet is that this letter is not guttural and so is pronounced like the ch is Scottish loch.

When a dagesh is present, the letter is pronounced like the k in English ketchup.

ל

Lamed

Anc.

This letter is and was pronounced like the hard l of English lamb. The soft l of English bottle does not occur.

Sf.

This letter is and was pronounced like the hard l of English lamb. The soft l of English bottle does not occur.

Ash.

This letter is and was pronounced like the hard l of English lamb. The soft l of English bottle does not occur.

Is.

This letter is and was pronounced like the hard l of English lamb. The soft l of English bottle does not occur.

מ ם

Mem

Anc.

This letter is and was pronounced like the m of English man.

Sf.

This letter is and was pronounced like the m of English man.

Ash.

This letter is and was pronounced like the m of English man.

Is.

This letter is and was pronounced like the m of English man.

נ ן

Nun

Anc.

This letter is and was pronounced like the n of English new.

Sf.

This letter is and was pronounced like the n of English new.

Ash.

This letter is and was pronounced like the n of English new.

Is.

This letter is and was pronounced like the n of English new.

ס

Samekh, Samech

Anc.

This letter throughout antiquity was pronounced like a slightly hissing s enunciated almost like the s of English sound but with the tip of the tongue slightly more toward the teeth making the point of inflection effectively dental.

Sf.

This letter is pronounced like the s of English sound.

Ash.

This letter is pronounced like the s of English sound.

Is.

This letter is pronounced like the s of English sound.

ע

‘Ayin, Ain

Anc.

This letter is the voiced analog of alef, namely it represents a voiced glottal stop much like the sound make in English bottle when the t is swallowed. Indeed, this letter is associated with a slight swallowing sound.

Sf.

This letter is the voiced analog of alef, namely it represents a voiced glottal stop much like the sound made in English bottle when the t is swallowed. Indeed, this letter is associated with a slight swallowing sound.

Ash.

This letter is silent.

Is.

Standardly, the letter is silent but the Sephardic pronunciation described above is also often heard.

פ ף

Pei

Anc.

Most anciently, exactly like the Greek letter phi φ, the sound of this letter was like an aspirated p, namely like the sound of the p+h in the phrase keep house if the final consonant of the first word is appended to the second word. In later antiquity, syllable initially the aspiration was lost (as indicated by a dagesh) and the sound became then like the p of English potato. Elsewhere the original pronunciation was retained until at a somewhat later date it became simply an f like in English fish.

Sf.

Without a dagesh, this letter represents a sound like the f of English fish and with a dagesh it represents a sound like the p of English potato.

Ash.

Without a dagesh, this letter represents a sound like the f of English fish and with a dagesh it represents a sound like the p of English potato.

Is.

Without a dagesh, this letter represents a sound like the f of English fish and with a dagesh it represents a sound like the p of English potato.

צ ץ

Tzadei, Tzadi and colloquially Tzadiq, Tzadik

Anc.

This letter is and was pronounced like the ts of English knots.

Sf.

This letter is and was pronounced like the ts of English knots.

Ash.

This letter is and was pronounced like the ts of English knots.

Is.

This letter is and was pronounced like the ts of English knots.

With a geresh, it is used to represent the sound of English ch in check or Italian ci in ciao.

ק

Quf, Quph, Qof, Qoph; Kuf, Kuph, Kof, Koph

Anc.

This letter would have been pronounced like the k of English ketchup except that the point of inflection was at the back of the throat making the letter distinctly guttural. The sound does not occur in English.

Sf.

This letter would be pronounced like the k of English ketchup except that the point of inflection is at the back of the throat making the letter distinctly guttural. The sound does not occur in English.

Ash.

The letter is pronounced like the k of English ketchup.

Is.

Standardly, the letter is pronounced like the k of English ketchup, but the Sephardic pronunciation just described is also heard.

ר

Reish, Resh

Anc.

This letter is and was comparable to the r of English radish except that it was and is trilled. The nature of the trill was probably like the analogous Arabic letter, which is like the r of Italian or of Spanish. A view exists that this letter was also guttural but I personally am disinclined to believe it except insofar as this sound is always slightly guttural.

Sf.

This letter is comparable to the r of English radish except that it is trilled like the r in Italian or Spanish.

Ash.

This letter is comparable to the r of English radish except that it is trilled like the r in German or French.

Is.

This letter is comparable to the r of English radish except that it is trilled. At the beginning of the modern State, the standard trill was like German or French but now the trill like Italian or Spanish has become more common. A distinctly guttural pronunciation is also heard.

ש

Shin, Sin

Anc.

In earlier antiquity, this letter represented a sound like the sh of English ship. By later antiquity, it had developed in a few instances to be pronounced like the s of English sound. The more common original pronunciation was then marked with a dot above and to the right שׁ, while the rarer pronunciation was marked with a dot above and to the left שׂ.

Sf.

Most commonly, the letter is pronounced like the sh of English ship in which case it is marked שׁ. Where marked שׂ, the letter is pronounced like the s of English sound.

Ash.

Most commonly, the letter is pronounced like the sh of English ship in which case it is marked שׁ. Where marked שׂ, the letter is pronounced like the s of English sound.

Is.

Most commonly, the letter is pronounced like the sh of English ship in which case it is marked שׁ. Where marked שׂ, the letter is pronounced like the s of English sound.

ת

Tav

Anc.

Originally, this letter represented a t+h sound like English lighthouse when the t is appended to the second syllable. In later antiquity, this letter developed syllable initially (when it was marked with a dagesh) into the sound of t in English top. Elsewhere it became like the th in English think.

Sf.

This letter represents the sound of t in English top. The Temani dialect also retains the pronunciation like the th in English think when no dagesh is present.

Ash.

With a dagesh, this letter represents the sound of t in English top. Without a dagesh, this letter represents the sound of s in English sound.

Is.

This letter represents the sound of t in English top.

Remarks

The vowels of Hebrew in its most ancient recorded form are simply not known. Personally I am inclined to the view that since they were not represented by specific letters, the vowels tended to be fluid but that every letter had at least a nominal vowel associated with it. Nevertheless in the end one just does not and cannot know for certain. Therefore the idea that anyone today can pronounce Hebrew entirely like the ancients is at best an affectation.

From → Hebrew, Pronunciation

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