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Pronunciation — Hebrew — Part 3: Syllabification, etc.

May 16, 2013
Gen. 1:9 "And God said, Let the waters be...

Gen. 1:9 “And God said, Let the waters be collected”. Letters in black, niqqud in red , cantillation in blue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Preliminary remarks

In order to pronounce Hebrew, in addition to the letters one not only needs know the relevant vowels but one also needs understand syllabification and accentuation, in which should be included the tonality of ancient Hebrew. In essence, to a modern English speaker, ancient Hebrew would have sounded like it was being sung rather than spoken in the ordinary sense– as is common among ancient languages. For example, Latin and ancient Greek would each sound to a speaker of modern English as if the languages were being sung as well. Modern Hebrew, whether traditional pronunciations (in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs)– apart from cantillation– and Israeli usage, have lost this aspect, which is referred to as tonality. When one formally reads the Torah or Haftarah in Jewish religious observances, a stylized form of tonality called cantillation is still used because the religious authorities considered tonality such an important part of the experience of reading the language. Yet because this tonality is preserved only in a ritualized form, I will not go into the same level of detail in the discussion of cantillation as in other aspects of the language.


The term niqqudot (singular, niqqud) refers to all the marks used in Hebrew to delineate the pronunciation of individual words, as opposed to cantillation marks which are treated separately and change the tonal accents of words based on context. These niqqudot indicate vowels, the pronunciation of letters and other ambiguities not indicated by the letters themselves.

Dots in the center of letters

Overall comments

Three types of marks are distinguished in modern grammar which are all indicated by dots in the center of letters. Yet all the marks are identical, the purpose is not. My own opinion is that the ancients may not have made as sharp a distinction as we do today but the system I am using (while not necessarily unique) remains simple and clear as much as possible.


Dagesh-and-shva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


General comments

In terms of modern grammar, a dagesh does a few things which all stem from the same root. First, any letter with a dagesh will be the first letter of a syllable unless the associated vowels make this untenable. Second, in ealier antiquity (as I have used this term throughout), in my opinion at least, a speaker of Hebrew used a greater volume of air-flow than later became the norm. Thus, each letter was effectively associated with what the Greeks termed a rough breathing. During later antiquity (again as I’ve used that term throughout my discussion of Hebrew pronunciation) this manner of baseline breathing began to change, at least syllable initially. Thus letter began to develop two sets of pronunciations (roughly analogous to the palatalization which led to Old Irish and other Gaelic languages having effectively two sets of consonants termed broad and slender traditionally) and in some case the pronunciations became markedly distinct, albeit by no means for all letters. Yet in line with a greater volume of  breathing within words, each letter in earlier antiquity had at least a nminal vowel associated with it, since after ll a vowel inherently consists of an audible volume of air flowing through a shaped mouth without a specific point of articulation. In order then to close off this breathing before a letter, ancient Hebrew speakers found it easier to close the preceding syllable so that a letter starting a syllable became effectively doubled in a manner to close the previous syllable. To the modern ear, each of these effects seems fairly distinct but they do in fact stem from a single cause.

Loss of aspiration

Except where the letter has evolved two distinct pronunciations, this no longer has an effetc on pronunciation. The baseline volume of breath used speaking Hebrew is no different than that used in most languages today.


Except in certain cantorial traditions, one no longer duplicate letters with a dagesh when pronouncing them.

Syllable initiation

Again except where the vowels demand otherwise, a letter with a dagesh begins its syllable.


A mappiq looks like a dagesh but functions differently. It appears most often on the letter hei ה and less often on an aleph א. Both of these letters when they occur at the end of a syllable become normally effectively silent letters. A mappiq indicates that they are in fact to be pronounced.


Hebrew shuruk sign

Hebrew shuruq sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As discussed previously, when the letter vav acts as a vowel similar to the Spanish u of uno, it is marked with a dot in the center which is called a shuruq.

Shin/Sin dot

As also discussed previously, the letter ש developed two pronunciations which are distinguished by dots above the letter.


Hebrew vowel chart

Hebrew vowel chart

General remarks

While representation of vowels can be ascribed to Ezra the Scribe, a number of systems evolved for doing so, which of course adapted and changed as pronunciation did. The standard system of niqqudot came into usage several centuries later. My personal suspicion is that the fact that vowels did remain unwritten except those which had evolved from semi-vowels most likely indicates that although the vowels solidified later, at the earlier period of antiquity when the language first became written down, they were either fluid of indistinct. Strictly speaking, we simply do not know and what I am putting forward in this regard should be viewed as entirely speculative. Certainly vowels were not regarded as something for which letters were needed.

Vowel length

Hebrew pronunciation involved three vowel lengths— long, short and chataf vowels. Long vowels are double the length in duration of short vowels, and chataf vowels are in turn so short in duration are to be effectively swallowed.

Proper vowels (from right to left in top line of the chart above)

These are vowels which are fully pronounced and which can form the basis of a syllable.


This normally ends a syllable like all long vowels (full length) and is pronounced by Ashkenazim like aw or the au of the word “auto”. Among Sephardim, it is pronounced normally the same as patach, namely like the a in Spanish or in English “father”. In closed unaccented syllables, for Sephardim, it becomes pronounced like a Spanish o but the duration is short.


This is pronounced like the a in Spanish or in English “father”, and it does not end a syllable.


This is a long sound like a Spanish e but in Israeli pronunciation is sometimes changed to a softer e like that of seghol. It does not end a syllable.


This vowel is a short e like English “pet” and does not end a syllable.


This is pronounced like a short Spanish i. On its own it does not end a syllable. The same name is however used for this vowel combined with a letter yud following without its own niqquda. That lengthens the vowel and causes it to end a syllable.

It is also the last niqquda of the first line in the chart above. The shva (the first niqud of the second line) is for now skipped but the other vowels follow in order.


This is a long Spanish o and does end a syllable.


This is a short Spanish u and does not end a syllable.

Cholam malei

This is pronounced identically to cholam above and ends a syllable.


This looks like a vav with a dagesh but is not, although that combination can occur. It is pronounced like a long Spanish u and does end a syllable.

Yud without a niqquda

This acts as a palatalizing off-glide and so causes the preceding vowel to blend with a y-off-glide.

General comments
Qamatz Yod

This is always an oi.

Patach Yod

This is the ye of English “bye”.

Tzerei Yod

This is the ay of English “hay”.

Chiriq Yod

This is just a long Spanish i.

Shva and chataf vowels

General remarks

These are swallowed vowels which are not fully articulated and cannot form a syllable. They are like the e in English “delay” in those dialects of English in which the e is not really heard.


This is silent unless syllable initial in which case it is a short pause. If Two letters in a row have a shva, the second is initial in its syllable. Also aspirate letters do not begin a syllable whenever possible.

Chataf Qamatz

This is always a very short swallowed Spanish o.

Chataf Patach

This is always a very short swallowed Spanish a.

Chataf Seghol

This is always a very short swallowed e like English “pet”.


This is dictated by the niqqudot as described above.

Accent or stress

In modern Israeli Hebrew, the tendency is for the accent to be placed on the final syllable apart from suffixes. Notable exceptions exist such as those two syllable words in which seghol occurs twice. In Hebrew which includes cantillation marks, the mark on a word is always written above the accented syllable.


As mentioned above, ancient Hebrew was a tonal language in the sense that a modern English speaker hearing it spoken would have the impression the language was being sung rather than spoken in the ordinary sense, at least to a degree. Thus at the same time that the marks for niqqudot were introduced, indeed as part of the same system, cantillation marks were introduced as well. These marks were in essence tonal accent marks and are only distinguished in from niqqudot formally in the sense that when tonal accents are employed, the niqqudot are dictated by the individual word’s grammatical form whereas the tonal accents are dictated by the syntactical context of the word. Certainly modern cantillation approximates as well as possible the tonality of the ancient language but the fact nevertheless remains that it has become somewhat ritualized and stylized. A menu of audio files for the major Torah and Haftarah readings throughout the year (including holiday readings and the Five Megillot) can be found in Hebrew here; the corresponding English listing remains a stub mostly. Likewise the menu does not list which customs these reading go according to. The function of the tonal accents in the spoken language was to link phrases and show their relationships to each other. Thus, whereas English uses pauses of various lengths in the spoken language to act as an analog to the punctuation of the written language, ancient Hebrew did not use punctuation as all in the sense that English does. Rather, the cantillation marks were essentially punctuation in the sense that the tonal accents they indicated served the same purpose in speech as the pauses and inflections which punctuation marks describe in English. Tonal accents had two general classes– connectives and disjunctives– which respectively linked a word to the following word or separated that word from the following word. With two exceptions, each word would have one and only one tonal accent. The different types of connectives and disjunctives would indicate different levels of either connection or separation. Thus, if English had such tonal accents, in a phrase like “King David’s horse walking”, all four words would be connected but the strongest connection would be on the first two words because they indicate one person; then that possessive would be linked to the would horse next most strongly because the first three words form a noun phrase, and finally the last word would be linked because it completes the phrase. The strongest tonal accent would fall on the major word of the phrase. The two exceptions mentioned to the rule of one tonal accent for each word are a few proclitics like כל which take no accent of their own but are appended to the following word and the case where a phrase or sentence (a pasuq or verse) ends in a longer word. In the latter case, an earlier syllable would have a connective accent and the latter syllable word have a disjunctive accent.

Remarks afterward

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  1. Introduction: Part 4: Grammar | Taryag Mitzvot

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