Hebrew phonology

From Academic Kids

Hebrew phonology must take into account that the Hebrew language has been used primarily for liturgical purposes for most of the past two millennia. As a consequence, its pronunciation has been strongly influenced by the vernacular of each individual Jewish community. In contrast to the varied development of these pronunciations is the relatively rapid development of modern Israeli Hebrew.


Basic Hebrew alphabet

See main article Hebrew alphabet


  • א   alef   silent word-initially, unless following a word that ends with a vowel sound. Elsewhere Template:Unicode
  • בּ   bet   /b/
  • ב   vet   /v/, /b/ (among Egyptian Jews)
  • ג   ghimel   /g/ (Template:Unicode among Teimanim, Mizrachim and some Sephardim)
  • גּ   gimel   /g/
  • ’ג   djimel   Template:Unicode (used only in loanwords)
  • ד   dhalet   /d/ (/ð/ among Teimanim, Mirachim and some Sephardim)
  • דּ   dalet   /d/
  • ה   he   /h/, silent in word-final position.
  • הּ   he   /h/ (the dot in the middle is called mappiq, not dagesh)
  • ו   vav   /v/ (/w/ among Teimanim and some Mizrachim)
  • ז   zayin /z/
  • ’ז   zhayin   Template:Unicode (used only in loanwords)
  • ח   Template:Unicode   Template:Unicode (pronounced /x/ by most Ashkenazim)
  • ט   tet   /t/ (Template:Unicode among Teimanim)
  • י   yod   /j/
  • כ   xaf   /x/
  • ך   xaf sofit   /x/
  • כּ   kaf   /k/
  • ךּ   kaf sofit   /k/
  • ל   lamed   /l/
  • מ   mem   /m/
  • ם   mem sofit   /m/
  • נ   nun   /n/
  • ן   nun sofit   /n/
  • ס   samex   /s/
  • ע   ayin   Template:Unicode, (pronounced the same as א by most Ashkenazim)
  • פ   fe   /f/
  • ף   fe sofit   /f/
  • פּ   pe   /p/
  • ףּ   pe sofit  /p/
  • צ   tzadi   Template:Unicode
  • ץ   tzadi sofit   Template:Unicode
  • ’צ   tshadi   Template:Unicode (used only in loanwords)
  • ק   qof   /q/ (pronounced /k/ by many Ashkenazim)
  • ר   reish   /r/, Template:Unicode
  • שׁ   shin   Template:Unicode
  • שׂ   sin   /s/
  • ת   thav   /t/ (/θ/ among Teimanim, Mizrachim and some Sephardim, /s/ by some Ashkenazim)
  • תּ   tav   /t/


  • ְ   sh'va   (silent), (depending on position in word, and position of word in phrase)
  • ִ   Template:Unicodeiriq   , /i/
  • ֵ   tzeire  
  • ֶ   segol  
  • ֱ   chataf segol   ,
  • ַ   patach  
  • ֲ   chataf patach   , {{IPA/ə/}}
  • ָ   qamatz   , (according to complex stress rules, this vowel is sometimes pronounced /o/ as well. In positions where it is pronounced /a/ in "Standard Modern Israeli Hebrew", it is pronounced by some Ashkenazim and Teimanim)
  • ֳ   chataf qamatz  
  • ֻ   qubutz   ,
  • ׂ   Template:Unicode
  • וּ   shuruq  
  •    Template:Unicode  


Template:IPA notice

The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu'ot. Modern Israeli Hebrew has 5 vowel phonemes:

  • /a/ (as in "car")
  • /e/ (as in "set")
  • /i/ (asin "beak")
  • /o/ (as in "horn")
  • /u/ (as in "soup")
Missing image
The vowel phonemes of Modern Israeli Hebrew

In Biblical Hebrew, each vowel had three forms: short, long and interrupted (hataf). However, there is no audible distinction between the three in modern Israeli Hebrew.

Hebrew phonetics include a special feature called schwa. There are two kinds of schwa: resting (nax) and moving (na' ). The resting schwa is pronounced as a brief stop of speech. The moving schwa sounds much like the English "uh".

Hebrew also has dagesh, a strengthening. There are two kinds of strengthenings: light (qal, known also as dagesh lene) and heavy (xazaq or dagesh fortis). There are two sub-categories of the heavy dagesh: structural heavy (hazaq tavniti) and complementing heavy (hazaq mashlim). The light affects the phonemes /v/ /g/ /d/ /kh/ /f/ /t/ in the beginning of a word, or after a resting schwa. Structural heavy emphases belong to certain vowel patterns (mishkalim and binyanim; see the section on grammar below). Complementing strengthening is added when vowel assimilation takes place. As mentioned before, the emphasis influences which of a pair of allophones is pronounced. Interestingly enough, historical evidence indicates that /g/, /d/ and /t/ used to have strengthened versions of their own, however they had disappeared from virtually all the spoken dialects of Hebrew. All other consonants except aspirates may receive an emphasis, but their sound will not change.

Hebrew has two kinds of stress (ta‘am): on the last syllable (milra‘) and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, mil'el). The former is more frequent. Specific rules connect the location of the stress with the length of the vowels in the last syllable; however due to the fact that Modern Hebrew does not distinguish between long and short vowels, these rules are often ignored in everyday speech. Interestingly enough, the rules that specify the vowel length are different for verbs and nouns, which influences the stress; thus the mil‘el-stressed ókhel (="food") and milra' -stressed okhèl (="eats", masculine) are written in the same way. Little ambiguity exists, however, due to nouns and verbs having incompatible roles in normal sentences. This is, however, also true in English, in, for example, the English word "conduct," in its nominal and verbal forms.

One-letter words are always attached to the following word. Such words include: the definite article h (="the"); prepositions b (="in"), m (="from"), l (="to"); conjunctions sh (="that"), k (="as", "like"), v (="and"). The vowel that follows the letter thus attached depends in general on the beginning of the next word and the presence of a definite article which may be swallowed by the one-letter word.

The rules for the prepositions are complicated and variety with the formality of speech. In most cases they are followed by a moving schwa, and for that reason they are pronounced as be, me and le. In more formal speech, if a preposition is put before a word which begins with a moving schwa, then the preposition takes the vowel /i/ (and the initial consonant is weakened), but in colloquial speech these changes do not occur. For example, colloquial be-kfar (="in a village") becomes bi-khfar. If l or b are followed by the definite article ha, their vowel changes to /a/. Thus *be-ha-matos becomes ba-matos (="in the plane"). However it does not happen to m, therefore me-ha-matos is a valid form, which means "from the plane".

* indicates that the given example is not grammatically correct


Template:IPA notice

The Hebrew word for consonants is ‘icurim (עיצורים).

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar 1 Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stops p b 2 t d k2 g
Fricatives f v 2 s z x h
Nasals m n
Laterals l
Approximants j

/a'/ was once pronounced as a voiceless pharyngeal fricative. Modern Ashkenazi (European, except Dutch) reading tradition ignores this; however Sephardic (North-African) Jews and Israeli Arabs accent these phonemes, in a fashion which resembles Arabic `ain ع. Georgian Jews pronounce it as a glottalized g. Western European Sephardim and Dutch Ashkenazim traditionally pronounce it as "ng" in "sing" — a pronunciation which can also be found in the Italki tradition and, historically, in south-west Germany.

Note 1: Postalveolar sounds (with the exception of ) are not native to Hebrew, and only found in borrowings.

Note 2: The pairs (/b/, /v/), (/k/, ), (/p/, /f/), written respectively by the letters bet (ב), kaf (כ) and pe (פ) have historically been allophonic. All three are still mutually exclusive (in words derived from Hebrew roots), however due to /w/ merging with /v/, /x/ merging with , and the introduction of initial /f/ through foreign borrowings, none remain strictly allophonic.

Notes on writing

  1. The phoneme /v/ is represented by two letters: vet (ב, unemphasized bet) and vav (ו). Although modern Hebrew pronunciation does not differentiate between the two, the latter is historically weaker due to its being a semi-vowel (/w/).
  2. The phoneme /k/ is represented by two letters: kaf (כ) and quf (ק). Although modern Israeli Hebrew pronunciation does not require a differentiation between the two, the latter is pronounced like an Arabic /q/, a pronunciation that is becoming more frequent in Israeli pronunciation, although it remains undifferentiated in the Hebrew of most non-Israeli speakers, especially among Ashkenazim.
  3. The phoneme /t/ is represented by two letters: tet (ט) and tau (ת, compare to the Greek theta θ and tau τ). As mentioned earlier, the former was once pronounced with emphasis. However, it seems that the letter tau (without dagesh) once represented a fricative phoneme . For example, what in Modern Hebrew sounds as "Beit Lexem" was transcribed (through Greek, which is ill-equipped to represent /h/) into English from Old Hebrew as "Bethleem", also demonstrating note nr. 5. The traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation of tau without dagesh as "s" is believed to be a result of this in conjunction with a consonant shift affecting High German dialects which changed */θ/ to /s/.
  4. Similar to Modern Arabic, old Hebrew had the phonemes and /t/ (written by the letter tet) emphasized. Currently, the only community of Hebrew-speakers which expresses this in speech are Yemenite Jews, whose Hebrew is much-influenced by Arabic phonetics (or rather not influenced by Yiddish and other European languages); however the emphasis led to several types of phonetic change that still exist. The exact nature of the emphatic feature is a matter of debate; the most commonly suggested possibilities are pharyngealization (as in Arabic) and glottalization (as in Ethiopic).
  5. In the speech of Ashkenazi modern Hebrew speakers, the phoneme /x/ is represented by two letters: xet (ח) and khaf (כ, assumed to have formerly formerly been an aspirated kaf). Xet is presumed to historically have been a voiceless pharyngeal fricative (like Arabic ح). The voiceless pharyngeal fricative pronunciation Template:Unicode is found in the speech of many Teimanim, Mizrachim and Sephardim, who, like Ashkenazim, pronounce khaf as /x/.

Historical sound changes

Greek transcriptions provide evidence that Biblical Hebrew maintained the proto-Semitic consonants gh, kh for longer than the writing system might suggest. Thus `Amorah is transcribed as Gomorrha in Greek, whereas `Eber is transcribed as Eber with no intrusive g; since comparative Semitic evidence shows that proto-Semitic *gh and *` both became `ayin in later Hebrew, this suggests that the distinction was still maintained in Classical times.he:הגיית העברית


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