Alphabet and Pronunciation

Initial background information, and clarifying some common statements

Modern Hebrew is essentially the same language as Biblical Hebrew

This statement is basically true. Hebrew was mostly a dead language used only in religious contexts until it was revived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The process by which this occurred is fascinating both in its linguistics and in its political implications, as it helped unite somewhat disparate groups of people into a more cohesive whole.

Formally speaking, Modern Hebrew is pronounced somewhat differently from how the Hebrew before this revival took place (cf. so-called “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi” pronunciations), and probably more differently still from how the Hebrew of the ancients was pronounced. However, pronunciation aside, the grammar and syntax of the language is relatively unchanged (much unlike Greek, where learning Modern Greek isn’t going to help you much with Ancient Greek).

Hebrew is written from right to left

This sounds scary, but it’s really not. Hebrew is read right-to-left, top-to-bottom. You’ll adjust fast, don’t worry. Really, the only actual problem this causes is in word-processing programs when you are trying to combine Hebrew with English (or other left-to-right languages like French and German). Some programs don’t combine everything smoothly like they should.

Hebrew does not have vowels

You hear this one a lot. It’s sort of true, sort of not. Every language has vowels; you need vowels to make syllables! What people mean when they say this is that Hebrew was/is often written without specifying any vowels whatsoever; native speakers of the language simply don’t need them. (Technically speaking, the Hebrew alphabet is an abjad, a sort of orthographical system wherein it is left for readers to infer vowels based on provided consonants. The Arabic alphabet is also an abjad).

Consider the following sentence in English:

Th dg wlkd dn th rd.

Can you understand that? Probably. So too with Hebrew speakers and their writing, except that much of Hebrew runs on 3-consonant roots that make going sans vowels less ambiguous, and of course Hebrew has a small set of consistent vowel patterns unlike English’s nearly complete unpredictability in pronunciation.

For our purposes studying the Bible, this point doesn’t matter very much. Biblical Hebrew is written with vowels specified using “vowel points” known as נְקֻדּוֹת, niquddot (singular נִקּוּד, niqqud), which we will cover below. Once you’re comfortable writing these symbols underneath consonants instead of after them (well, with a couple exceptions), there’s really not much to worry about here either. We needn’t be troubled overmuch that these pointings probably weren’t used by the ancients and aren’t conventionally used by Israelis.

(Of course, if you do ever want to pick up Modern Hebrew to reading fluency, you’ll need to learn how to read Hebrew without the vowel points!)

The Alef-Bet and pronunciation

Choosing which pronunciation to go with

There have historically been multiple different ways to pronounce Hebrew. Before the revival of the spoken language and establishment of the secular state of Israel, there wasn’t a great deal of standardization. Jews in Eastern Europe pronounced things one way, Jews in Spain pronounced things another way, and so forth. There have also always been been scholars interested in reconstructing what they think the “actual” ancient pronunciation was.

So what pronunciation does it make sense for students of Biblical Hebrew to adopt? In my opinion, of all the options, I think it makes sense to use the Modern Hebrew pronunciation because you can then take advantage of all the learning materials on YouTube and elsewhere for Modern Hebrew (of which there is substantially more than for Biblical Hebrew). Since, as mentioned above, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew share the same essential DNA, it really is possible to carry most lessons in Modern Hebrew over to Biblical Hebrew. (Although Modern Hebrew does of course use vocabulary for cars and computers and such that Biblical Hebrew does not have).

For this reason, I have personally chosen to use the Modern Hebrew pronunciation, and it is what I recommend.

Consonants

We will be much more rigorous about all of this below, but for now, we can simply note that adding a dot to some Hebrew letters changes how you pronounce them. Confusingly, adding a dot to other letters does not change their sound. In the alphabet table below, keep an eye out for consonants that look the same except for dots. For each consonant with a dot-added pronunciation variant, I have bolded the form/pronunciation of the consonant that is canonically included the alphabet.

A comma in the IPA column signifies that the consonant can be pronounced different ways in different circumstances. You can get a general idea of the consonant sounds from the by comparing the IPA of the consonant names to the Hebrew names.

Letter IPA English name Hebrew name Pronunciation of name IPA of name
א [ʔ], ∅ ‘Alef אָלֶף AH-lehf /ʔalɛf/
בּ [b] Bet בֵּית BEHT /bet/
ב [v] Vet בֵית VEHT /vet/
ג [ɡ] Gimel גִּימֵל GEE-mehl /ˈɡimel/
ד [d] Dalet דָּלֶת DAH-leht /ˈdalɛt/
ה [h], ∅ He הֵא HEH /he/
ו [v] Vav וָו VAHV /vav/
ז [z] Zayin זַיִן ZAH-yeen /ˈzajin/
ח [χ] Chet חֵית CHET /χet/
ט [t] Tet טֵית TEHT /tet/
י [j] Yod יוֹד YOHD /jod/
כּ [k] Kaf כַּף KAHF /kaf/
כ [χ] Khaf כַף CHAHF /χaf/
ל [l] Lamed לָמֶד LAH-mehd /ˈlamɛd/
מ [m] Mem מֵם MEHM /mem/
נ [n] Nun נוּן NOON /nun/
ס [s] Samekh סָמֶך SAH-mehch /ˈsamɛχ/
ע [ʕ], ∅ “Ayin עַיִן AH-yeen /ʕajin/
פּ [p] Pe פֵּא PEH /pe/
פ [f] Fe פֵא FEH /fe/
צ [t͡s] Tsadi צַדִי TSAH-dee /ˈtsadi/
ק [k] Qof קוֹף KOHF /kof/
ר [ʁ] Resh רֵישׁ REHSH /ʁeʃ/
שׁ [ʃ] Shin שִׁין SHEEN /ʃin/
שׂ [s] Sin שִׂין SEEN /sin/
ת [t] Tav תָו TAHV /tav/

Word-final letter forms

Some consonants take different forms, called sofit forms, when they are the last letter in a word.

Normal form Sofit form
כ ך
מ ם
נ ן
פ ף
צ ץ

The BeGeD KeFeT consonants and the dagesh

Historically there were six consonants that changed their pronunciation with the addition of a dot in the center of the letter (called a dagesh, plural dageshim): Bet (ב), Gimel (ג), Dalet (ד), Kaf (כ), Pe (פ), and Tav (ת). They are often collectively referred to as the Beged Kefet (בֶּגֶד כֶּפֶת) letters (you may also sometimes see Beged Kefat or other variations), as this phrase contains all six consonants.

In Modern Hebrew pronunciation, only three of the Beged Kefet letters (ב, כ, פ) change their pronunciation with a dagesh, going from fricatives without the dagesh to stops/plosives with the dagesh. Thus, בּ is pronounced like “b” while ב is pronounced like “v”; כּ is pronounced like “k” while כ is pronounced like, well, a voiceless ulvular fricative (we have no direct English equivalent); and פּ is pronounced like “p” while פ is pronounced like “f.”

As to the other three, in Modern Hebrew pronunciation, regardless of whether or not they have a dagesh, they are pronounced the same: ג is pronounced like “g”, ד is pronounced like “d”, and ת is pronounced like “t.”

The Beged Kefet letters take a dagesh under two circumstances:

  1. Word initially
  2. Following a closed syllable (i.e., one that ends with consonant sound: “pat” vs. “pa”)

A Beged Kefet letter will not take a dagesh if a vowel or vocal Shva precedes it.

Incidentally, all the other Hebrew letters (except gutturals – see below) can accept dageshim as well. Rather than changing pronunciation, the dagesh in such a circumstance indicates that the consonant has been doubled (“geminated”). This is important in syllabification: compare pronouncing the English word “petted” as PEHT-ehd vs PEHT-ted, with a T pronounced at the beginning of the second syllable.

The Beged Kefet letters are also geminated if they are word-internal. (You can’t duplicate a sound at the beginning of a word, as there is no syllable boundary).

Be sure not to confuse the dagesh with the identical-looking mappiq, explained below.

Solomon’s Cave YouTube Video

Shin/Sin

The dot that shows up on Shin/Sin is not a dagesh: it is not at the center of the letter. Shin/Sin can take a dagesh, however.

This dot is just called the “Shin/Sin dot” or something similar: it’s sole purpose is to denote whether the letter should be pronounced as “sh” (Shin) or as just “s” (Sin).

Vowels

In Hebrew, certain consonants are sometimes used when denoting vowels

In Hebrew, sometimes certain consonants are used alongside the niquddot to denote vowels. These consonants are sometimes called matres lectionis (Latin for “mothers of reading,” singular mater lectionis). In Hebrew, these consonants are Alef (א), He (ה), Vav (ו), and yod (י).

If words can be written with or without matres lectionis, spellings that include the letters are called male (mah-LEH; from Hebrew מָלֵא) or plene (PLEH-ne; from Latin plēnus), meaning “full,” and spellings without them are called chaser (cha-SEHR; from Hebrew חָסֵר), meaning “defective.”

In Modern Hebrew texts without niquddot, the matres lectionis for certain o, i, and u sounds are very common – they are used to signify vowels in the unpointed text – so I have included these male forms in the main table, and the rest of the male forms in a separate table below. Both the o sound and u sound use use Vav as their mater lectionis, however, so there is still some ambiguity. You get used to it if you practice reading unpointed Hebrew, and will eventually know on instinct whether a Vav is signifying an o vowel or a u vowel.

In pointed Hebrew, to specify that a He (ה) or, more rarely, an Alef (א), is not acting as a mater lectionis, a dot known as a mappiq is placed on the consonant (for example, הּ).

Main vowel table

Compare Vowel IPA English name Hebrew name Pronunciation of name Vowel sound like English
shorter “ah” בַ [a] Patach פַּתַח pah-TAHCH “father”
longer “ah” בָ [a] Qamats Gadol קָמַץ גָּדוֹל kah-MAHTS ga-DOHL “father”
shorter “eh” בֶ [e] Seggol סֶגּוֹל seh-GOHL “sell”
longer “eh” בֵ [e] Tsere צֵירֵי tseh-REH “sell”
“ee” בִ [i] Chiriq חִירִיק chi-REEK “seed”
“ee” בִי [i] Chiriq Male חִירִיק מָלֵא chi-REEK mah-LEH “seed”
shorter “oh” בָ [o] Qamats Qatan קָמַץ קָטָן kah-MAHTS kah-TAHN “story”
longer “oh” בֹ [o] Holam Haser חוֹלָם חָסֵר cho-LAHM cha-SEHR “story”
longer “oh” בוֹ [o] Holam Male חוֹלָם מָלֵא cho-LAHM mah-LEH “story”
“oo” בֻ [u] Kubbuts קֻבּוּץ koo-BOOTS “cool”
“oo” בוּ [u] Shuruk שׁוּרוּק shoo-ROOK “cool”

In Modern Hebrew pronunciation, there are not vowel length differences between Chiriq and Chiriq Male and Kubbuts and Shuruk, although there were in historical dialects like Ashkenazi and Sephardi (and likely ancient pronunciation as well).

Vowel Pronunciation YouTube Video

Other male forms

Male forms IPA English Name Hebrew name Pronunciation of name
בַה, בַא [a] Patach Male
בָה, בָא [a] Qamats Male
בֶי, בֶה, בֶא [e] Seggol Male
בֵי, בֵה, בֵא [e] Tsere Male
פֹה, צֹא [o] Holam Male

Historical dialects treated many of these as diphthongs (compare the “ey sound” in the English word “hey” and the “oy sound” in the English word “boy”), but Modern Hebrew just pronounces them all the same as the bare vowels without the matres lectionis.

Vowels (almost) always follow the consonant they are attached to

Except for the two exceptions described below, all vowels are pronounced after the consonant to which they are attached.

The first exception is word-initial Shuruk (-וּ) coming from the Hebrew conjunction equivalent to the English word “and.” This form of the conjunction only shows up in certain circumstances – specifically, before the labial consonants Bet (ב), Vav (ו), Mem (מ) and Pe (פ), and before any consonant with Shva (see below on Shva).

The second exception deals with the vowel Patach. A Patach on a consonant ח, ע, or הּ (that is, ה with a mappiq in it to signify that it is not serving as a mater lectionis) at the end of a word is pronounced before the consonant, and not after. Thus, נֹחַ (Noah; properly transliterated as Noach ) is pronounced /no.aχ/ in Modern Hebrew.

Shva and reduced forms of vowels

To signify that a consonant should be used to close a syllable rather than open the next, Hebrew uses a niqqud known as a Shva.

Shva can occur-word initially, and when it does, it is pronounced like Seggol or Tsere, but much shorter.

Guttural consonants

The guttural consonants are Ayin, Chet, Heh, and Alef. Resh is technically a semi-guttural, but acts like the proper gutturals, so for simplicity will henceforth be included in “the gutturals.”

The gutturals cannot take a dagesh, and therefore cannot be geminated.

The gutturals also cannot take a full Shva, and instead take reduced forms of the vowels, which are pronounced the same as the full vowels, but with a much shorter length:

Reduced Vowel IPA English Name Hebrew name Pronunciation of name
חֳ [a] Chataf Patach חֲטַף פַּתַח cha-TAHF pah-TAHCH
חֱ [e] Chataf Seggol חֲטַף סֶגּוֹל cha-TAHF seh-GOHL
חֲ [o] Chataf Qamats חֲטַף קָמָץ cha-TAHF kah-MAHTS