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Hebrew phonology

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Consonants ("i'curim")

Labial Velar Alveolar
/b/ (1) /v/ (1, 2) /m/ /p/ (1) /f/ (1) /g/ /j/ (semi-vowel; weak) /k/ (1, 3) /d/ /t/ (4, 5) /l/ (Always pronounced as the "l" in "learn", not "land") /n/ /r/
Glottal Dental Foreign Borrowings
/h/ (semi-vowel, a voiced aspirate, akin to the American pronunciation of /h/ in "hot") /x/ (1, 6) /a'/ (7) /z/ (pronounced as the "x" in "Xena") /ts/ (5) /s/ /S/ (Read like the "s" in "sure"; in the examples written as "sh") /dZ/ (Sounds like the "j" in "Jill") /Z/ (Sounds like the "j" in the French "Jacqueline") /tS/ (Sounds like the "ch" in "Chill")

Notes:

  1. The pairs (/b/, /v/), (/k/, /kh/), (/p/, /f/), written respectively by the letters bet (ב), kaf (כ) and pe (פ) have historically been allophonic, distinguished by a feature called emphasis ("dagesh"). All three are still mutually exclusive (in words derived from Hebrew roots), however due to /w/w merging with /v/, /x/ merging with /kh/, and the introduction of initial /f/ through foreign borrowings, none remained strictly allophonic (that is, incapable of creating a minimal pair).
  2. 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/).
  3. The phoneme /k/ is represented by two letters: kaf (כ) and quf (ק). Although Modern Hebrew pronunciation does not differentiate between the two, the latter was once pronounced more deeply, like the Arabic /q/.
  4. 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 accent. However, it seems that the letter tau once represented to phoneme /th/th. For example, what in Modern Hebrew sounds as "Beit Lexem" was transcribed (through Greek) into English from Old Hebrew as "Bethleem", also demonstrating note nr. 5.
  5. Similarly to Modern Arabic, Old Hebrew had the phonemes /ts/ and /t/ (written by the letter tet) emphasized. Currently, there is no community of Hebrew-speakers which expresses this in speech; however the emphasis led to several types of phonetic change that still exist.
  6. The phoneme /x/ is represented by two letters: xet (ח) and khaf (כ, unemphasized kaf). Although many Modern Hebrew speakers seldom differentiate between the two, the former was deeper historically.
  7. Alike /ts/ and /t/, /x/ and /a' were once pronounced as a very deep glottal stop, resembling "ar" in "heart" but deeper. Modern Ashkenazi (European) reading tradition ignores this; however Sephardic (North-African) Jews and Israeli Arabs accent these phonemes, in a fashion which resembles Arabic.

Vowels ("tnuo't")

The Hebrew language has 5 vowels:

  • /a/ (As in "start")
  • /e/ (As in "set")
  • /i/ (As in "spear")
  • /o/ (As in "sore")
  • /u/ (As in "soup")

Each vowel has three forms: short, long and interrupted ("hataf"). There is no audible distinction between the three, and the type of a vowel is determined entirely by its position inside a word.

Ancient Hebrew did not have diphthongs. Although diphthongs do exist in modern spoken Hebrew, grammar rules discourage their use. Thus, the root Y-Kh-L, 2nd person singular, future should have been conjugated "tuykhal", however the correct form is "tukhal".

Hebrew phonetics include a special feature called schwa. There are two kinds of schwa: resting ("nah") and moving ("na'"). The resting schwa is pronounced as a brief stop of speech. The moving schwa sounds much like the English schwa, that is, a very deep guttural /e/.

Hebrew also has an emphasis ("dagesh"). There are two kinds of emphases: light ("qal", known also as "dagesh lene") and heavy ("xazaq" or "dagesh fortis"). There are two sub-categories of the heavy dagesh: structural heavy ("xazaq tavniti") and complementing heavy ("xazaq mashlim"). The light emphasis 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 Hebrew morphology). Complementing emphasis 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 emphasized 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 ("taa'm"): on the last syllable ("milra'") and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, "mile'l"). 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 mile'l-stressed "ókhel" ("eats", masculine) and milra'-stressed "okhèl" ("food") are written in the same way. Little ambiguity exists, however, due to nouns and verbs having incompatible roles in normal sentences.

One-letter words are always attached to the following word. Such words include: the definite article; prepositions "b" ("in"), "m" ("from"), "l" ("to"); conjunctions "sh" ("that"), "k" ("as", "like"), "v" ("and"). The vowel which 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 as follows: in most cases they are followed by a moving schwa, and for that reason they're pronounced as "be", "me" and "le". If preposition is put before a word which begins from a moving schwa, then the preposition receives the vowel /i/. For example, *"be-khlal" becomes "bi-khlal", "in general". 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".

Writing

Modern Hebrew is written from right to left. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form, in which most of the letters are made by adding lines to the letter resh (ר). In handwriting, a similar concept is used, however where printed letters have right angles, scripts have arcs. All Hebrew consonant phonemes are represented by a single letter. Although a single letter might represent two phonemes (thus the letter "bet" represents both /b/ and /v/), they always differ only in the stress, and so can be considered a single consonant.

Vowels are optional and written as dots and dashes under the text. Different combinations of dots and dashes signify different types of vowels. A convenient rule to remember is that long vowels have an even number of dots and dashes. The semi-vowels hei, waw and yud can represent both a consonant (/h/, /w/ and /j/, respectively) or a vowel, which presence is ambiguous. In the latter case, these letters are called "emot qria" ("matres lectionis" in Latin, "mothers of reading" in English). With a vowel, the letter alef is mute. When a vowel is absent, alef stands for /a/. The letter hei in the end of a word also sounds like /a/ and signifies the feminine gender. The letter waw standing after the vowels /u/ and /o/ lengthens them, and so does the letter yud after the vowel /i/.

Emphases are written as a dot inside the letter. There is no written differentiation between different types of emphases and schwas.

See also : Hebrew language



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