Biblical Hebrew: 01. Alphabet, pronunciation
In this lesson, you will learn how to read Hebrew text. Reading Hebrew is a little different than just learning the alphabet and its pronunciation like in any other foreign language. With Hebrew, you have to learn special signs in order to properly read (pronounce) the text. This lesson will guide you through all of these peculiarities.
In Hebrew, we read from right to left. Graphics of the letters is very different from what we are used to. Thus we need to carefully learn how to recognize and write down all the letters of the alphabet.
Hebrew alphabet has 22 basic letters (some are further modified). It is primarily composed of consonants because vowels are the later addition to transcribe correct pronunciation.
|בּ||ב||b (bet), v (vet)||2|
|כּ||כ||ך||k (kaf), ch (chaf)||20|
|פּ||פ||ף||p (pe), f (phe)||80|
|שׂ||שׁ||s, (sin), sh (shin)||300|
Hebrew letters here are divided into three columns:
- dagesh lene form (see below):
- there is small dot inside a letter,
- sometimes different pronunciation must be used (see בּ and ב)
- normal form
- final form:
- tje appearance of the letter at the end of a word (like in אֵם "mother")
Be careful to thoroughly recognize between similar forms of the alphabet letters.
Basic pronunciation is suggested in the table above. However, some letters need further clarification:
- א: is silent, light breathing, like "h" in a word "honest"
- ח: is pronounced as deep "ch"
- ע: is almost silent, rough breathing, produced at the back of the throat, almost like a gulping sound
A group of letters א ,ה ,ח ,ע are called gutturals (throat letters). These letters have some specifics related to pronouncing signs and grammar:
- can not be doubled (dagesh forte)
- take composite sheva ( ֲ ֱ ֳ instead of simple ְ)
- preference for the vowel patah ( ַ )
- take a furtive patah after an accented syllable with a long vowel
You need to remember these observations. You will appreciate them later in the course.
A group of letters א ,ה ,ו ,י are called quiescent letters (silent). Under certain conditions these letters won't be pronounced:
- א ,ה: without vowel underneath are silent
- ו ,י: are often used to express vowels holem (o), shureq (u) and hireq (i)
Hebrew vowels are not letters of the alphabet in themselves. But they are represented by special signs written under the consonant. These signs were not an original part of Hebrew text but were added later by the scribes to fix the pronunciation and form of the word.
|ַ||a (patah)||ָָָ||á (qamec)||ֲ|
|ֶ||e (segol)||ֵ||é (cere)||ֱ|
|ִ||i (chireq)||ִִי||í (chireq)|
|ָָָ||o (qamec chatuf)||וֹ||ó (cholem)||ֳ|
|ֻ||u (qibbuc)||וּ||ú (šureq)|
There are two types of vowels: short and long. In the case of long vowels, their pronunciation must be lengthened. The column titled composite shewa shows special forms of vowels used under guttural consonants. Qamec (a) when appearing before shva, becomes qamec chatuf (o) - it is read differently.
Syllable is a part of a word combined by one or two consonants and vowel. There can be only two syllables: open and close. For example word דָּבָר (word) has two syllables:
- open: דָּ ending on vowel qamec (consonant+vowel)
- close: בָר ending on consonant resh (consonant+vowel+consonant)
or יִשְׂרָאֵל (Israel) having three:
- close: יִשְׂ ending on consonant sin (consonant+vowel+consonant)
- open: רָ ending on vowel qamec (consonant+vowel)
- close: אֵל ending on consonant lamed (consonant+vowel+consonant)
Ability to discern syllables in Hebrew is important in order to determine some grammatical features as will be shown later.
Hebrew accent may appear either on the last syllable (milra') or on the last but one (mil'el). Most of the words are accented on the last syllable. Sign for accent is ( ֫ ) and is located above a word on a particular syllable.
Hebrew text contains some special signs helping to smoother or force specific pronunciation. In order to properly read the Hebrew text, you need to recognize these signs.
Metheg is a short vertical stroke ( ֽ ) at the left of a vowel. It causes a pause in pronunciation. It is kind of a secondary accent (not replacing the primary one).
Its significance is that it closes syllable. This is of special attention to a determination whether we read qamec as "a" or "o".
Here are some examples of words with metheg: הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה ha-ish-shah, אָֽנֹכִי 'a-no-chi, כִּֽי ki.
Sheva ( ְ) indicates an absence of a vowel under a consonant and is provided for pronunciation means. Two kinds of shva are recognized: simple and composite (under gutturals).
Simple sheva is further divided into vocal and silent. Vocal sheva will be present at the beginning of a syllable, while silent at the end of it (closing it). Vocal sheva is transliterated with e or ə. We might encounter four cases:
- vocal: כְּתַבְתֶּם (ke-tav-tem) occurs at the beginning of a vowel and causes the letter כּ pronounced as if it is standalone (e.g. with emphasis)
- silent: כְּתַבְתֶּם (ke-tav-tem) is closing syllable and thus is not pronounced (no emphasis on the letter ב)
- after a long vowel: כֹּתְבִים (kó-tevím) is always pronounced as vocal
- when two sheva occur together: יִכְתְּבוּ (jich-tevú) the first is silent, the second is vocal
- under a consonant with dagesh: דִּבְּרָה (dib-berah) is actually the short form of דִּבְבְרָה, so same rule applies here as in (3)
Simple sheva can not be under gutturals. But they accept composite sheva, which is the combination of sheva plus certain vowel, thus forming halfvowel called chatef: ֲ (a) ֱ (e) ֳ (o). So the word אֱלֹהִים would be pronounced as 'eló-hím.
Maqqef is a hyphen like line ( ־ ) which binds more words together associating their meanings as for example here: אֶת־כָּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב. Such words are grammatically regarded as one word. Only the last word of the group has an accent, others not. This drop of accents may cause changes in vowels.
Dagesh is a small dot ( ּ ) inside a letter. It indicates doubling of a particular letter. There are two kinds of dagesh: weak (lene) and strong (forte)
Strong dagesh could appear inside any letter of the alphabet except gutturals plus ר. It indicates that a letter must be doubled in pronunciation. So for example:
- אִשָּׁה (woman) would be read as 'ish-sháh (letter שׁ must be doubled),
- חַטָּ֣את (sin) as chat-tá't
It is used exclusively in ת ,פ ,כ ,ד ,ג ,ב (bgadkfat) letters. These letters could be pronounced in two ways as portrayed above in the alphabet. We do not pronounce them with doubling.
Mappiq is a small point ( ּ ) inside the letter ה. Since ה at the end of a word is not pronounced, mappiq sign forces its pronunciation. So any word ending with הּ must be read with explicitly pronounced ה like in סוּסָהּ sus-ah.
Rafeh is a thin line ( ֿ ) above a letter and is used for indication of smoother pronunciation. It signifies that:
- dagesh was intentionally left out,
- that letter ה is absent of mappiq
Here are your assignments to get acquainted with lesson's content:
- Learn by heart the alphabet
- Know to recognize the signs
- Gradually rewrite Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (+ try to read it out loud), until you will remember the letters and know pronounciation
4 שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד׃
5 וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃
6 וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃
7 וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֨ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
8 וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
9 וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ ס
The exercise contains words that occur 50 times or more in the Old Testament. Mastering this vocabulary will give you an ability for basic reading of the Old Testament in the Hebrew language.
The Hebrew alphabet has 22 basic letters. It is primarily composed of consonants because vowels are the later addition to transcribe correct pronunciation.
- Hebrew is read from right to left
- Alphabet letters are composed only of consonants
- Vowels are represented by special signs under consonants
- Vocalization of a word is influenced by special signs