Hebrew language

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Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language by around 200 AD, and survived into the medieval period only as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, and, according to Ethnologue, is now the language of 9 million people worldwide, of whom 7 million are from Israel. The United States has the second largest Hebrew speaking population, with about 221,593 fluent speakers, mostly from Israel.

The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), and most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present form is specifically the dialect of Biblical Hebrew that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, around the time of the Babylonian exile. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Leshon HaKodesh (לֶשׁוֹן הֲקוֹדֶשׁ), "The Holy Language", since ancient times.


The name of the language

The modern word "Hebrew" is derived from the word "ivri" (plural "ivrim") one of several names for the Jewish people. It is traditionally understood to be an adjective based on the name of Abraham's ancestor, Eber mentioned in Genesis 10:21. This name is possibly based upon the root "`avar" (עבר) meaning "to cross over" and homiletical interpretations of the term "ivrim" link it to this verb. In the Bible "Hebrew" is called Yehudith (יהודית) because Judah (Yehuda) was the surviving kingdom at the time of the quotation, late 8th century BCE (Isaiah 36, 2 Kings 18). In Isaiah 19:18, it is also called the "Language of Canaan" (שְׂפַת כְּנַעַן)


See Also Hebrew phonology


The Hebrew word for consonants is ‘itsurim (עיצורים). The following table lists the Hebrew consonants and their pronunciation in IPA transcription:

Note: The voiceless

consonants in left,
and The voiced

consonants in right.
Labial Coronal Dorsal Laryn-
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal      m          n        
Plosive p   b     t   d     k   g   ʔ
Affricate       ts            
Fricative   f   v   s   z ʃ         χ ʁ h   
Approximant              j    
Lateral Approximant        l        

The pairs /b, v/, /k, x/ and /p, f/ have historically been allophonic, as a consequence of the phenomenon of spirantization known as "begadkefat". In Modern Hebrew, however, all six sounds are phonemic, due to mergers involving formerly distinct sounds (/v/ merging with /w/, /k/ merging with /q/, /x/ merging with /ħ/), loss of consonant gemination (which formerly distinguished the stop members of the pairs from the fricatives when intervocalic), and the introduction of syllable-initial /f/ through foreign borrowings.

ע was once pronounced as a voiced pharyngeal fricative. Most modern Ashkenazi Jews do not differentiate between א and ע; however, Mizrahi Jews and Arabs pronounce these phonemes. Georgian Jews pronounce it as a glottalized q. Western European Sephardim and Dutch Ashkenazim traditionally pronounce it [ŋ] (like ng in sing)Template:Ndash a pronunciation which can also be found in the Italian tradition and, historically, in south-west Germany. (The remnants of this pronunciation are found throughout the Ashkenazi world, in the name "Yankl" and "Yanki", diminutive forms of Jacob, Heb. {{lang|he|יעקב.)

Historical sound changes

Standard (non-Oriental) Israeli Hebrew (SIH) has undergone a number of splits and mergers in its development from Biblical Hebrew.<ref>Robert Hetzron. (1987). Hebrew. In The World's Major Languages, ed. Bernard Comrie, 686–704. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-520521-9.</ref>

  • BH /b/ had two allophones, [b] and [v]; the [v] allophone has merged with /w/ into SIH /v/
  • BH /k/ had two allophones, [k] and [x]; the [k] allophone has merged with /q/ into SIH /k/, while the [x] allophone has merged with /ħ/ into SIH /χ/
  • BH /t/ and /tˤ/ have merged into SIH /t/
  • BH /ʕ/ and /ʔ/ have usually merged into SIH /ʔ/, but this distinction may also be upheld in educated speech of many Sephardim and some Ashkenazim
  • BH /p/ had two allophones, [p] and [f]; the incorporation of loanwords into Modern Hebrew has probably resulted in a split, so that /p/ and /f/ are separate phonemes.


Hebrew also has dagesh, a phonological process of consonant strengthening that is indicated in fully-pointed texts by a dot placed in the center of a consonant. There are two kinds of strengthenings: light (kal, known also as dagesh lene) and heavy (hazak or dagesh forte). The light version applies to the phonemes /b/ /k/ /p/ (historically, also /ɡ/, /d/ and /t/), causing them to be pronounced as stops rather than fricatives, and operates when the dagesh occurs in the beginning of a word or after a consonant (i.e. a silent shva). The heavy dagesh occurs after vowels and applies to all consonants except gutturals and /r/, originally causing them to be pronounced as geminate (doubled) consonants; it also selects the stop allophone of /b/, /k/, /p/, etc. (In Modern Hebrew, gemination has disappeared, and the hence the heavy dagesh has a phonological effect only on /b/ /k/ /p/, affecting them the same as the light dagesh.) Traditional Hebrew grammar distinguishes two sub-categories of the heavy dagesh according to their historical origin: structural heavy (hazak tavniti) and complementing heavy (hazak mashlim). . Structural heavy dagesh corresponds to consonant doubling that was inherited from Proto-Semitic, and occurs in certain verb conjugations and noun patterns (mishkalim and binyanim; see the section on grammar below). Complementing heavy dagesh corresponds to consonant doubling that arose within Hebrew as a result of consonant assimilation, most commonly of an /n/ to a following consonant (e.g. Biblical Hebrew /attā/ "you (m. sg.)" vs. Classical Arabic /anta/).


See Also Niqqud

thumb|300px|right|The vowel phonemes of Modern Israeli Hebrew The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu'ot (תְּנוּעוֹת). The orthographic representations for these vowels are called Niqqud. Israeli Hebrew has 5 vowel phonemes, represented by the following Niqqud-signs:

phoneme pronunciation in
Modern Hebrew
approximate pronunciation
in English
orthographic representation
"long" *"short" *"very short" / "interrupted" *
/a/[ä](as in "spa") kamats ( ָ ) patach ( ַ ) chataf patach ( ֲ )
/e/ [e̞] (as in "bet") tsere male ( ֵי ) or tsere chaser ( ֵ ) segol ( ֶ ) chataf segol ( ֱ ), sometimes shva ( ְ )
/i/ [i] (as in "ski") chirik male ( ִי ) chirik chaser ( ִ )  
/o/ [o̞] (as in "gore")cholam male ( וֹ ) or cholam chaser ( ֹ ) kamatz katan ( ָ ) chataf kamatz ( ֳ )
/u/ [u] (as in "flu" but with no diphthongization) shuruk (וּ) kubuts ( ֻ )  
* The severalfold orthographic representation of each phoneme attests to the broader phonemic range of vowels in earlier forms of Hebrew. Some linguists still regard the Hebrew grammatical entity of Shva na—marked as Shva (ְ)—as representing a sixth phoneme, /ə/.

In Biblical Hebrew, each vowel had three forms: short, long and interrupted (chataf). However, there is no audible distinction between the three in modern Israeli Hebrew, except that tsere is often pronounced [eɪ] as in Ashkenazi Hebrew.


See Also shva

The Niqqud sign "Shva" represents four grammatical entities: resting (nach / נָח), moving (na' / נָע), floating (merahef / מְרַחֵף) and "bleating" or "bellowing" ('ga'ya' / גַּעְיָּה). In earlier forms of Hebrew, these entities were phonologically and phonetically distinguishable. However, in Modern Hebrew these distinctions are not observed. For example, the (first) Shva Nach in the word קִמַּטְתְ (fem. you crumpled) is pronounced [e̞] ([kiˈmate̞t]) even though it should be mute, whereas the Shva Na in זְמַן (time), which theoretically should be pronounced, is usually mute ([zman]). Sometimes the shva is pronounced like a tsere when accented, as in the prefix "ve" meaning "and".


Hebrew has two frequent kinds of lexical stress, on the last syllable (milrá; מלרע) and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, mil‘él; מלעיל), of which the first is more frequent. Contrary to the prescribed standard, some words exhibit a stress on the antepenultimate syllable or even further back. This occurs often in loanwords, e.g. פּוֹלִיטִיקָה /poˈlitika/, "politics", and sometimes in native Hebrew words, e.g. אֵיכְשֶׁהוּ <ref> Morfix dictionary – אֵיכְשֶׁהוּ</ref>/ˈeχʃehu/, "somehow"; אֵיפֹשֶׁהוּ /ˈefoʃehu/, "somewhere". Colloquial stress is also often shifted from the last syllable to the penultimate, contrary to the prescribed standard, e.g. כּוֹבַע, normative stress /koˈvaʕ/, colloquial stress /ˈkovaʕ/ "hat"; שׁוֹבָךְ normative stress /ʃoˈvaχ/, colloquial stress /ˈʃovaχ/, "dovecote". This is also common in the colloquial pronunciation of many personal names, for example דָּוִד normative stress /daˈvid/, colloquial stress /ˈdavid/, "David".<ref>Netser, Nisan, Niqqud halakha le-maase, 1976, p. 11.</ref>

Specific rules correlate the location or absence of stress in a syllable with the written representation of vowel length and whether or not the syllable ends with a vowel or a consonant.<ref>Theses rules are sometimes slightly different for verbs and nouns; thus the stress in the noun דָּבָר (/daˈvar/, "thing") and the verb גָּבַר (/ɡaˈvar/ "to overpower") are both on the last syllable, even though this syllable is pointed with the sign for a long vowel for the noun and for a short vowel for the verb. Modern classification of vowel diacritics according to the vowel length they allegedly denote, however, might not concur with the historically correct phonological distinction between vowel lengths, see Tiberian vocalization → Full vowels.</ref> Since spoken Israeli Hebrew does not distinguish between long and short vowels, these rules are not evident in speech. They usually cannot be inferred from written text either, since usually vowel diacritics are omitted. The result is that nowadays stress has phonemic value, as the following table illustrates: acoustically, the following word pairs differ only in the location of the stress; orthographically they differ also in the written representation of the length of the vowels, however if vowel diacritics are omitted (as is usually the case in Modern Israeli Hebrew) they are written identically:

common spelling
(Ktiv Hasar Niqqud)
mil‘él-stressed milrá-stressed
spelling with vowel diacritics pronunciation translation spelling with vowel diacritics pronunciation translation
ילדיֶלֶד/ˈjeled/boyיֵלֵד/jeˈled/will give birth
אוכלאֹכֶל/ˈoχel/foodאוֹכֵל/oˈχel/eating (masculine singular participle)

Little ambiguity exists, however, due to context and syntactic features; compare e.g. the English word "conduct" in its nominal and verbal forms.

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