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 Hebrew Alphabet
 

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Hebrew Alphabet

This page summarizes the Hebrew alphabet, explaining in brief the pronunciation of each letter, telling the story of Hebrew letters and how they correspond to modern Western alphabets, and so on.

ת ש ר ק צ פ ע ס נ מ ל כ י ט ח ז ו ה ד ג ב א
Letter Transcription / Sound
Numeric value Name of the letter

א

"empty" sound 1 אָלֶף    Aleph (Alef)

The letter A of European alphabets (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic) originates from the letter Aleph. The Greeks adopted it from Phoenicians and turned into a vowel sign. Same way Aleph is used in Yiddish. However, in Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Aleph is a guttural consonant, sounding like a voice pause in the middle of "uh-oh".

Normally, Aleph is an "empty consonant", or a "placeholder" with a diacritic mark (a vowel.) Aleph is pronounced as "guttural consonant" only when the speaker makes the best effort to pronounce the word "the right way".

Sometimes Aleph is used in Hebrew for vowels either. It can happen when, e.g., Aleph is part of the root, but loses its own diacritics: תאמר <= אמר), in the suffix -אי like in words: זכאי, רשאי, חשמלאי, in some words with traditional spelling with no particular rules: שמאל, צאן, נכאת, ראש, נאד, and sometimes in foreign words and names.

 

Letter
(variants)
Transcription / Sound  Numeric value Name of the letter

ב

B 2 בֵּית    Bet

בּ

V
בֵּית רָפָה, בֵית
   
Bet Rafa (Soft Bet), Vet

The letter Beth is a close relative of English B.

Bet has two "versions": B (with dagesh - a point inside the letter) and V (withot dagesh.) Bet can have dagesh qal (see Lesson 3.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ג

G (as in get, grab) 3
גִּימֶל    Gimel
 
(pronounced with G as in get
rather than gym)

The letter Gimel (ghee-mel) is a close relative of English G.

In ancient times the letter Gimel had two versions, like Bet/Vet. Some North-African Jewish communities kept the different pronunciation for Gimel Dgusha and Gimel Rafa, but no difference exists in modern Israeli pronunciation. Still, Gimel can have dagesh qal (see Lesson 3.)

Gimel with a Geresh (an apostrophe) - - is used to mark the English (or Arabic) consonant J/Ge, like in joke, gem. This consonant (J) does not exist in any Hebrew word.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ד

D 4
דָּלֶת    Dalet

The letter Dalet corresponds to D in English.

The story of Dalet is similar to the one of Gimel: on the paper, two variants exist: Dalet Dgusha and Dalet Rafa. Modern pronunciation does not discriminate between them, but Dalet can have dagesh qal (see Lesson 3.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ה

H 5
הֵא    He, Hei, Hey

The letter Hei corresponds to what? Nope, it's not "H". It's "E"! Here is approximately how Hei looked in Ancient Hebrew script: It passed the same way as Aleph, evolving through the Greek letter Epsilon to Latin E. Pronunciation of Hei is pretty much like H in English.

Hei is also used as a sign of a vowel at the end of the word (usually vowel A or E, rarely O.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ו

V (W) 6
וָו    Vav

The Letter Vav is related to Latin U, V, W, and even Y and F, through Greek Upsilon and obsolete Greek Fau. All those European letters are descendants of Phoenician Vav. (U, V, and W were splitted to separate letters centuries later after Romans adopted the alphabet.)

Ancient Vav was pronounced like W in English (and it's still pronounced that way in Arabic and Aramaic.) The remnants of this pronunciation can be traced in conjunction (): is the only case in Hebrew, when a diacritic (shuruq) is written without corresponding consonant. The explanation is, conjunction was once pronounced like w- with a "most convenient" vowel, i.e. convenient to pronounce before the word following the conjunction word itself. In some cases we- turned to wu-, and the "w" before the "u" was hardly recognizable and disappeared with the time.

In modern Hebrew the consonant is totally equivalent to V.

is also used as W in foreign words, coming from languages where the sound W is present (like English or Arabic.)

In certain cases is used as a sign of vowels O () and U (). When writing without Niqud, always comes as a vowel O and U, sometimes even as ultra-short O (אוניה.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ז

Z 7
זַיִן    Zain, Zayin

Zayin () is equivalent to Z.

Zayin with a Geresh (apostrophe) - ' - comes as a sign of G in French Geneve. (This is slightly different from J in joke.) Zayin with a Geresh is rarely used even for foreign words (mainly of French or Russian origin.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ח

Kh 8
חֵית    Het, Chet, Khet

The letter Khet is related to Latin H and Greek letter ήτα.

Originally Semitic guttural sounds, Khet lost its guttural nature under the influence of European languages (and became undistinguishable from Chaf), although some immigrants from Arab countries, mainly from Yemen, still preserve the guttural sound of Khet.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ט

T 9
טֵית    Tet

To make long story short, Tet is pronounced as T. Just remember for now, that there is another T in Hebrew, which is the letter Tav. (The relations of two Hebrew T's with Greek Tau and Theta are really messy.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

י

Y 10
יוֹד    Yod, Yud

The letter Yud is the relative of I and J of European languages (J sounds like Y in yellow, in languages like German and French.)

The letter corresponds to consonant Y; and also comes as a sign of "long" vowel I (like ee in feed.) In non-vocalized writing is also used for shorter I. is also used for a longer E or diphthong EI. Also, means short E in certains constructs (היקף, היתר), and even in vocalized writing (מִצְווֹתֶיךָ.) Words ending with "-av" (which is a declination suffix -, but not only), also marks the presence of the vowel A (עכשיו - [`achshav] - "now", עיניו - [`einav] - "his eyes".)

 

Letter
(variants)
Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

כּ

K 20
כָּף    Kaph (Kaf)

כ

Kh
כָּף רָפָה, כָף
 
Kaf Rafa, Khaf

ך

כָּף סוֹפִית
 
Kaf Sofit

The letter Kaf is related to Latin K and Greek Kappa.

Kaf is pronounced in two ways: K and Kh (similar to ch in German.) Kh has no similar sound in any English word, but it's found in foreign words like Yiddish chutzpe, tukhes, German Ich, natuerlich, etc. Unfortunately, there is no English word with a Kh-sound.

Kaf also has a special Final form, to be written at the end of the word. In modern Hebrew only the Khaf is written in the final form, and when somebody wants to put Kaf at the end of the word (e.g. in borrowed Arabic words), the regular כ is used. In traditional Hebrew, however, we find the use in final ךּ with dagesh: וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ל

L 30
לָמֶד    Lamed

The letter Lamed is similar to L; in Middle East, and in Israel in particular, it's pronounced slightly "softer" than English L. It can be compared to L in lead.

 

Letter
(variants)
Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

מ

M 40
מֵם    Mem

ם

מֵם סוֹפִית
  
Mem Sofit

Just M. :)

Mem has a special "final" form to be written at the end of a word.

 

Letter
(variants)
Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

נ

N 50
נוּן    Nun

ן

נוּן סוֹפִית
  
Nun Sofit

Just N, as simple as that.

Like Mem, Nun has a special "final" form to be written at the end of a word.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ס

S 60
סָמֶך    Samekh

Samekh is related to Latin X (surprise!) and Greek Xi. There is another S in Hebrew, which is Sin; there is no difference in pronunciation between Sin and Samekh. The correct spelling should be just memorized. Samekh is usually used in foreign word, and it is also in most cases in Hebrew words; however, many very commonly used words are spelled with Sin (see Shin/Sin for details.)

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ע

`
70
עַיִן    Ayin, Ain

Surprisingly, the letter Ain is the "relative" of the O in European alphabets! Greeks adopted the Phoenician Ain (which was written like O in older Hebrew script) and turned it into a vowel. In semitic languages, however, this letter has nothing to do with O; this is a specific guttural sound, which can be compared to something between very light French R and the vowel A in father. Uh, well, did I say "A"? Ain is still a consonant, of course!

In modern Hebrew the Ain is pronounced mainly by the Mizrahim (the Jews who came from Arabic-speaking countries) and, well, by the Arabs, of course (unless they want to make an effort to speak "like average Israeli".) Most of the others (including Israeli-born children of Mizrahim) adopt "average Israeli" pronunciation, which makes Ain pronounceable only when the right spelling is about to be indicated (which happens in pretty rare cases, e.g., to distinguish between the words הארה and הערה, which still have pretty close meaning: "clarification" and "remark". Most people even don't bother to pronounce the Ain, and just say "heara be-ain, lo be-alef")

 

Letter
(variants)
Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

פּ

P 80
פֵּא    Peh, Pei, Pey

פ

F

פֵּא רָפָה, פֵא
  
Peh Rafa, Feh

ף

פֵּא סוֹפִית
  
Peh Sofit

The letter Pei is related to P.

The letter has two pronunciations: P (pei dgusha) and F (fei, or pei rafa), and therefore, it can have dagesh qal (Lesson 3.)

Like Nun or Kaf, Pei has a special Final form.

If we want to write a foreign word or name which has P at the end, we use regular Pei (not the final form): Philipp: פיליפ

 

Letter
(variants)
Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

צ

TZ 90
צָדִי    Tzadi (Tzady)

ץ

צָדִי סוֹפִית
  
Tzady Sofit

The letter Tzadi doesn't have corresponding sisters in Latin or Greek; however, it was borrowed to Cyrillic in the form of Ц [tz] and Ч [ch].

Like Nun, Tzadi has a special Final form.

Today the pronunciation of Tzadi in Israeli Hebrew is pretty much the same as corresponding sound in Yiddish or German. However, older pronunciation of Tzadi was probably closer to S (as it is in Arabic), and this explains why the name יצחק is written as Isaac.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ק

K 100
קוּף    Kuf, Quf

Kuf corresponds to Q in Latin, and to Koppa in archaic Greek.

Ancient pronunciation was different, sometimes referred as "guttural K", but today it's just a regular K.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ר

R 200
רֵישׁ    Resh, Reish

Reish corresponds to R by all means.

Interestingly, although the guttural pronunciation of Reish is usually referred to Yiddish/German origin, however, from perspective of diacritic rules, the morphology etc, Reish was considered "semi-guttural". The "right Hebrew pronunciation" is considered to be the pronunciation similar to that in Spanish or Arabic. Most Israelis, still, use "Yiddish-style" pronunciation of Reish as de-facto norm.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

שׁ

SH 300
שִׁין    Shin

שׂ

S

שִׂין    Sin

Shin came to Greek as Sigma, Latin S, and later was borrowed to Cyrillic almost in its original form: Ш.

There are actually two letters, (Shin) and (Sin) - meaning, Sh and S, respectively. Don't be confused by the shape: these are two phonemes, two different entities, which never turn into each other. They have totally separate meaning. In non-vocalized text they are written exactly the same though. In the alphabet they also come together. Strange? It is. Nobody really knows why did it happen this way.

In Hebrew words there is no "rule" to distinguish between the cases when S should be indicated by Samekh or Sin. In most Hebrew words Samekh is taking the place of S; however, many very commonly used words are spelled with Sin: ישראל, בשר, שר, משרד, לשרוד.

There is also no way to know whether the written ש is S or SH. One should just memorize the roots of Hebrew words.

 

Letter Transcription / Sound Numeric value Name of the letter

ת

T 400
תָּו    Tav

Tav is the relative of Latin T and Greek Tau.

Once it had two pronunciations: T and TH (as in thin.) Sepharadi tradition didn't keep TH; Ashkenazi tradition distinguished between T and TH, but turned TH to S: Shabbes, mitzves.

In modern Israeli Hebrew both Tav Dgusha and Tav Rafa are pronounced as T, but of course, Tav can have dagesh qal (Lesson 3).

 

ת ש ר ק צ פ ע ס נ מ ל כ י ט ח ז ו ה ד ג ב א


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