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 Hebrew-101: Some Letters and Vowels (Lesson 1)

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Hebrew-101: Some Letters and Vowels (Lesson 1)

At the beginning we just going to do a lot of learning. Before you start understanding the language structure, some ground should be prepared. We'll start with learning Hebrew letters and vocalization marks (unlike English, those are not exactly letters.) If you "can follow the prayer", like many people do, then you probably can skip this part.

Hebrew letters

  • As you probably know, Hebrew writing goes right to left
  • Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters.
  • Vowels didn't exist in the ancient Hebrew / Phoenician script. The alphabet though couldn't evolve because "not a single letter in the Scripture could be either added or removed". With the time vocalization marks (also called diacritics) came to existance, which are written above/below/inside the normal letters, thus avoiding changing the letters themselves. Torah (and other) scrolls are usually written without any diacritics; printed prayer books usually contain them. In books and newspapers printed in Israel, in 99% of the text vocalization marks are not used.
  • Hebrew term for the vocalization marks is "nekudot" ((literally "dots"), or "nikkud" (vocalization, literally "dotting").
  • Correction to the above: :) Theoretically, most vowels do not "have their own letter"; but in the real life we don't write with the diacritics either. When you write without diacritics, some minimal necessary subset of vowels is actually written with letters. We'll discuss this topic in details later on.

Let's start with the consonants existing in English also:
  Letter Letter Name Pronunciation
1 ghimel g (as in get)
2 dalet d
3 vav v
4 zayin [zaayyin] z (as in zebra)
5 tet t
6 tav t
7 yud (yod) y (as in yet)
8 lamed l
9 mem m
10 noon n
11 samech s
12 kuf (kof) k
13 reish (resh) r (as in German or French)

Happy number of 13 is probably enough for the first lesson. We also need to give some more details on the above. 

  • (Lamed) sounds softer than English "L", it's closer to L in languages like Spanish, French, German, or Arabic.

  • (Vav) - used to be W ages ago; it's evolved into V, but for foreign words it's also used for W: וושינגטון (Washington), שווארמה (shawarma).

    To start reading, you'll need at least some basic vocalization marks. Here are some of them:
      Vocalization Mark Name Pronunciation
    1 patach a (as in father)
    2 kamatz a (as in father)
    3 segol e (as in bed)
    4 tzeire (tzereh) e (as in bed)

    And again, looks like some explanations are needed right away.

    Firstly, why would we need two E and two A?

    In the ancient (around 6-10 centuries CE, that's when the vocalization scheme took place) the A's and E's differed by their length. Kamatz and Tzeire stood for longer vowels, Patach and Segol were short ones.

    Vowel length

    In modern Hebrew spoken in Israel, there is no long and short vowels. Kamatz and Patach are pronounced totally the same. Tzeire almost never differs from Segol. "Short" and "long" sounds of I and O are always exactly the same.

    Distinguishing between the (rather theoretically) short and long vowels is rather important for learning classical Hebrew grammar than for the spoken language. 
    • The only long vowel which can differ from its short counterpart is Tzeire - some Israelis would pronounce it "Yiddish way", like a diphthong EY.

    • Besides long and short vowels, there are reduced or ultra-short vowels. They are always stressless, rather variations of a zero-vowel, second-class citizens among the vowels. In most cases though, their "reduction" is as theoretical as the length of other vowels.


    To apply what we've just learned, let's try to read couple of words. For now just memorize the words, and in a few lessons I'll try to make the learning process somewhat more entertaining.

    Hebrew Transliteration Translation

    yad arm, hand, handle

    mas tax

    nes miracle

    vetek seniority (e.g. at work)

    tal dew

    lamed name of the letter ל

    zaz moving


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