Hebrew Vowels (Diacritics)
 

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Hebrew Vowels (Diacritics)

Usually diacritic marks are written under/above/inside the letter after which they are pronounced. (There are some exceptions, however.)

There are 4 categories of vowels in Hebrew:

  1. Long "Filled" Vowels (which always are indicated by a mater lectionis)
  2. Long "Not Filled" Vowels
  3. Short Vowels
  4. Ultra-Short Vowels

Modern Hebrew grammar distinguishes between usage of long "filled" and long "not filled" vowels; although in Masoretic texts of the Scriptures the usage of the two types was irregular. Later writings start using "filled" long vowels in pretty much consistent way, which became a rule today.

The term used in Hebrew for vocalization mark is נִקּוּד (niqqud.) The official English term is diacrotic marks or diacritics.
 

Long "Filled" Vowels

Vowel

Hebrew Name
of the vowel

  The Sound  
וֹ חוֹלָם מָלֵא
Kholam Maleh O (as [aw] in law) "Stable" long O, which is not changing with name declination.
וּ שׁוּרוּק Shuruk U (as [oo] in food) "Stable" long U, which is not changing with name declination.

אֵי

צֵירֶה מָלֵא
Tzeireh Maleh

E, EI, EY

(as in Eh or Hey!)

Strictly speaking, Tzeireh Maleh can be "filled" not only with Yud, but also with Aleph, or theoreticaly with any of "matres lectionis" (in practice, it's either Yud or Aleph.)

Either EY or E works for both Tzeires (Male and Khaser.) However, in some cases EY is preferred. First of all, there are certain words where EY is traditionally pronounced:

הֵא  [hey] (name of letter Hey) versus more common case like סֵפֶר  [sefer] (book)

or:

בֵּיצָה  [beytza] (egg) versus more common case like סֵפֶר  [sefer] (empty)

Please note, that the Yud in the word ביצה is part of Tzeireh Maleh diacritic, because it does not have a diacritic of its own!

 

Sometimes EY is preferred when we want to distinguish between different grammatical constructs:

שִׁירֵנוּ   [shirenu]   (our song)

שִׁירֵינוּ    [shireynu]    (our songs)


Also, European-born Jews of senior age oftenly pronounce any Tzeire as EY (which is a rule in Ashkenazi/Yiddish tradition.)


Bottom line: the rule of thumb is, Tzeire Male is rather pronounced as EY, while Tzeire Khaser (see below) - as E in most cases. If you use this rule, it will be totally correct, and also understandable and acceptable by native Hebrew speakers.

It's important to not confuse Tzeire Male with a case when comes as an indication of Segol (see below "Special Cases of Filled Vocalization").

אִי חִירִיק מָלֵא
Khirik Maleh I (as [ee] in feed) In modern Hebrew pronunciation there is no difference between long [ee] and short [i]
 

Long "not filled" vowels

אֹ

חוֹלָם חָסֵר
Kholam Khaser O (as [aw] in law)  

אָ

קָמָץ גָדוֹל
Kamatz Gadol A (as [a] in father)  

אֵ

צֵירֶה חָסֵר
Tzeire Khaser E (as [e] in mess)  
 

Short vowels

אָ

קָמָץ קָטָן
Kamatz Katan O (as [aw] in law)  

The general rule is: Kamatz Katan (Small Kamatz) can appear in unstressed closed syllable only; in open or stressed syllable Kamatz should be read as Kamatz Gadol. Examples:

חָכְמָה [khokhma] wisdom
יָשְׁרוֹ [yoshro] his straightforwardness, his honesty
אָמְנָם [omnam] however

 

Of course, every rule has exceptions. Here is the most classic one:

שָׁרָשִׁים [shorashim] roots

אֻ

קֻבּוּץ Kubbutz U (as [oo] in book)  

אַ

פַּתָּח Patakh A (as [a] in father)  

אֶ

סֶגוֹל Segol E (as [e] in mess)  

אִ

חִירִיק חָסֵר
Khirik Khaser I (as [ee] in feed)  
 

Ultra-short (or Reduced) vowels

חֳ חֲטַף־קָמָץ Khataf-Kamatz

Ho

The Khatafs are pronounced same way as corresponding short vowels (kamatz katan, patakh, and segol), but the Khatafs are shorter.

Some scholars claim, that in modern language this shortness is pretty much theoretical; however my personal observation (and my personal sense of language too) approve the opposite.

The Khatafs always appear with guttural sounds (with maybe couple of exceptions all over Hebrew vocabulary.)

חֲ חֲטַף־פַּתָּח Khataf-Patakh

Ha

חֱ חֲטַף־סֶגוֹל Khataf-Segol

He

חְ שְׁוָא Schwa [shva]

He
sometimes Ha

Pronunciation of Schwa diacritic mark (the name is pronounced shva) depends on where it stands in a word.

It either means absense of any vowel ("silent schwa"); or a reduced unstressed vowel, something like the "a" in "about" ("moving schwa".)

 

Daggesh

Daggesh is a dot inside a letter (בּ) used to distinguish between different ways to read that letter.There are two types of dagesh: "light" (dagesh qal) and strong (dagesh khazaq).

Here is a simple example: ב without dagesh at all reads as V (כָּבוֹד - kavod). בּ with dagesh qal is B (בֹּקֶר - boqer), and בּ with dagesh chazaq, which is "theoretically" BB: שַׁבָּת - shabbat. We say "theoretically" because consonant gemination is hardly heard in modern Hebrew (as well as in some other languages which have consonant gemination in writing.

 

Patakh Ganuv

There is a special case, when a Patakh is pronounced before the consonant rather than afterwards. This is so-called sneaky Patakh. It appears under the letters ח ,ע ,ה when those letters are located in the very end of the word, and the sound preceiding the consonant is "incompatible" with the guttural nature of those consonants. To make long story short, if the preceding vowel is not an "A"-sound, the sneaky Patakh is going to sneak in.

By the way, this Patakh is never stressed.

profession miqtzoa` מִקְצוֹעַ
wind; spirit
ruakh רוּחַ
brain moakh מֹחַ
affecting, influencing mashpia` מַשְׁפִּיעַ
high  (m)
gavoah גָּבוֹהַּ
neglecting mazniakh מַזְנִיחַ

Most Israelis though pronounce the Patakh ganuv with Hei and Ain as a regular Patakh: gavoha, miqtzo'a -- or just gavoa, miqtzoa

 

Mappiq

Rarely found, the Mappiq has the following meaning: it indicates that the letter which you might think was a Mater Lectionis, is indeed a consonant. In Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) the Mappiq is found in the letters א and ה; but in the modern language it's used only in ה in the following cases:

  1. Words derived from the root גבה, like:  גֹּבַהּ  govah  (hight), גבוּהַּ gavoah (high), מַגְבִּיהַּ  magbiah (raising).
  2. Suffixes -ah (meaning "her") of noun and preposition derivation: שֶׁלָּהּ  shelah  (her)

The modern Israeli pronunciation is just skipping the Hei with Mappiq, pronouncing it like a Mater Lectionis - an indication of a final A-sound: gavoa, shela.



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