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How to properly pronounce Hebrew

(According to me)

The following is my best reconstruction of the 'proper' way to pronounce Hebrew letters and vowels, according to the text and the Masoretic pronunciation notes (niqud). When I pray or read the Torah, this is how I do so. The pronunciation is based on several logical principles and not on historical research, but it turns out (with one exception) to be very close to scholars' reconstruction of the accent used by the Tiberian Baalei Hamesorah. (Note that it is very unlikely that there ever was one single 'correct' pronunciation used by all Jews - see the Book of Judges. However, since we rely on the Baalei Hamesorah already, I think it most correct to use the pronunciation most consistent with their notations and the actual letters.)

The principles used in this construction are as follows:

  1. Each symbol (letter or niqud) has a single sound, and vice versa.
  2. Dagesh hazaq has a consistent effect on the 6 letters it affects (beth, gimmel, daleth, kaph, peh, taw).
  3. All vowel sounds are pure monophthongs - there are no diphthongs. Similarly, there are no composite consonant sounds (such as /ts/).
  4. Letters that are frequently interchanged have similar sounds.
  5. Pronunciations must be similar to modern pronunciations in all modern dialects; whenever possible, there should be a clear explanation for each divergence.

Consonants

Examples are vocalized with preceding and succeeding patah.
Letter Regular/Dotted Undotted
'Alef Glottal stop '
Beth Voiced bilabial plosive b Voiced labiodental fricative v Note: Although the more logical choice would might been the voiced bilabial fricative (as Ancient Greek "beta"), this is not at all attested in Hebrew; all modern pronunciations have /v/ (except Babylonian which has aspirated /b/, but this seems borrowed, since no other Semitic languages use aspiration).
Gimmel Voiced velar plosive g Voiced velar fricative gh The Yemenite "jimmel" seems a clear borrowing from Arabic, as no other Semitic languages have it, and it breaks the otherwise clear consistency of dagesh hazaq.
Daleth Voiced dental plosive d Voiced dental fricative dh
Heh Voiceless glottal fricative h
Waw Labiovelar approximant w This pronunciation is attested among Yemenites, and is the more plausible by the use of waw as a mater lectionis for shuruq and holam.
Zayin Voiced alveolar fricative z
Heth Voiceless pharyngeal fricative
Teth Voiceless retroflex plosive This admittedly is a tricky one - the other contender was voiceless pharyngealized dental plosive, analagous to sade, but I couldn't pronounce it (so I'm not perfect!). (This is quite similar, in any case...).
Yodh Palatal approximant y
Kaph Voiceless velar plosive k Voiceless velar fricative kh
Lamedh Dental lateral approximant l Pronounced more forward in the mouth than English /l/, but pretty close.
Mem Bilabial nasal m
Nun Alveolar nasal n
Samekh Voiceless alveolar fricative s
`Ayin Voiced pharyngeal approximant
Peh Voiceless bilabial plosive p Voiceless labiodental fricative f Although (as for beth) the more logical choice might have been the unvoiced bilabial fricative (as Ancient Greek "phi"), this is not at all attested in Hebrew; all modern pronunciations have /f/ (except Babylonian which has aspirated /p/, but this seems borrowed, since no other Semitic languages use aspiration).
Sadi Voiceless pharyngealized alveolar fricative
Qoph Voiceless uvular plosive q
Resh Alveolar flap r A trill is also acceptable.
Shin Voiceless palato-alveolar fricative sh Voiceless alveolar fricative s This violates the "one sound, one letter" principle, but what can I do? The close relation of samekh and shin is clear from the book of Judges, in any case. Perhaps sin should be a voiceless retroflex fricative, but this is not attested in any Semitic languages, to my knowledge.
Taw Voiceless dental plosive t Voiceless dental fricative th

Vowels

Examples are vocalized with /d/ and /t/.
Name Sound
Patah Open front unrounded vowel
Qamas Open back rounded vowel
Sere Close-mid central unrounded vowel
Segol Close-mid front unrounded vowel
Holam Mid back rounded vowel
Shuruq Close back rounded vowel
Hiriq Close front unrounded vowel
Shewa (na`) Unaccented mid central unrounded vowel

Note that I do not use a qamas qatan, since the Baalei Mesorah saw fit to use one symbol, not two. Further, there are no "full" vs. "incomplete" versions of vowels caused by the insertion of yod or waw, since it is pretty clear that those letters are simply matres lectiones, inserted to indicate (pretty much) what vowel is there.

Other pronunciation rules

There are a number of other important things about Hebrew pronunciation that are quite standard, but are not as widely known as they should be. Some of them are:

To give an idea of what this sounds like in practice, here is me chanting:


Last modified: Fri Jun 3 11:06:41 CDT 2011