Hebrew alphabet

Hebrew alphabet

The Hebrew alphabet (alephbet ’ivri) consists of 22 letters used for writing the Hebrew language. Five of these letters have a different form when appearing as the last letter in a word. The Hebrew letters are also used in mildly adapted forms for writing several languages of the Jewish diaspora, most famously Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic (for a full and detailed list, see Jewish languages). Hebrew is written from right to left.

The Hebrew word for "alphabet" is אלפבית (alephbet or alfabet), named after the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet is an abjad, having letters only for consonants, but means were later devised to indicate vowels by separate vowel points or niqqud. In rabbinic Hebrew, the consonant letters אהוי are used as matres lectionis to represent vowels.

The number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, their order, their names, and their phonetic values are virtually identical to those of the Aramaic alphabet, as both Hebrews and Arameans borrowed the Phoenician alphabet for their uses during the end of the 2nd millennium BCE.

According to contemporary scholars, the modern script used for writing Hebrew (usually called the Jewish script by scholars, and also traditionally known as the square script, block script, or Assyrian script — not to be confused with the Eastern variant of the Syriac alphabet) evolved during the 3rd century BCE from the Aramaic script, which had been used by Jews for writing Hebrew since the 6th century BCE, retaining the old script only for the Name of God. Prior to that, Hebrew was written using the old Hebrew script, which evolved during the 10th century BCE from the Phoenician script; the Samaritans still write Hebrew in a variant of this script for religious works (see Samaritan alphabet). For other opinions, see below.

History

According to contemporary scholars, the original Hebrew script developed alongside others in the region during the course of the late second and first millennia BCE; it is closely related to the Phoenician script, which itself probably gave rise to the use of alphabetic writing in Greece (Greek). It is sometimes claimed that around the 10th century BCE a distinct Hebrew variant, the paleo-Hebrew alphabet, emerged, which was widely used in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah until they fell in the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, respectively. It is not straightforward, however, to distinguish Israelite/Judahite scripts from others which were in use in the immediate area, most notably by the Moabites and Ammonites.

Following the Babylonian exile, Jews gradually stopped using the Hebrew script, and instead adopted the Aramaic script (another offshoot of the same family of scripts). This script, as used for writing Hebrew, later evolved into the Jewish, or "square" script, that is still used today. Closely related scripts were in use all over the Middle East for several hundred years, but following the rise of Christianity (and later, the rise of Islam), they gave way to the Roman and Arabic alphabets, respectively.

The Hebrew square script was later adapted to write down the languages of the Jewish diaspora (Karaim, Judæo-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, etc.). The Hebrew alphabet was retained as the alphabet used for writing down the Hebrew language during its rebirth in the 18th to 19th century.

Letter table

The Hebrew alphabet consists of the following letters, five of which have a different form at the ends of words, known as the final form. These are shown in the table below the normal form.

Aleph Bet/Vet Gimel Dalet He Vav Zayin Chet Tet Yud Kaph/Khaph
א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כ
ך
Lamed Mem Nun Samekh Ayin Pe/Phe Tsadi Quph Resh Shin/Sin Tav
ל מ נ ס ע פ צ ק ר ש ת
ם ן ף ץ

Description

Both the old Hebrew script and the modern Hebrew script have only one case, but some letters have special final forms, called sofit (Heb. סופית, meaning in this case "final" or "ending") form, used only at the end of a word, somewhat as in the Arabic and Mandaic alphabets. As can be seen in the tables given here, only five letters have a sofit form: ך → כ (kaph and khaph), ם → מ (mem), ן → נ (nun), ף → פ (pe and phe), ץ → צ (tsadi or tsade).

The Hebrew alphabet is an abjad: vowels are normally not indicated. Where they are, it is because a weak consonant such as aleph, hey, vav, or yod has combined with a previous vowel and become silent, or by imitation of such cases in the spelling of other forms. When used to write Yiddish, the Hebrew writing system uses consonants to indicate all the vowels (see Yiddish orthography), except where Hebrew words are written in Yiddish.

To preserve the proper vowel sounds, scholars developed several different sets of vocalisation and diacritical symbols called niqqud (literally "applying points"). One of these, the Tiberian system, eventually prevailed. Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, and his family for several generations, are credited for refining and maintaining the system. These points are normally used only for special purposes, such as Biblical books intended for study, in poetry or when teaching the language to children. The Tiberian system also includes a set of cantillation marks used to indicate how scriptural passages should be chanted, used in synagogue recitations of scripture (although these marks do not appear in the scrolls), called "trope". In everyday writing of modern Hebrew, niqqud are absent; however, patterns of how words are derived from Hebrew roots (called shoreshim, or triliteral roots) allow Hebrew speakers to determine the vowel-structure of a given word from its consonants based on the word's context and part of speech.

Hebrew letters may also be used as numbers; see the entry on Hebrew numerals. This use of letters as numbers is common in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in a practice known as gematria, as well as in the Hebrew calendar.

Names, scripts, values, and transliteration of the letters

The following table is a breakdown of each letter in the Hebrew alphabet, showing the letter, its name, its numerical value, and its transliteration for English. There are five letters with a second, "final form", used at the end of words, represented below on the right-hand side of the letter's column. For additional ancestral scripts, see History of the Hebrew alphabet → Ancestral scripts and script variants

Symbol

Name Israeli
Transliteration
Numerical
Value

Scripts
Israeli Ashkenazi Unicode

Hebrew

Ancestral
Cursive Rashi Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew Aramaic
א

alef alef alef

- (1)

1 | align="center" |
ב

bet, vet beis, veis bet

b, v

2 | align="center" |
ג

gimel gimmel gimel

g

3 | align="center" |
ד

dalet daled dalet

d

4 | align="center" |
ה

he hei he

h (2)

5 | align="center" |
ו

vav vov/vof vav

v

6 | align="center" |
ז

zayin zayin zayin

z

7 | align="center" |
ח

khet ches het

kh (or ch/h) (3)

8 | align="center" |
ט

tet tes tet

t

9 | align="center" |
י

yod yud yord

y (4)

10 | align="center" |
כ ך

kaf, khaf kof, chof kaf

k, kh (or ch)

20 | align="center" | | align="center" |
ל

lamed lomed lamed

l

30 | align="center" |
מ ם

mem mem mem

m

40 | align="center" | | align="center" |
נ ן

nun nun nun

n

50 | align="center" | | align="center" |
ס

samekh somech samekh

s

60 | align="center" |
ע

ayin ayin/oyin ayin

- (5)

70 | align="center" |
פ ף

pe, fe pei, fei pe

p, f

80 | align="center" | | align="center" |
צ ץ

tsadi tsodi/tsodik tsadi

ts (or tz/z)

90 | align="center" | | align="center" | ,
ק

kuf kuf qof

k (or q)

100 | align="center" |
ר

resh reish resh

r

200 | align="center" |
ש

shin, sin shin, sin shin

sh, s

300 | align="center" |
ת

taf tov/tof, sov/sof tav

t

400 | align="center" |

  1. unwritten in initial and final positions, though often not written at all
  2. unwritten in final positions
  3. "h" initial or after consonants, "ch" everywhere else
  4. "i" in final positions or before consonants
  5. often not written at all

Pronunciation

The descriptions that follow are based on the pronunciation of modern standard Israeli Hebrew. For a concise summary, see the article International Phonetic Alphabet for Hebrew. For further information on regional and historical variations in pronunciation, see Hebrew phonology.

Letters א בּ ב ג גּ ג׳ ד דּ ד׳ ה ו וּ וֹ וו) , ו׳) ז ז׳ ח ט י
IPA [[ʔ|[ʔ]]] (non-standard) [uː] [oː] (non-standard)
Letters יִ כּ ךּ ך כ ל ם מ ן נ ס ע פּ ףּ פ ף ץ צ ץ׳ צ׳ ק ר שׁ שׂ תּ ת ת׳
IPA [ʔ~ʕ, - ] [[ʦ|[ʦ]]]

Shin and sin

Shin and sin are represented by the same letter, , but are two separate phonemes. They are not mutually allophonic. When vowel diacritics are used, the two phonemes are differentiated with a shin-dot or sin-dot; the shin-dot is above the upper-right side of the letter, and the sin-dot is above the upper-left side of the letter.

Symbol

Name

Transliteration

IPA chart for Hebrew

Example
(left dot) sin s /s/ sour
(right dot) shin sh /ʃ/ shop

Dagesh

Historically, the consonants bet, gimel, dalet, kaf, pe and tav each had two sounds: one hard (plosive), and one soft (fricative), depending on the position of the letter and other factors. When vowel diacritics are used, the hard sounds are indicated by a central dot called dagesh while the soft sounds lack a dagesh. In modern Hebrew, however, the dagesh only changes the pronunciation of bet, kaf, pe, and tav (tav only changes in Ashkenazi and Yemenite pronunciations).

With dagesh

Without dagesh
Symbol Name Transliteration IPA for Hebrew Example

Symbol Name Transliteration IPA for Hebrew Example
bet b /b/ bun vet v /v/ van
kaph k /k/ kangaroo khaph kh/ch/k /χ/ loch
pe p /p/ pass phe ph/f /f/ find
tav t /t/ talent sav* s /s/ sorry
* Only in Ashkenazi pronunciations. In Israeli Hebrew, it is always a tav, with a /t/ sound.
** The letters gimmel (ג) and dalet (ד) also have dagesh (dotted) forms, but these do not differ phonetically from the forms without the dagesh in most of the Modern Hebrew dialects. Israeli Hebrew also exhibits no phonetic distinction between tav (ת) with or without a dagesh.

Same pronunciation

In Israel's general population, many consonants have the same pronunciation. They are:

Letters Transliteration Pronunciation (IPA)

aleph*

ayin*
- /ʔ/

vet (without dagesh)

vav
v /v/

chet

khaph (without dagesh)
kh/ch/h /χ/

tet

tav
t /t/

kaph (with dagesh)

qoph
k /k/

samekh

sin (with left dot)
s /s/

tsadi*

tav-samech*
and
tav-sin*
ts/tz /ts/
* Varyingly

Matres lectionis

aleph, he, vav and yod are consonants that can sometimes fill the position of a vowel. The latter two in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants.

Symbol Name Vowel value
א

aleph

ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô
ה

he

ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô
ו

vav

ô, û
י

yud

î, ê, ệ

Pronunciation of Ancient Hebrew

Some of the variations in sound mentioned above are due to a systematic feature of Ancient Hebrew. The six consonants /b g d k p t/ were pronounced differently depending on their position. These letters were also called BeGeDKePHeT letters. (The full details are very complex; this summary omits some points.) They were pronounced as stops [b g d k p t] at the beginning of a syllable, or when doubled. They were pronounced as fricatives when preceded by a vowel (commonly indicated with a macron, [ḇ ḡ ḏ ḵ p̄ ṯ]). The stop and double pronunciations were indicated by the dagesh. In Modern Hebrew the sounds [ḏ] and [ḡ] have reverted to [d] and [g] respectively, and [ṯ] has become [t], so only the remaining three consonants /b k p/ show variation.

Diacritics

Niqqud is the system of dots the help determine vowels and consonants. In Hebrew, all forms of niqqud are often omitted in writing, except for children's books, prayer books, poetry, foreign words, and words which would be ambiguous to pronounce.

Vowel points

Israeli Hebrew has five vowel phonemes, , but many more written symbols for them:

Name

Symbol

Israeli Hebrew
IPA chart for Hebrew

Transliteration

English
example
Hiriq [i] i see
Zeire [ɛ] and [ɛi] e and ei frame,
main
Segol [ɛ], ([ɛi] with
succeeding yod)
e, (ei with
succeeding yod)
men
Patach [a] a car
Kamatz [a], (or [ɔ]) a, (or o) car
Holam [ɔ] o cone
Shuruk [u] u tube
Kubutz [u] u tube
Note Ⅰ: The symbol "O" represents whatever Hebrew letter is used.
Note Ⅰ: The zeire is pronounced correctly as ei in modern Hebrew.
Note Ⅱ: The dagesh, mappiq, and shuruk have different functions, even though they look the same.
Note Ⅲ: The letter ו (vav) is used since it can only be represented by that letter.

Sh'va

By adding two vertical dots (called Sh'va) underneath the letter, the vowel is made very short.

Name

Symbol

Israeli Hebrew
IPA chart for Hebrew

Transliteration

English
example
Sh'va [ɛ] or Ø apostrophe, e,
or nothing
silent
Reduced Segol [ɛ] e men
Reduced Patach [a] a fall
Reduced Kamatz [ɔ] o cone

Comparison table

Vowel comparison table
Vowel Length
(phonetically not manifested in Israeli Hebrew)

IPA chart for Hebrew

Transliteration

English
example
Long Short Very Short
[a] a spa
[ɛ] e temp
ֳ [ɔ] o cone
n/a [u] u tube
[i] i ski
Note I: By adding two vertical dots (sh'va)
the vowel is made very short.
Note II: The short o and long a have the same niqqud.
Note III: The short o is is usually promoted to a long o
in Israeli writing for the sake of disambiguation
Note IV: The short u is is usually promoted to a long u
in Israeli writing for the sake of disambiguation

Not used in Hebrew

Symbol Explanation
These are intended for Yiddish. They are not used in Hebrew. See: Yiddish orthography.
The rafe niqqud is no longer used in Hebrew. It is still seen in Yiddish. In masoretic manuscripts, the soft fricative consonants are indicated by a small line on top of the letter. Its use has been largely discontinued in printed texts.

Gershayim

The symbol is called a gershayim and is a punctuation mark used in the Hebrew language to denote acronyms. It is written before the last letter in the acronym. Gershayim is also the name of a note of cantillation in the reading of the Torah, printed above the accented letter.

Non-native sounds

The sounds [ʧ], [ʤ], [ʒ], written "", "", "" and [w], standardly transliterated as "" (while "" normally is a [v]), non-standardly sometimes transliterated or ‎, are found in many loanwords that are part of the everyday Hebrew colloquial vocabulary, even among people who don't know the source languages. The apostrophe-looking symbol after the Hebrew letter modifies the pronunciation of the letter and is called a geresh.

English loanwords
Name

Symbol

IPA chart for Hebrew

Transliteration

Example
Gimel with a geresh [ʤ] j George 'ג׳ורג
Zayin with a geresh [ʒ] varies Jabotinsky
Jacques
ז׳בוטינסקי
ז׳אק
Tsadi with a geresh [ʧ] ch Chernobyl צ׳רנוביל
Vav with a geresh
or double Vav
or [w] (non standard) w William וויליאם
Tav with a geresh [θ] th Thurston ת׳רסטון

Arabic loanwords
Name

Symbol

IPA chart for Hebrew

Arabic letter

Example Comment
Khet with a geresh [χ] Ḫāʼ (خ) Sheikh (شيخ)‎ שייח׳
Ayin with a geresh [ʁ] Ġayn (غ) Ghaja'r ע׳ג׳ר
Dalet with a geresh [ð] Ḏāl (ذ)
th
Dhu al-Hijjah (ذو الحجة)‎ ד׳ו אל-חיג'ה * Also used for English voiced th
* Often a simple ד is written.
Tet with a geresh [ðˁ] Ẓāʼ (ظ) Tanzim (تنظيم)‎ תנט׳ים * In scientific and professional writing
* Transliterated as a regular ז in colloquial writing (תנזים)
Tsadi with a geresh [dˁ] Ḍād (ض) Ramaān רמצ׳אן * In scientific and professional writing
* Transliterated as a regular ד in colloquial writing (רמדאן)
Using וו to represent [w] is, however, non-standard, while still done; standard spelling rules determine that in ktiv male—i.e. text without niqqud—a "double vav" (וו) is used to indicate a vav in a non-initial and non-final position denoting the consonant [v], as opposed to a vav denoting the vowels [u] or [ɔ], which is indicated by a single ו.

A geresh is also used to denote initialisms and to denote a Hebrew numeral. Geresh is the name of one of the notes of cantillation in the reading of the Torah, but its appearance is different from that of the modern printed geresh.

Unicode and HTML

The Unicode Hebrew block extends from U+0590 to U+05FF and from U+FB1D to U+FB40. It includes letters, ligatures, combining diacritical marks (niqqud and cantillation marks) and punctuation. The Numeric Character References is included for HTML. These can be used in many markup languages, and they are often used in Wiki to create the Hebrew glyphs compatible with the majority of web browsers.

See also

Biblical Hebrew References

External links

Keyboards

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