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Hebrew Vowels Made Easy
What are Hebrew Vowels?
Hebrew vowels are the series of dots and dashes that sometimes appear around, above, and below Hebrew letters – such as in Hebrew children's books or in the Hebrew Bible. Here are the names of the Hebrew vowels and what they look like:
What's unique about written Hebrew, however, and what makes it different than written English, is that Hebrew vowels are optional! Although they help readers (especially beginner Hebrew students) know how to pronounce a Hebrew word, for the most part vowels don't appear in Hebrew newspapers or in Modern Hebrew books and magazines.
Hebrew Vowels vs. English Vowels
English words are comprised of a series of consonants and vowels. Without vowels (the letters a, e, i, o, u, ee, oo, etc.), English words cannot be spelled or read. But did you know that with the exception a few Hebrew letters (Hey, Vav, Yud) which help with the pronunciation of certain Hebrew words Hebrew is comprised of almost all consonants? Having said that, there is no doubt that knowing how to read and how to pronounce Hebrew vowels is essential for learning Biblical Hebrew and can be a great aid in learning how to read Hebrew, as well as for reading difficult Hebrew texts.
History of Hebrew Vowels
When Hebrew literacy began to decline during the 6th-10th centuries C.E. (after the Jews in Israel were expelled by the Romans), the rabbis recognized the need for a pronunciation tool to aid in reading Hebrew texts. Since the Hebrew letters were considered sacred and could not be altered themselves, a series of markings around, above, and below the letters was created – resulting in the nikkud or the dots and dashes we are familiar with today. Interestingly, the Hebrew vowel system was developed by a group of Jewish scholars called the Massoretes, or traditionalists, wherein the root verb, "msr," means to 'hand down' or to 'hand over.' And indeed, the original system of Hebrew nikkud developed more than 1,000 years ago is the same Hebrew vowel system used today.
Tip: Hebrew Vowel Pronunciation
If you're just learning how to read Hebrew, here's a Hebrew vowel tip for you:
When reading Hebrew, pronounce the Hebrew letter first, and then pronounce the vowel associated with it. The exception to the rule is when a vowel occurs under a guttural Hebrew letter at the very end of a word, such as under the Hebrew letter Chet in the word "ëç " (Koach), meaning strength. Here you would pronounce the vowel first and then the Hebrew letter.
The Hebrew Vowels
- The Chirik appears as a single dot below and in the center of a Hebrew letter; the Chirik is pronounced as "ee," such as in the English words "we" and "neat.".
- The Cholam appears as a single dot above and to the left of a Hebrew letter (or on top of the letter Vav); the Cholem has a short "o" sound, such as the English words "dot," "hot," "caught."
- The Shuruk appears as a single dot inside the letter Vav and sounds like a long "oo" such is in the English words "pool" and "school." Note that sometimes the dot that appears inside the letter Vav is a Dagesh (see below), and in that case the Vav is pronounced like the English letter "v" rather than as "oo."
- The Kubbutz appears as three small diagonal dots below a Hebrew letter and makes a long "oo" sound, such as in the English words "blue" and "crew."
- The Patach and Kamatz are closely associated, appearing as a short straight horizontal line under a Hebrew letter or a similar straight line with a small vertical line, resembling a mini "T." These Hebrew vowels sound like a long and short "a"; the Patach is used when there is a closed syllable, and the Kamatz is used when there is an open syllable.
- The Segol and Tsere are also closely related Hebrew vowels, appearing as three small dots in the shape of a triangle under a Hebrew letter, or as two small dots in a horizontal line a letter The Segol and Tsere make a medium to long "e" sound, such as in the English words "elephant," Eskimo," and "egg."
- The Shva appears as two small dots in a vertical line beneath a Hebrew letter and is used to indicate that either there is no vowel for that particular Hebrew letter, or that there is only a short half-vowel, sounding like the short "i" in the English words "it," "is," and "in." These two forms of the Shva are known as the resting Shva (no vowel sound) or the moving Shva (a short half-vowel sound). When you learn how to read Hebrew, you will learn how pronounce the Shva as it appears in various Hebrew words.
- The Dagesh is the dot which appears in the center of some Hebrew letters, such as in the letters Beit, Kaf, and Pei. When the dot is present, the letter has a hard sound (such as the English consonants b, k, and p); without the Dagesh, the letters have a soft sound (pronounced like the English v, ch, and f). The Dagesh also appears on the right or the left upper side of the Hebrew letters Shin and Sine, altering their pronunciation accordingly.
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