Modern Hebrew phonology

Modern Hebrew phonology

This article is about the phonology of the Hebrew language based on the Israeli dialect. It deals with current phonology and phonetics as well as with historical developments thereof, including geographical variants.

Hebrew has been used primarily for liturgical, literary, and scholarly purposes for most of the past two millennia. As a consequence, its pronunciation has been strongly influenced by the vernacular of each individual Jewish community. In contrast to the varied development of these pronunciations is the relatively rapid development of modern Israeli Hebrew.

The two main pronunciations of Modern Israeli Hebrew are Oriental and Non-Oriental.[1] Oriental Hebrew was chosen as the representative variant by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, but has declined in popularity.[1]



Below are the consonants of modern General Israeli Hebrew. Some historically distinctive Hebrew phonemes have merged in modern Hebrew, such as historically distinctive /t/, /θ/, /tˤ/ (now all pronounced [t]), written respectively by the letters Tav (תּ), Ṯav (ת) and Ṭet (ט). The exact nature of the emphatic feature for emphatic consonants is a matter of debate; the most commonly suggested possibilities are pharyngealization (as in Arabic) and glottalized (as in the Ethiopian Semitic languages). For these cases, the Academy of the Hebrew Language suggests two transliteration sets, a generic one, reflecting modern phonology, and a strict one, reflecting the orthographic distinctions, which are still in use, and the historical phonology.[2]

Phonemic Consonants of Modern Hebrew
  Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Nasal m   n    
Plosive p   b   t   d     k   ɡ ʔ
Affricate     ts 1  
Fricative   f   v s   z ʃ   ʒ χ (ħ   ʕ) 3 h
Approximant   l j w ʁ̞ 2

Historical notes

  1. ^ In old Hebrew the /ts/ was emphatic (pharyngealized) /sˤ/. (Currently, the only community of Hebrew-speakers that expresses this in speech are Yemenite Jews, whose Hebrew preserves many distinctions lost by other communities under the influence of Yiddish and other European languages.) However, the emphasis led to several types of phonetic change that still exist.
  2. ^ /ʁ̞/ is the rhotic consonant for most speakers. This was originally an alveolar trill /r/ but has changed due to the influence of European languages[citation needed].
  3. ^ The pharyngeal consonants (/ħ/ and /ʕ/) are articulated only by a portion of the population of Israel, mainly some Mizrahi Jews and Yemenite Jews. Common Modern Hebrew does not treat them as separate phonemes from /χ/ and /ʔ/ respectively, and these latter two predominate in articulation.

The pairs /b v/, /k χ/, and /p f/, written respectively by the letters bet (ב), kaf (כ) and pe (פ) have historically been allophonic. In Modern Hebrew, however, all six sounds are phonemic, due to mergers involving formerly distinct sounds: (/v/ merging with /w/, /k/ merging with /q/, /x/ merging with /ħ/ (which both have become /χ/), loss of consonant gemination (which formerly distinguished the stop members of the pairs from the fricatives when intervocalic), and the introduction of syllable-initial /f/ through foreign borrowings (see Begadkefat).

Consonant clusters

In obstruent clusters, a voicing assimilation usually occurs as native Hebrew speakers tend to voice or devoice the first obstruent according to the second one.


  1. לסגור /lisˈɡor/ [lizˈɡoʁ̞] ('to close'), /s/[z]
  2. זכות /zχut/ [sχut] ('a right'), /z/[s]
  3. חשבון /χeʃˈbon/ [χeʒˈbon] ('a bill'), /ʃ/[ʒ]
  4. מדפסת /madˈpeset/ [matˈpeset] ('a printer'), /d//t/
  5. אבטחה /avtaˈχa/ [aftaˈχa] ('security'), /v/[f]

Dropped consonants

In normal speech, /ʔ/ is dropped when occurring between vowels, and /j/ is dropped when occurring between vowels where the first is a front vowel (/e/ or /i/) or the second is /i/. /h/ between vowels may also be dropped, especially in fast speech. Hence, /ma ha-ʃaˈʔa/ "what's the time?" becomes [mahaʃaˈa] or [maaʃaˈa].


The vowel phonemes of Modern Israeli Hebrew. Based on Laufer (1999)

The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu'ot (תְּנוּעוֹת). The orthographic representations for these vowels are called Niqqud. Israeli Hebrew has 5 vowel phonemes.

Phoneme Example
/a/ [ʔäv] אב 'father'
/e/ [ʔe̞m] אם 'mother'
/i/ [ʔiʃ] איש 'man'
/o/ [ʔo̞ʁ] אור 'light'
/u/ [ʔäduˈmä] אדומה 'red' (f)


The Hebrew Niqqud sign "Shva" was traditionally classified as representing four grammatical entities: resting (nakh / נָח), moving (na' / נָע), floating (merahef / מְרַחֵף) and "bleating" or "bellowing" (ga'ya / גַּעְיָה). In earlier forms of Hebrew, these entities were phonologically (and, in part, phonetically) distinguishable. However, the phonology of Modern Hebrew has produced two phonetic variants of Shva, either [e] or mute, which no longer conform to the traditional classification, e.g. the (first) Shva Nach in the word קִמַּטְתְ (fem. you crumpled) is pronounced [e] ([kiˈmatet]) instead of being mute, whereas the Shva Na in זְמַן (time) is mute ([zman]). In general, in Modern Hebrew, some shvas are always pronounced [e] (particularly, in prefixes like [be-] "in" or when following another shva in grammatical patterns, e.g. [tilmedi] "you (f. sg.) will learn"), while the remaining shvas are pronounced only when not pronouncing them would violate a phonological constraint (for example, between two sounds that are identical or differ only in voicing, e.g. [lamadeti] "I learned" not *[lamadti]; or when an impermissible initial cluster would result, e.g. *[rC-] or *[Cʔ-], where C stands for any consonant).


Hebrew has two main kinds of stress: on the last syllable (milra‘) and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, mil‘el). The former is more frequent. The stress has phonemic value, e.g. "ילד", when pronounced /ˈjeled/, means "boy", whereas when pronounced /jeˈled/ it means "will give birth to".

In older varieties of Hebrew, stress placement was determined by the length of the vowels in the last syllable. However, Modern Hebrew has lost distinctive vowel length, so these rules are now opaque. They are also not evident from written text, unless niqqud is used (which preserves the length distinctions which have been lost in speech). The rules that specified the vowel length were different for verbs and nouns, which influenced the stress; thus the mil‘el-stressed /ˈʔoχel/ 'food' and milra‘-stressed /ʔoˈχel/ 'eats (masculine)' differ only in original vowel length. Little ambiguity exists in writing, however, due to nouns and verbs having incompatible roles in most sentences. This is also true in English - compare "conduct", in its nominal and verbal forms.

Tiberian Hebrew had only these two stress patterns. Modern Hebrew, however, has a moderate number of words which are neither milra nor mil‘el, but are stressed on the antepenult or even further back. These are mostly borrowings, e.g. /ˈotobus/ 'bus', /uniˈveʁsita/ 'university'. Some, however, result from epenthetic shvas (see above), e.g. /laˈmadeti/ 'I learned' from /laˈmad+ti/, and a handful are native Hebrew words with an added clitic, e.g. /ˈmiʃehu/ 'someone' (/mi/ 'who' plus /ʃehu/ '-ever, any').

Regional and historical variation

The following table contains the pronunciation of the Hebrew letters in reconstructed historical forms and dialects using the International Phonetic Alphabet. The apostrophe-looking symbol after some letters is not a yud but a geresh. It is used for loanwords with non-native Hebrew sounds and only in Israeli Hebrew. The dot in the middle of some of the letters, called a "dagesh kal", also modifies the sounds of the letters ב, כ and פ in modern Hebrew (in earlier forms of Hebrew it used to modify also the sounds of the letters ג, ד and ת; the "dagesh chazak" – orthographically indistinguishable from the "dagesh kal" – designates gemination, which today is realized only rarely – e.g. in biblical recitations or when using Arabic loanwords).

Symbol Pronunciation
Israeli Ashkenazi Sephardi Yemenite Tiberian Reconstructed
Mishnaic Biblical
א [ʔ, -] [ - ] [ʔ, -] [ʔ, -] [ʔ, -] [ʔ, -] [ʔ]
בּ [b] [b] [b] [b] [b] [b] [b]
ב [v] [v~v̥] [b~β~v] [β] [v] [β]
גּ [ɡ] [ɡ~ɡ̊] [ɡ] [dʒ] [ɡ] [ɡ] [ɡ]
ג [ɡ~ɣ] [ɣ] [ɣ] [ɣ]
ג׳ [dʒ] N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
דּ [d] [d~d̥] [d̪~ð] [] [] [] []
ד [d̪~ð] [ð] [ð] [ð]
ה [h~ʔ, -] [h, -] [h, -] [h, -] [h, -] [h, -] [h]
ו [v] [v~v̥] [v] [w] [w] [w] [w]
וּ [u] [uː, iː] [uː] [əw]  ?  ?  ?
וֹ [] [əʊ, ɔj, ɛj, ɐʊ] [o] [œ]  ?  ?  ?
וו), ו׳)
[w] N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
ז [z] [z~z̥] [z] [z] [z] [z] [d͡z]
ז׳ [ʒ] N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
ח [χ~ħ] [x] [ħ] [ħ] [ħ] [ħ] [ħ, x]
ט [t] [t] [t̪] [t̴̪] (1) [t̴̪] [t̪ˤ] (2) [t̪ʼ] (3)
י [j] [j] [j] [j] [j] [j] [j]
‏ִי [i] [i] [i]  ?  ?  ?  ?
כּ ךּ [k] [k] [k] [k] [k] [k] [k]
כ ך [χ] [x] [x] [x] [x] [x]
ל [l] [l~ɫ] [l] [l] [l] [l] [l]
מ ם [m] [m] [m] [m] [m] [m] [m]
נ ן [n] [n] [] [] [] [] []
ס [s] [s] [s] [s] [s] [s] [t͡s]
ע [ʔ~ʕ, - ] [ - ] [ʕ, ŋ, - ] [ʕ] [ʕ] [ʕ] [ʕ, ɣ]
פּ [p] [p] [p] [p] [p] [p] [p]
פ ף [f] [f] [f] [f] [f] [ɸ]
צ ץ [t͡s] [t͡s] [t͡s] [s̴] (1) [s̴] [sˤ] (2) [t͡sʼ, t͡ɬʼ] (3)
צ׳ ץ׳ [t͡ʃ] N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
ק [k] [k] [k] [ɡ], [ɢ], [q] [q] [q] [] (3)
ר [ʁ] [ɹ]~[ʀ] [r]~[ɾ] [r]~[ɾ] [ɾ] [ɾ] [ɾ]
שׁ [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [s]
שׂ [s] [s] [s] [s] [s] [s] [ɬ]
תּ [t] [t] [] [] [] [] []
ת [s] [θ] [θ] [θ] [θ]
  1. velarized or pharyngealized
  2. pharyngealized
  3. sometimes said to be ejective but more likely glottalized.


  1. ^ a b Laufer 1999, p. 96.
  2. ^ See transliteration rules set by the Academy of the Hebrew Language
  3. ^ "Transliteration Rules".  issued by the Academy of the Hebrew Language states that both [v] and [w] be indistinguishably represented in Hebrew using the letter Vav. Sometimes the Vav is indeed doubled, however not to denote [w] as opposed to [v] but rather, when spelling without niqqud, to denote the phoneme /v/ at a non-initial and non-final position in the word, whereas a single Vav at a non-initial and non-final position in the word in spelling without niqqud denotes one of the phonemes /u/ or /o/. To pronounce foreign words and loanwords containing the sound [w], Hebrew readers must therefore rely on former knowledge and context, see also pronunciation of Hebrew Vav.


See also

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