Ashkenazi Hebrew

Ashkenazi Hebrew

Ashkenazi Hebrew is the pronunciation system for Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew favored for liturgical use by Ashkenazi Jewish practice. Its phonology was influenced by languages with which it came into contact, such as Yiddish and various Slavic languages. It survives today as a separate religious dialect even alongside Modern Hebrew in Israel.


As it is used parallel with Modern Hebrew, its phonological differences are clearly recognized:
* א "transl|sem|ʾālep̄" and ע "transl|sem|ʿáyin" are completely silent at all times in most forms of Ashkenazi Hebrew, where they are frequently both pronounced as a glottal stop in modern Hebrew. (Compare "Yisroeil" (Lithuanian) or "Yisruayl" (Polish-Galician) vs. "Yisra'el" (Modern).) A special case is Dutch (and historically also Frankfurt a.M.) Hebrew, where ‘ayin is traditionally pronounced as a velar nasal ( [IPA|ŋ] ), probably under the influence of the local Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
* ת "transl|sem|ṯāw" is pronounced [IPA|s] in Ashkenazi Hebrew, unless there is a Dagesh in the ת, where it would be pronounced [t] . It is always pronounced [t] in Modern Hebrew, (Compare "Shabbos" vs. "Shabbat", or "Es" vs. "Et".)
* The vowel "transl|sem|ṣērê" (/e/) is pronounced [ej] (or [aj] ) in Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it would be pronounced [e] in Sephardi Hebrew; Modern Hebrew varies between the two pronunciations. (Compare "Omein" (Lithuanian) or "Umayn" (Polish-Galician) vs. "Amen" (Modern Hebrew).)
* The vowel "transl|sem|qāmeṣ gāḏôl" (/a/) is pronounced [o] (occasionally [u] ) in Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it is [a] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare "Dovid" (Lithuanian) or "Duvid" (Polish-Galician) vs. "David".)
* The vowel "transl|sem|ḥôlam" (/o/) is, depending on the subdialect, sometimes pronounced [au] , [ou] , [oi] or [ei] in Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it is [o] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare "Moishe" vs. "Moshe".)
*Unstressed "qubbutz" or "shuruq" (/u/)occasionally becomes [i] in Ashkenazi Hebrew, when in all other forms they are pronounced [u] ("Kíddish" vs. "kiddúsh".)
*There is some confusion (in both directions) between final "tzere" (/e/) and "hiriq" (/i/) ("Tishrei" vs. "Tishri"; "Sifri" vs. "Sifre".)
*In earlier centuries the stress in Ashkenazi Hebrew usually fell on the penultimate, instead of the last syllable as in most other dialects. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a campaign by Ashkenazi rabbis such as Jacob Emden and the Vilna Gaon to encourage final stress in accordance with the stress marks printed in the Bible. This was successful as concerned liturgical use such as reading from the Torah. However, the older stress pattern persists in the pronunciation of Hebrew words in Yiddish and in early modern poetry by Bialik and Tchernichovsky.


There are considerable differences between the Lithuanian, Polish (also known as Galician) and German pronunciations. These are most obvious in the treatment of "transl|sem|ḥôlam": the German pronunciation is [au] , the Galician/Polish pronunciation is [oi] and the Lithuanian pronunciation is [ei] . Other variants exist: for example in the United Kingdom, the original tradition was to use the German pronunciation, but over the years the sound of "holam" has tended to merge with the local pronunciation of long "o" as in "toe", and some communities have abandoned Ashkenazi Hebrew altogether in favour of the Israeli-Sephardi pronunciation. (Haredi communities in England usually use the Galician/Polish [oi] ).


There have been several theories on the origins of the different Hebrew reading traditions. The basic cleavage is between those who believe that the differences arose in medieval Europe and those who believe that they reflect older differences between the pronunciations of Hebrew and Aramaic current in different parts of the Fertile Crescent, that is to say Judaea, Galilee, Syria, northern Mesopotamia and Babylonia proper.

The difficulty with the second group of theories is that we do not know for certain what the pronunciations of these countries actually were and how far they differed. Since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, if not before, the Sephardic pronunciation of the vowels became standard in all these countries, ironing out any differences that previously existed. [To a lesser extent the same is true for the consonants, though the Jews of Iraq retain /IPA|w/ for "vav" and /IPA|θ/ for "tav raphe", and the Jews of Arabic countries generally retain emphatic and guttural consonant sounds: see Mizrahi Hebrew.] This makes it harder to adjudicate between the different theories on the relationship between today's pronunciation systems and those of ancient times.

Leopold Zunz believed that the Ashkenazi pronunciation was derived from that of Palestine in Geonic times (7th-11th centuries CE), while the Sephardi pronunciation was derived from that of Babylonia. This theory was supported by the fact that, in some respects, Ashkenazi Hebrew resembles the western dialect of Syriac while Sephardi Hebrew resembles the eastern, e.g. Eastern Syriac "Peshitta" as against Western Syriac "Peshito". Ashkenazi Hebrew in its written form also resembles Palestinian Hebrew in its tendency to "male" spellings (see Mater lectionis).

Others who believed that the distinction is more ancient, and represents the distinction between the Judaean and Galilean dialects of Hebrew in Mishnaic times (1st-2nd centuries CE), with the Sephardi pronunciation being derived from Judaean and the Ashkenazi from Galilean. This theory is supported by the fact that Ashkenazi Hebrew, like Samaritan Hebrew, has lost the distinct sounds of many of the guttural letters, while there are references in the Talmud to this as a feature of Galilean speech. Idelsohn ascribes the Ashkenazi (and, on his theory, Galilean) pronunciation of kamatz gadol as /o/ to the influence of Phoenician.

Zimmels believed that the Ashkenazi pronunciation arose in late medieval Europe and that the pronunciation prevailing in France and Germany in the time of the Tosafists was similar to the Sephardic. His evidence for this was the fact that Asher ben Jehiel, a German who became chief rabbi of Toledo, never refers to any difference of pronunciation, though he is normally very sensitive to differences between the two communities.

In the time of the Masoretes (8th-10th centuries CE) there were three distinct notations for denoting vowels and other details of pronunciation in Biblical and liturgical texts. One was the Babylonian; another was the Palestinian; the third was the Tiberian, which eventually superseded the other two and is still in use today.

In certain respects the Ashkenazi pronunciation provides a good fit to the Tiberian notation: for example, it distinguishes between "patach" and "kamatz gadol", and between "segol" and "tzere", and does not make the "kamatz" symbol do duty for two different sounds. A distinctive variant of the Tiberian notation was in fact used by Ashkenazim, before being superseded by the standard version. On the other hand it is unlikely that in the Tiberian system "tzere" and "holam" were diphthongs as they are in Ashkenazi Hebrew: they are more likely to have been closed vowels. (On the other hand, these vowels sometimes correspond to diphthongs in Arabic.) For more details of the reconstructed pronunciation underlying the Tiberian notation, see Tiberian vocalization.

In other respects Ashkenazi Hebrew resembles Yemenite Hebrew, which appears to be related to the Babylonian notation. Shared features include the pronunciation of "kamatz gadol" as [IPA|o] and, in the case of Lithuanian Jews and some but not all Yemenites, of "holam" as [IPA|eː] . These features are not found in the Hebrew pronunciation of today's Iraqi Jews, which as explained has been overlaid by Sephardi Hebrew, but are found in some of the Judeo-Aramaic languages of northern Iraq and in the Christian Aramaic of Syria.

One possibility is that these features were found within an isogloss that included Syria, northern Palestine and northern Mesopotamia but not Judaea or Babylonia proper, and did not coincide exactly with the use of any one notation (and the "holam" = [IPA|eː] shift may have applied to a more restricted area than the "kamatz gadol" = [IPA|o] shift). The Yemenite pronunciation would, on this hypothesis, be derived from that of northern Mesopotamia and the Ashkenazi pronunciation from that of northern Palestine. The Sephardic pronunciation appears to be derived from that of Judaea, as evidenced by its fit to the Palestinian notation.

Influence on modern Hebrew

Although Modern Hebrew was intended to be based on Mishnaic spelling and Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation, the language as spoken in Israel has adapted to Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology in the following respects:

*the elimination of pharyngeal articulation in the letters "het" and "ayin"
*the conversion of "resh" from an alveolar flap to a voiced uvular fricative or trill (see Guttural R)
*the pronunciation of "tzere" as [eɪ] in some contexts ("sifrey" and "teysha" instead of Sephardic "sifré" and "tésha"' )
*the elimination of vocal "sheva" ("zman" instead of Sephardic "zĕman")
*some of the letter names ("yud" and "kuf" instead of Sephardic "yod" and "qof")
*in popular speech, penultimate stress in proper names ("Dvóra" instead of "Dĕvorá"; "Yehúda" instead of "Yehudá")
*similarly, penultimate stress in nouns or verbs with a second or third person plural suffix ("katávtem" [you wrote] instead of "kĕtavtém"; "shalom aléykhem" [greeting] instead of "shalom alekhém"). [These pronunciations may have originated in learners' mistakes formed on the analogy of other suffixed forms ("katávta", "alénu"), rather than being examples of residual Ashkenazi influence.]



* Ilan Eldar, "Masoret ha-qeri'ah ha-kedem-Ashkenazit" (The Hebrew Language Tradition in Medieval Ashkenaz), Edah ve-Lashon series vols. 4 and 5, Jerusalem (Hebrew)
* A. Z. Idelsohn, "Die gegenwärtige Aussprache des Hebräischen bei Juden und Samaritanern", in: "Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums" 57 (N.F.: 21), 1913, p. 527-645 and 698-721.
* Dovid Katz, "The Phonology of Ashkenazic," in: Lewis Glinert (ed.), "Hebrew in Ashkenaz. A Language in Exile", Oxford-New York 1993, p. 46-87.
*S. Morag, 'Pronunciations of Hebrew', Encyclopaedia Judaica XIII, 1120-1145
* Werner Weinberg, "Lexikon zum religiösen Wortschatz und Brauchtum der deutschen Juden", ed. by Walter Röll, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 1994.
* Zimmels, "Ashkenazim and Sephardim: their Relations, Differences, and Problems As Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa" : London 1958 (since reprinted). ISBN 0-88125-491-6

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