Yemenite Hebrew

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Yemenite Hebrew (Hebrew: עִבְֿרִיתֿ תֵּימָנִיתֿ ‘iḇrīṯ tēmānīṯ, Arabic: العبرية اليمنيةal-‘ibriyyah al-yamaniyyah), also referred to as Temani Hebrew, is the pronunciation system for Biblical and liturgical Hebrew traditionally used by Yemenite Jews. Yemenite Jews brought their language to Israel through immigration. Their first organized immigration to the region began in 1882.

It is believed by some scholars that its phonology was heavily influenced by spoken Yemeni Arabic. Yet, according to other scholars as well as Rabbis including Rabbi Yosef Kapach and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Temani Hebrew was not influenced by Yemenite Arabic, as this type of Arabic was also spoken by Yemenite Jews and is distinct from the liturgical Hebrew and the conversational Hebrew of the communities.[1] Among other things, Rabbi Kapach notes that the Yemenite Jews spoke Arabic with a distinct Jewish flavor, inclusive of pronouncing many Arabic words with vowels foreign to the Arabic language, e.g., the קמץ and צירי.[2] Hence, pronunciation of Yemenite Hebrew was not only uninfluenced by Arabic, but it influenced the pronunciation of Arabic by the Jews, despite the Jewish presence in Yemen for over a millennium.

Among the dialects of Hebrew preserved into modern times, Yemenite Hebrew is regarded as one of the forms closest to Hebrew as used in ancient times, particularly Tiberian Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew. This is evidenced in part by the fact that Yemenite Hebrew preserves a separate sound for every consonant - except for ס sāmeḵ and שׂ śîn, which are both pronounced /s/,[3] but which had already merged in ancient times, as evident in the spelling variants in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[4]

Distinguishing features[edit]

  • There are double pronunciations for all six bəgadkəpat letters: gímel without dāḡēš is pronounced غ /ɣ/ like Arabic ġayn, and dāleṯ without dāḡēš is pronounced ذ /ð/ as in "this".
  • The pronunciation of tāv without dāḡēš as ث /θ/ as in "thick" is shared with other Mizrahi Hebrew dialects such as Iraqi.
  • Vāv is pronounced /w/ as in Iraqi Hebrew and as و in Arabic.
  • Emphatic and guttural letters have the same sounds as in Arabic, so ḥêṯ ح = ח /ħ/ and ʻáyin ע is ع /ʕ/. The Sefardic pronunciation of ח and ע, however, is of a weaker nature.
  • There is no distinction between the vowels paṯaḥ and səḡôl all being pronounced /æ(ː)/ like Arabic fatḥa (this feature may reflect Arabic influence, but is also found in old Babylonian Hebrew, where a single symbol was used for all three). A šəwâ nāʻ, however, is identical to a חטף פתח and חטף סגול.
  • Šəwâ nāʻ follows Tiberian conventions: /i/ before yôḏ, assimilated to the vowel of a following guttural consonant (ʼālep̄, , ḥêṯ, ʻáyin), and /æ/ elsewhere.
  • Qāmeṣ gāḏôl is pronounced /ɔː/, as in Ashkenazi Hebrew. The Yemenite pronunciation for קמץ גדול and קמץ קטן is identical.
  • Final with mappîq (a dot in the centre) has an aspirated sound, generally stronger sounding than the regular . אַלַף with a dagesh (a dot) - a rare occurrence - is pronounced, e.g., the word וַיָּבִיאּוּ in Genesis 43:26.[5]
  • A semivocalic sound is heard before paṯaḥ gānûḇ (paṯaḥ coming between a long vowel and a final guttural): thus rûaḥ (spirit) sounds like rúwwaḥ and sîaḥ (speech) sounds like síyyaḥ. (This is shared with other Mizrahi pronunciations, such as the Syrian.)

Yemenite pronunciation is not uniform, and Morag has distinguished five sub-dialects, of which the best known is probably Sana'ani, originally spoken by Jews in and around Sana'a. Roughly, the points of difference are as follows:

  • In some dialects, ḥōlem (long "o" in modern Hebrew) is pronounced /øː/ (anywhere from non-rhotic English "er" to German o-umlaut), while in others it is pronounced /eː/ like ṣêrệ. (This last pronunciation is shared with Lithuanian Jews.)
  • In some dialects, gímel with dāḡēš is pronounced like English "j" /dʒ/, and qôp̄ is pronounced /ɡ/. In others, gímel with dāḡēš is /ɡ/, and qôp̄ is Classical Arabic uvular ق /q/. (This reflects the difference between the Sana'ani and Adeni dialects of Yemeni Arabic.)
  • Some dialects (e.g. Sharab) do not differentiate between bêṯ with dāḡēš and without. This is in accordance with most of Mizrahi Hebrew.
  • Sana'ani Hebrew primarily places stress on the penultimate syllable, as in Ashkenazi Hebrew.


Yemenite Hebrew may have been derived from, or influenced by, the Hebrew of the Geonic era Babylonian Jews: the oldest Yemenite manuscripts use the Babylonian rather than the Tiberian system of vowel symbols. In certain respects, such as the assimilation of paṯaḥ and səġūl, the current Yemenite pronunciation fits the Babylonian notation better than the Tiberian. It does not follow, as claimed by some scholars, that the pronunciation of the two communities was identical, any more than the pronunciation of Sephardim and Ashkenazim is the same because both use the Tiberian symbols. In fact there are certain characteristic scribal errors, such as the confusion of ḥōlam with ṣêrệ, found only or mainly in the Yemenite manuscripts[citation needed], indicating that the assimilation of these two vowels was always a Yemenite peculiarity, or else a local variant within the wider Babylonian family, which the Yemenites happened to follow. It should be noted that these sounds are only identical in a minority of Yemenite Jews (e.g. the Sharabi Yemenite Jews), as opposed to that of the Sana'ani pronunciation which most Yemenite Jews use.

The following chart shows the seven vowel paradigms found in the Babylonian supralinear punctuation, which are reflected to this day by the Yemenite pronunciation of Biblical lections and liturgies, though they now use the Tiberian symbols. For example, there is no separate symbol for the Tiberian səġūl and the pataḥ, and amongst Yemenites they have nearly the same phonetic sound.[6]

vowels with ב Supralinear--qamas.jpg Supralinear--patah.jpg Supralinear--sere.jpg Supralinear--mobile shewa.jpg Supralinear--holam.jpg Supralinear--hiraq.jpg Supralinear--shuraq.jpg
qameṣ[7] paṯaḥ,
ṣerê[8] shewā mobile
(šĕwā naʻ)[9]
ḥōlam[10] ḥiraq šūraq,
value /o/ /a/ /ei/ /ĕ/ /äu/ /i/ /u/


  1. ^ Rav Kook's Orah Mishpat question regarding Kiryat Sh'ma "וביחוד למי שמשנה ממבטא התימני המוחזק אצלם מדורות הראשונים שהוא המדויק שבמבטאים כמפורסם שבודאי אסור לעשות כן".
  2. ^ "מסורות הגייה ושליטת העברית בקרב יהודי תימן" in Rabbi Yosef Kapach's Collected Papers, volume 2, pages 943-946 (Hebrew). Following is a relevant portion thereof: טענה זו אמנם אפשרית באופן תיאורי ואפשר להשליכה לא רק כאן אלא גם בכל מקום אחר, אלא שהיא מצד מהותה טענה מאוד תלוּשה וזקוּקה היא לבסיס כל שהוּא שתחול עליו, אחרת, הרי היא נשארת מרחפת ללא תנוחה ודינה להתנדף ולהעלם, כי כל ממש אין בה. כל שכן כאשר אנו מוצאים כדמות ראיה לאידך גיסא, כלומר, במצאנו בניב העברית של יהוּדי תימן דבר שאינו בשפת הסביבה, יש בכך משוּם הוכחה שמסורת זו שמרה על כלילוּתה וסגוּלותיה הייחוּדית. ננסה להדגים בשני מישורים, במישור הסימניות, כלומר, האותות, ובמישור התנוּעות. האות פ הדגוּשה, הברה זו אינה מצוּיה בשפה הערבית ואין דוברי הערבית מסכּינים לבטאה, וכאשר מזדמנת להם אות זו במלים משפה זרה, מחליפים אותה באות ב. ואילוּ היהוּדים מבטאים אותה בקלוּת ומבחינים היטב בינה לבין כל הברה אחרת הדומה לה, כדרך שהם מבחינים היטב בשאר כל אותות בגד כפת הדגוּשות והרפוּיות. שניה לה האות ב הרפוּיה. גם הברה זו אינה מצוּיה בשפה הערבית ויהוּדי תימן מבטאים אותה בקלוּת וּללא כל מאמץ, ואילוּ הערבים כאשר מזוּמנת להם הברה זו בציטוט משפה זרה מבטאים אותה כאות פ הרפוּיה המצוּיה בלשונם — כי לא הסכּינוּ לה. שתי אלה ודומיהם שׂמים לאַל לדעתי את הטענה, כי הבחנת יהוּדי תימן בין ג רפוּיה ודגוּשה באה להם מן הערבית, למרות שבעלי טענה זו אין להם תחליף ייחוּדי להברות אלה, כי אילוּ היה ממש בטענת ההשפּעה הערבית, איכה נשתמרוּ להם ליהודי תימן הברות עבריות יחוּדיות אלה, אמור מעתה מציאוּתם של הברות בלעדיות כגון אלה מקשים ומכבידים על תחוּלתה של טענת ההשפּעה הזרה.
  3. ^ S. Morag, 'Pronunciations of Hebrew', Encyclopaedia Judaica XIII, 1120-1145
  4. ^ Elisha Qimron, The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Harvard Semitic Studies 29, 1986:29. However, the precise pronunciation of the phoneme /s/ in the Dead Sea Scrolls requires a reexamination of Hebrew, Punic, and Greek.
  5. ^ As is heard in the recording of Aharon Amram's cantillation (mms:// [which begins with verse 24]).
  6. ^ Shelomo Morag, Ha-Ivrit she-be-fi Yehude Teman (Hebrew as pronounced by Yemenite Jews), Academy of the Hebrew Language: Jerusalem 1963, pp. 92-99; 119-120 (Hebrew)
  7. ^ The Yemenite pronounciation of this vowel is like the Ashkenazic pronounciation thereof or like the holam in the Sefardic pronunciation (Rabbi Kapach, Collected Papers volume 2, page 931). According to an ancient Judeo-Arabic work on Hebrew grammar, Maḥberet Ha-Tīğān, the sound of the qameṣ is made by "clinching the mouth and holding it." See: Maḥberet Kitrei Ha-Torah (ed. Yoav Pinhas Halevi), chapter 5, Benei Barak 1990, p. 19 (Hebrew). In the Babylonian supralinear punctuation there is no separate symbol for the shĕwā qameṣ; rather, the one symbol as shown here is used for both the qameṣ and the shĕwā qameṣ (ḥataf qameṣ).
  8. ^ The Yemenite pronounciation of this vowel has no English equivalent; it is like the sefardic pronunciation thereof.
  9. ^ This symbol is used strictly as a mobile Shewā (Heb. שוא נע), unlike the Shewā quiescens (Heb. שוא נח) which has no symbol in the Babylonian supralinear punctuation. The mobile Shewā as a symbol is used to differentiate in eight major grammatical entities in Hebrew prescriptive linguistics. For example, whenever a Shewā appears at the beginning of a word, it renders the vowel a mobile vowel, as in the Hebrew word "floating" (meraḥef / מְרַחֵף), or as in לְפָנָי (lefanai) or שְׁמַע (shema) (Deut. 6:4); or whenever a diacritical vertical line known as a Ji'ya / גִּעְיָה (lit. "bleating" or "bellowing") would normally appear next to a Shewā. For example, in the words הַֽמְקַנֵּ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לִ֑י, (Num. 11:29), the Shewā beneath the Hebrew character mim becomes a mobile Shewā because of the Ji'ya (small vertical line) beneath the Hebrew character he. In all these cases the Shewā gives an audible sound to the letter, as in a short "a" or short "e", and is not mute. Likewise, whenever a Shewā appears in the middle of a word and the letter has a diacritical point within it (i.e., dagesh), as in the pe of מִפְּנֵיכֶם (Lev. 18:24), it too will become a mobile Shewā (na / נָע) - with some exceptions, e.g., the word אֶתּרוֹג according to the Yemenite tradition - as will a word that has two Shewā's written one after the other, as in the word רַעְמְסֵס (Exo. 12:37), or in the word ּוַיִּשְׁמְעו (Gen. 3:8), etc. the first Shewā is resting (mute), while the second Shewā is a mobile Shewā. The symbol is also used in the Babylonian supralinear punctuation to denote a Shewā and Pataḥ that are written together in the Tiberian vowel system, or a Shewā and Segūl that are written together in the Tiberian vowel system, as in the words אֲנִי and אֱמֶת. See: Maḥberet Kitrei Ha-Torah (ed. Yoav Pinhas Halevi), chapter 5, Benei Barak 1990, pp. 20, 22-23, 31 (Hebrew). See also נקוד, טעמים ומסורת בתימן by Rabbi Kapach in Collected Papers, volume 2, page 931.
  10. ^ Abraham Z. Idelsohn (1882 – 1938) wrote in his momentous work, Phonographierte Gesänge und Aussprachsproben des Hebräischen der jemenitischen, persischen und syrischen Juden, Vienna 1917, concerning the differences in pronunciation between the Jews of Ṣanʻā’ and the Jews of the provinces in Yemen: “…The difference subsists in the vowel [ḥolam] וֹ, [which] in Ṣanʻā’ is äu <like in Häuser, very close to oy in Yiddish, without accentuating too much the "i" of "oy">, [and] in the Provinces is ä <like in mächtig, or the French è, like the first "e" when saying Esther in Hebrew>. Furthermore, the consonant [‘ayin] "ע" [in] Ṣanʻā’ = ‘, [but in the] Provinces is י (yod) <transcription of ij with the "j" audible>; also א and ע they pronounce the same way. (Analogies can also be found in the Yemenite Arabic). Moreover, the [dotted] גּ in Ṣanʻā’ is dj <pronounced like the French "j" which is like the English "g" in Geneva>, [but] in the provinces it is like "g" <as in "go">.”


  • Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (1996). A History of the Hebrew Language. trans. John Elwolde. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55634-1. 
  • S. Morag, 'Pronunciations of Hebrew', Encyclopaedia Judaica XIII, 1120–1145
  • Morag, Shelomo (1963). Ha-Ivrit she-be-fi Yehude Teman (Hebrew as pronounced by Yemenite Jews). Jerusalem: Academy of the Hebrew Language. 
  • Yeivin, I., The Hebrew Language Tradition as Reflected in the Babylonian Vocalization: Jerusalem 1985 (Hebrew)

Further reading[edit]

  • מסורות הגייה ושליטת העברית בקרב יהודי תימן (Hebrew) in Rabbi Yosef Kapach's Collected Papers, volume 2, pages 943-946.
  • מלמדי תינוקות ודרכי הלימוד (Hebrew), beginning on page 50 in Halichoth Teiman (1963).
  • נקוד, טעמים ומסורת בתימן (Hebrew) in Rabbi Yosef Kapach's Collected Papers, volume 2, pages 931-936.
  • אלף בי (Hebrew): A popular Yemenite alaph bei book.
  • השירה והלחנים בתפילת יהודי תימן (Hebrew) in Rabbi Yosef Kapach's Collected Papers, volume 2, pages 958-960.

External links[edit]