Hebrew spelling (Hebrew: כתיב עברי /ktiv ʕivˈri/, "Hebrew spelling") refers to the way words are spelled in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew alphabet contains 22 letters, all of which are primarily consonants. This is because the Hebrew script is an abjad, that is, its letters indicate consonants, not vowels or syllables. An early system to overcome this, still used today, is matres lectionis, where four of these letters, Alef, He, Vav and Yud also serve as vowel letters. Later, a system of vowel points to indicate vowels (diacritics), called niqqud, was developed.
Throughout history, there have been two main systems of Hebrew spelling. One is vocalized spelling, the other is unvocalized spelling.
In vocalized spelling (ktiv menukad), all of the vowels are indicated by vowel points (called niqqud). In unvocalized spelling (ktiv male), the vowel points are omitted, but some of them are substituted by additional vowel letters (Vav and Yud). This system is the spelling system commonly used in Israel today.
Vowel points are always optional in Hebrew. They can be used fully, partially or not used at all. The recommended approach endorsed today by the Academy of the Hebrew Language and other Israeli educational institutions is to use the 'plene' spelling when not adding vowel dots (which is the usual case), and place a vocalization sign on a letter only when ambiguity cannot be resolved otherwise. The 'defective' spelling is recommended for fully vocalized text, hence its use is becoming rare. Texts older than 50–60 years may be written in an unvocalized 'defective' spelling (for example, the word ħamiším "fifty", was written חמשים on banknotes issued by the British Mandate for Palestine or the Bank of Israel in its early days. Today, the common spelling is חמישים). A vocalized 'plene' spelling system is common in children books, when it is better to accustom the children to the more popular 'plene' spelling, while still letting them benefit from the vowel dots as a reading aid in early learning stages.
A third system that was endorsed in the past by the Academy of the Hebrew Language as an optimal system, but abandoned due to low popularity, calls for the use of ħolám (וֹ), šurúq (וּ), dagéš in Bet, Kaf and Pe (בּ, כּ, פּ vs. ב, כ, פ), Šin Smalít (שׂ) and mappíq (הּ), while abandoning all other vowel dots (in everyday writing). According to this system, matres lectionis are still introduced to mark vowels, but the letter Vav is used only as a consonant, while its variants ħolám and šurúq serve as vowel letters. This system also makes clear distinction between final He used as a vowel marker (e.g. ילדה /jalˈda/ "a girl" ) and as a consonant (e.g. ילדהּ /jalˈdah/ "her child"). This system was never extensively used, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language finally abandoned it in 1992, when new rules were published not assuming any use of vowel dots.
Rules for unvocalized spelling were first issued by the Hebrew Language Committee in 1890 (which became the Academy of the Hebrew Language in 1953) and formally standardised in 1996. Even though the rules are established, some of the rules and specific spellings are disputed by writers and publishers, who often create their own in-house spelling system. Also, because having two spelling systems within the same language is confusing, some would like to reform it. In 2004, Mordechai Mishor, one of the academy's linguists, proposed in a session of the Academy of the Hebrew Language a modest reform.
Today, there are three systems of spelling used in Hebrew.
- "Ktiv haser" ("missing spelling"): This system of spelling that may be found in the Torah scroll that is read in synagogue (the Sefer Torah). It is sometimes considered to be anachronistic in everyday life, although it is still sometimes found in newspapers and published books. This is the original Hebrew spelling. It is called the "missing spelling" because it does not use niqqud.
- "Ktiv menukad" ("dotted spelling" or "vowelized spelling"): This system of spelling is called "vowelized spelling" and "dotted spelling" because unlike "missing spelling," this system shows exactly how the vowels are in addition to using the dots system ("nekudot"). It is rarely used in everyday life. However, it is used wherever someone wants their writings to be clear and unambiguous, such as children books, poetry, language instruction for newcomers, or ambiguous or foreign terms. However, it is very cumbersome and inconvenient in everyday life.
- "Ktiv male" ("full spelling" or "spelling lacking niqqud"): This is the dominant system of spelling in Israel, personal correspondence, movie subtitles, etc. Ktiv Male is created to be a niqqud-less spelling that uses the mater lectionis (consonant that are also used as vowels: Alef, He, Vav, Yud) instead of the vowel pointers.
|Word||Ktiv haser||Ktiv menukad||Ktiv male|
Usage of multiple systems
In practice, many times two or more spelling systems are used in one text. The most common example of this is a word may be vowelized (using niqqud, the "dots") partially, for instance with אוֹמץ, where only the vav (ו) is vowelized. This clarifies that the vowel is an "o" (וֹ) and not "u" (וּ). In addition, 3 letters (historically 6), can take a different sound depending on if there is a dot (called a dagesh) in the middle of the letter (a bet, kaf, and pei). In full spelling, the dot is not included, regardless if it is making one sound or the other. An example when a mixture of systems would be used is to clarify when the letter is taking a dagesh. An example of this is shown in the adjacent picture, where for the word kosher (Hebrew: כָּשֵׁר (with niqqud), כשר (full spelling), /kaˈʃer/) may be written as כּשר (a mixture of the two systems) to be unambiguous that it is the letter כּ [k] and not כ [χ]. Words may be written in ktiv haser ("missing spelling") if it is unambiguous and clear enough (ex. חנכה /ħanuˈka/ instead of the "full" form חנוכה). In this case, the reader deciphers the word mostly by its context.
Also, some words are almost always written in the "missing" form (ktiv haser) in everyday life: לא (/lo/, no), אמא (/ima/, mother), אם (/im/, if), and כנרת (/kiˈneret/, Kinneret).