Modern Hebrew phonology

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This article is about the phonology of the Hebrew language based on the Israeli dialects. 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] Modern Hebrew has 27 consonant phonemes and five vowel phonemes.


Below are the 27 consonant phenomes of Modern Hebrew. Some historically distinctive Hebrew phonemes have merged in modern Hebrew, such as historically distinctive /t/, /θ/, /tˤ/ (now all [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 glottalization (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]

Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Palato-
Palatal Velar/
Nasal m n
Plosive voiceless p1 t k ʔ
voiced b1 d ɡ
Affricate voiceless t͡s2 t͡ʃ1
voiced d͡z1 d͡ʒ5
Fricative voiceless f1 s ʃ χ ħ4 h
voiced v z ʒ1 ʁ~ʀ~r3 ʕ4
Approximant central j w
lateral l

Historical notes[edit]

  1. ^ The consonants /tʃ dʒ ʒ w/, as well as unitary /dz/,[citation needed] /f/ in initial position, and /p/ and /b/ in final position, were not present in Hebrew prior to Modern Hebrew; however, they are widely common in loanwords and their derivatives (e.g. פיזיקאי /fiziˈkaj/, Physicist) and in slang (e.g. קוב /kub/, cubic metre).
  2. ^ In old Hebrew the /ts/ was emphatic (pharyngealized) /sˤ/. (Currently, the only community of Hebrew-speakers that expresses this in speech are Yemenite Jews and some other Mizrahim, whose Hebrew has preserved 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.
  3. ^ /ʁ̞/, a voiced uvular approximant, is the rhotic consonant for most speakers; however, in many dialects it occurs in free variation with /ʁ/ (voiced uvular fricative) and/or /ʀ/ (voiced uvular trill). The consonant was originally an alveolar trill /r/, a distinction preserved in Mizrahi and Sephardic communities.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Sounds that do not occur in Classical Hebrew are sometimes represented by a Hebrew letter followed by an apostrophe-like mark, ׳. For example, /dʒ/ is written as ג׳.

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).

In Modern Hebrew, [θ] can occur in some foreign words, including names (e.g. סמית׳ 'Smith'); television shows (e.g. סאות׳פארק 'South Park'); and places (e.g. פורטסמות׳ 'Portsmouth'), though it is not always pronounced as such and can be replaced by other sounds (e.g. בלוטות׳ 'Bluetooth' is commonly pronounced /ˈblutus/, as reflected in the spelling בלוטוס).

Example words[edit]

IPA Letter Example IPA Letter Example
/ʔ/ א, ע [ˌʁeʔaˈjon] ראיון 'interview' /l/ ל [lo] לא 'no'
/b/ בּ [ben] בן 'son' /m/ מ [ma] מה 'what'
/v/ ב, ו [ˈnevel] נבל 'harp' /n/ נ [nes] נס 'miracle'
/ɡ/ ג [ɡam] גם 'also' /s/ ס, שׂ [sof] סוף 'end'
/dʒ/ ג׳ [dʒiˈʁafa] ג׳ירפה 'giraffe' /ʕ/ ע [ʕim] עם 'with'
/d/ ד [ˈdelek] דלק 'fuel' /p/ פּ [pe] פה 'mouth'
/h/ ה [hed] הד 'echo' /f/ פ [oˈfe] אופה 'baker'
/w/ ו [ˈpiŋɡwin] פינגווין 'penguin' /ts/ צ [t͡si] צי 'fleet'
/z/ ז [ze] זה 'this ' /tʃ/ צ׳, תשׁ [t͡ʃuˈka] תשוקה 'passion'
/ħ/ ח [ħam] חם 'hot' /ʁ/ ר [ʁoʃ] ראש 'head'
/j/ י [jom] יום 'day' /ʃ/ שׁ [ʃaˈna] שנה 'year'
/k/ כּ, ק [kol] כל 'all' /ʒ/ ז׳ 1 [beʒ] בז׳ 'beige'
/χ/ כ, ח [eχ] איך 'how' /t/ ת, ט [tan] תן 'jackal'
/dz/ תז, צ 1 [d͡zuˈza] תזוזה 'movement'
  1. ^ Assimilation.

Consonant clusters[edit]

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/ [lizˈɡoʁ] ('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[edit]

In casual fast speech, /ʔ/ or /h/ some Israelis may drop the glottal sounds when occurring between vowels (Laufer Asher, 2008, Chapters in Phonetics and in Phonetic Transcription, (The book is accompanied with a CD), Magnes, Jerusalem, 2008, chapter 6 & 7, pp. 78–93 (in Hebrew). Hence, /ma ha-ʃaˈʔa/ "what's the time?" becomes [mahaʃaˈa] or [ma.a.ʃaˈa].


A chart of the vowel phonemes of Modern Hebrew. Based on Laufer (1999)

The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu'ot (תְּנוּעוֹת). The orthographic representations for these vowels are called Niqqud. Modern 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 (meraḥef / 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).


Modern Hebrew, like Tiberian Hebrew, has 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. "שבו", when pronounced /ˈʃavu/, means "returned", whereas when pronounced /ʃaˈvu/ it means "captured". However, Modern Hebrew, like Tiberian Hebrew, has also stressed words on the antepenult (mil‘el demil‘el; e.g. נֶ֣עֶרְמוּ מַיִם (Ex. 15:8)) or even further back (קיבוצניקיות) {see e.g. Laufer Asher (2008), Chapters in Phonetics and in Phonetic Transcription, (The book is accompanied with a CD), Magnes, Jerusalem, 2008, pp. 52–55 (in Hebrew).}

Regional and historical variation[edit]

Further information: Phonology of Biblical Hebrew

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. 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 some forms of Hebrew it modifies also the sounds of the letters ג, ד and/or 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 Reconstructed
Tiberian 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] [] [ɡ] [ɡ] [ɡ]
ג [ɡ~ɣ] [ɣ] [ɣ] [ɣ]
ג׳ [] [] [] [] N/A N/A N/A
דּ [d] [d~d̥] [d̪~ð] [] [] [] []
ד [d̪~ð] [ð] [ð] [ð]
ד׳ [ð] [ð] [ð] [ð] N/A N/A N/A
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] [w] [w] [w] N/A N/A N/A
ז [z] [z~z̥] [z] [z] [z] [z] [z]
ז׳ [ʒ] [ʒ] [ʒ] [ʒ] N/A N/A N/A
ח [χ~ħ] [x] [ħ] [ħ] [ħ] [ħ] [ħ, χ]
ט [t] [t] [t̪] [t̴̪] (1) [t̴̪] [t̪ˤ] (2) [t̪ʼ] (3)
י [j] [j] [j] [j] [j] [j] [j]
ִי [i] [i] [i] [i]  ?  ?  ?
כּ [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] [s]
ע [ʔ~ʕ, - ] [ - ] [ʕ, ŋ, - ] [ʕ] [ʕ] [ʕ] [ʕ, ʁ]
ע׳ [ɣ] [ɣ] [ɣ] [ɣ] N/A N/A N/A
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) [sʼ, ɬʼ, θʼ] (3)
צ׳ ץ׳ [t͡ʃ] [t͡ʃ] [t͡ʃ] [t͡ʃ] N/A N/A N/A
ק [k] [k] [k] [ɡ], [ɢ], [q] [q] [q] [] (3)
ר [ʁ] [ɹ]~[ʀ] [r]~[ɾ] [r]~[ɾ] [ʀ] [r] [r]
שׁ [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ] [ʃ]
שׂ [s] [s] [s] [s] [s] [s] [ɬ]
תּ [t] [t] [t] [] [] [] []
ת [s] [θ] [θ] [θ]
ת׳ [θ] [θ] [θ] [θ] N/A N/A N/A
  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" (PDF).  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.