Modern Hebrew phonology
Modern Hebrew is phonetically simpler than Biblical Hebrew and has fewer phonemes, but it is phonologically more complex. It has 25 to 27 consonants and 5 to 10 vowels, depending on the speaker and the analysis.
Hebrew has been used primarily for liturgical, literary, and scholarly purposes for most of the past two millennia. As a consequence, its pronunciation was strongly influenced by the vernacular of individual Jewish communities. With the revival of Hebrew as a native language, and especially with the establishment of Israel, the pronunciation of the modern language rapidly coalesced.
The two main accents of modern Hebrew are Oriental and Non-Oriental. Oriental Hebrew was chosen as the preferred accent for Israel by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, but has since declined in popularity. The description in this article follows the language as it is pronounced by native Israeli speakers of the younger generations.
Oriental and non-Oriental accents
According to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in the 1880s (the time of the beginning of the Zionist movement and the Hebrew revival) there were three groups of Hebrew regional accents: Ashkenazi (Eastern European), Sephardi (Southern European), and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern, Iranian, and North African). Over time features of these systems of pronunciation merged, and nowadays we find two main pronunciations of colloquial – not liturgical – Hebrew: Oriental and Non-Oriental. Oriental Hebrew displays traits of an Arabic substrate. Old oriental speakers tend to use an alveolar trill [r], preserve the pharyngeal consonants /ħ/ and (less commonly) /ʕ/, preserve gemination, and pronounce /e/ in some places where non-Oriental speakers do not have a vowel (the shva na). A limited number of Oriental speakers, for example old Yemenite Jews, even maintain some pharyngealized (emphatic) consonants also found in Arabic, such as /sˤ/ for Biblical /tsʼ/. Israeli Palestinians ordinarily use the Oriental pronunciation, vocalising the ‘ayin (ע) as /ʕ/ and, less frequently, the ḥet (ח) as /ħ/.
Pronunciation of /ʕ/
Non-Oriental (and General Israeli) pronunciation lost the emphatic and pharyngeal sounds of Biblical Hebrew under the influence of Indo-European languages (Germanic and Slavic for Ashkenazim and Romance for Sephardim). The pharyngeals /ħ/ and /ʕ/ are preserved by older Oriental speakers. Dialectally, Georgian Jews pronounce /ʕ/ as [qʼ], while Western European Sephardim and Dutch Ashkenazim traditionally pronounce it [ŋ], a pronunciation that can also be found in the Italian tradition and, historically, in south-west Germany. However, according to Sephardic and Ashkenazic authorities, such as the Mishnah Berurah and the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah, /ʕ/ is the proper pronunciation. Thus, it is still pronounced as such by some Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
Pronunciation of /r/
The classical pronunciation associated with the consonant ר rêš /r/ was a flap [ɾ], and was grammatically ungeminable. In most dialects of Hebrew among the Jewish diaspora, it remained a flap or a trill [r]. However, in some Ashkenazi dialects of northern Europe it was a uvular rhotic, either a trill [ʀ] or a fricative [ʁ]. This was because most native dialects of Yiddish were spoken that way, and the liturgical Hebrew of these speakers carried the Yiddish pronunciation. Some Iraqi Jews also pronounce rêš as a guttural [ʀ], reflecting Baghdad Jewish Arabic. An apparently unrelated uvular rhotic is believed to have appeared in the Tiberian pronunciation of Hebrew, where it may have coexisted with additional non-guttural articulations of /r/ depending on circumstances.
Though an Ashkenazi Jew in the Russian Empire, the Zionist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda based his Standard Hebrew on Sephardi Hebrew, originally spoken in Spain, and therefore recommended an alveolar [r]. However, just like him, the first waves of Jews to resettle in the Holy Land were Ashkenazi, and Standard Hebrew would come to be spoken with their native pronunciation. Consequently, by now nearly all Israeli Jews pronounce the consonant ר rêš as a uvular approximant ([ʁ̞]),:261 which also exists in Yiddish.:262
Many Jewish immigrants to Israel spoke a variety of Arabic in their countries of origin, and pronounced the Hebrew rhotic consonant /r/ as an alveolar trill, identical to Arabic ر rāʾ, and which followed the conventions of old Hebrew. In modern Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi poetry and folk music, as well as in the standard (or "standardised") Hebrew used in the Israeli media, an alveolar rhotic is sometimes used.
- * Phoneme was introduced through borrowings.
- † Phoneme is uncommon or not present in English phonology.
- 1  In modern Hebrew /ħ/ for ח has merged with /x/ that was traditionally only for fricative כ into /χ/, though some older Mizrahi speakers still separate these.
- 2 The glottal consonants are mostly elided in unstressed syllables, and sometimes also in stressed syllables as well, but are pronounced in careful or formal speech. In modern Hebrew /ʕ/ for ע has been absorbed by /ʔ/ that was traditionally only for א, though some speakers (particularly older Mizrahi speakers) still separate these.
- 3 /r/ is usually pronounced as a uvular approximant [ʁ̞], and sometimes as a uvular [ʀ] or alveolar trill [r] or alveolar flap [ɾ], depending on the background of the speaker. Nurit Dekel (2014) gives an additional alternative velar fricative [ɣ].
- 4 While the phoneme /tʃ/ צ׳ was introduced through borrowings, it can appear in native words as a sequence of /t/ ת and /ʃ/ שׁ as in תְּשׁוּקָה /tʃuˈka/.
For many young speakers, obstruents assimilate in voicing. Voiceless obstruents (stops/affricates /p, t, ts, tʃ, k/ and fricatives /f, s, ʃ, x/) become voiced ([b, d, dz, dʒ, ɡ, v, z, ʒ, ʁ]) when they appear immediately before voiced obstruents, and vice versa. For example:
- לִסְגֹּר /lisˈɡoʁ/ > [liz'ɡoʁ] ('to close'), /s/ > [z]
- זְכוּת /zχut/ > [sχut] ('a right'), /z/ > [s]
- חֶשְׁבּוֹן /χeʃˈbon/ > [χeʒ'bon] ('a bill'), /ʃ/ > [ʒ]
- מַדְפֶּסֶת /madˈpeset > [mat'peset] ('a printer'), /d/ > [t]
- אַבְטָחָה /avtaˈχa/ > [afta'χa] ('security'), /v/ > [f]
Historical sound changes
Standard Israeli Hebrew (SIH) phonology, based on the Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation tradition, has a number of differences from Biblical Hebrew (BH) and Mishnaic Hebrew (MH) in the form of splits and mergers.
- BH/MH /t/ and /tˤ/ merged into SIH /t/.
- BH/MH /k/ and /q/ merged into SIH /k/.
- BH/MH /ʕ/ and /ʔ/ generally merge into SIH /ʔ/, but the distinction is maintained in the speech of older Sephardim and is reintroduced in the speech of some other speakers.
- BH/MH /p/ had two allophones, [p] and [f], which split into separate phonemes /p/ and /f/ in SIH.
- BH/MH /b/ had two allophones, [b] and [v]. The [v] allophone merged with /w/ into SIH /v/. A new phoneme /w/ was introduced in loanwords (see Hebrew vav as consonant), so SIH has phonemic /b, v, w/.
- BH/MH /k/ had two allophones, [k] and [x]. The [k] allophone merged with /q/ into SIH /k/, while the [x] allophone merged with /ħ/ into SIH /χ/, though a distinction between /χ/ and /ħ/ is maintained in the speech of older Sephardim.
The consonant pairs [b]–[v], [k]–[χ] (archaically [x]), and [p]–[f] were historically allophonic, as a consequence of a phenomenon of spirantisation known as begadkefat. In Modern Hebrew, the six sounds are phonemic. Similar allophonic alternation of BH/MH [t]–[θ], [d]–[ð] and [ɡ]–[ɣ] was lost, with the allophones merging into simple /t, d, ɡ/.
These phonemic changes were partly due to the mergers noted above, to the loss of consonant gemination, which had distinguished stops from their fricative allophones in intervocalic position, and the introduction of syllable-initial /f/ and non-syllable-initial /p/ and /b/ in loan words. Spirantization still occurs in verbal and nominal derivation, but now the alternations /b/–/v/, /k/–/χ/, and /p/–/f/ are phonemic rather than allophonic.
Loss of final H consonant
In Traditional Hebrew words can end with an H consonant, e.g. when the suffix "-ah" is used, meaning "her" (see Mappiq). The final H sound is hardly ever pronounced in Modern Hebrew.
Modern Hebrew has a simple five-vowel system.
Long vowels may occur where two identical vowels were historically separated by a pharyngeal or glottal consonant (this separation is preserved in writing, and is still pronounced by some), and the second was not stressed. (Where the second was stressed, the result is a sequence of two short vowels.) They also often occur when morphology brings two identical vowels together, but they are not predictable in that environment.
Any of the five short vowels may be realized as a schwa [ə] when far from lexical stress.
There are two diphthongs, /aj/ and /ej/.
In Biblical Hebrew, each vowel had three forms: short, long and interrupted (chataf). However, there is no audible distinction between the three in Modern Hebrew, except that /e/ is often pronounced [ej] as in Ashkenazi Hebrew.
Vowel length in Modern Hebrew is environmentally determined and not phonemic, it tends to be affected by the degree of stress, and pretonic lengthening may also occur, mostly in open syllables. When a glottal is lost, a two-vowel sequence arises, and they may be merged into a single long vowel:
- תַּעֲבֹד /taʔaˈvod/ ('you will work') > [taː'vod]
- שְׁעוֹנִים /ʃeʔo'nim/ ('watches') > becomes [ʃoː'nim]
- תָּבִיאִי /taˈviʔi/ ('you [singular female] bring') >
Compare תָּבִיא /taˈvi/ ('you [singular male] bring')
- הַאָרוֹן /haʔa'ron/ ('the closet) >
Compare אָרוֹן /a'ron/ ('[a] closet')
Modern pronunciation does not follow traditional use of the niqqud (diacritic) "shva". In Modern Hebrew, words written with a shva may be pronounced with either /e/ or without any vowel, and this does not correspond well to how the word was pronounced historically. For example, the first shva in the word קִמַּטְתְּ 'you (fem.) crumpled' is pronounced /e/ (/kiˈmatet/) though historically it was silent, whereas the shva in זְמַן ('time'), which was pronounced historically, is usually silent ([zman]). Orthographic shva is generally pronounced /e/ in prefixes such as ve- ('and') and be- ('in'), or when following another shva in grammatical patterns, as in /tilmeˈdi/ ('you [f. sg.] will learn'). An epenthetic /e/ appears when necessary to avoid violating a phonological constraint, such as between two consonants that are identical or differ only in voicing (e.g. /la'madeti/ 'I learned', not */la'madti/) or when an impermissible initial cluster would result (e.g. */rC-/ or */Cʔ-/, where C stands for any consonant).
Stress is phonemic in Modern Hebrew. There are two frequent patterns of lexical stress, on the last syllable (milrá מִלְּרַע) and on the penultimate syllable (mil‘él מִלְּעֵיל). Final stress has traditionally been more frequent, but in the colloquial language many words are shifting to penultimate stress. Contrary to the prescribed standard, some words exhibit stress on the antepenultimate syllable or even further back. This often occurs in loanwords, e.g. פּוֹלִיטִיקָה /poˈlitika/ ('politics'), and sometimes in native colloquial compounds, e.g. אֵיכְשֶׁהוּ /ˈeχʃehu/ ('somehow'). Colloquial stress has often shifted from the last syllable to the penultimate, e.g. כּוֹבַע 'hat', normative /koˈvaʕ/, colloquial /ˈkovaʕ/; שׁוֹבָךְ ('dovecote'), normative /ʃoˈvaχ/, colloquial /ˈʃovaχ/. This shift is common in the colloquial pronunciation of many personal names, for example דָּוִד ('David'), normative /daˈvid/, colloquial /ˈdavid/.
Historically, stress was predictable, depending on syllable weight (that is, vowel length and whether a syllable ended with a consonant). Because spoken Israeli Hebrew has lost gemination (a common source of syllable-final consonants) as well as the original distinction between long and short vowels, but the position of the stress often remained where it had been, stress has become phonemic, as the following table illustrates. Phonetically, the following word pairs differ only in the location of the stress; orthographically they differ also in the written representation of vowel length of the vowels (assuming the vowels are even written):
(ktiv hasar niqqud)
|Penultimate stress||Final stress|
|ילד||יֶלֶד||/ˈjeled/||boy||יֵלֵד||/jeˈled/||will give birth (m.sg.)|
|אכל, אוכל||אֹכֶל||/ˈoχel/||food||אוֹכֵל||/oˈχel/||eating (m.sg.)|
In fast-spoken colloquial Hebrew, when a vowel falls beyond two syllables from the main stress of a word or phrase, it may be reduced or elided. For example:
- זֹאת אוֹמֶרֶת
- /zot o'meʁet/ > [stoˈmeʁet] ('that is to say')
- ?אֵיךְ קוֹרְאִים לְךָ
- /eχ koʁ'ʔim le'χa/ > [ˌeχkoˈʁimχa] (what's your name, lit. 'How are you called?')
When /l/ follows an unstressed vowel, it is sometimes elided, possibly with the surrounding vowels:
- אַבָּא שֶׁלָּכֶם
- /'aba ʃela'χem/ > [ˈabaʃχem] ('your father')
- הוּא יִתֵּן לְךָ
- /hu ji'ten le'χa/ > [uiˈtenχa] ('he will give you')
- בְּדֶרֶךְ כְּלָל
- /be'deʁeχ klal/ > [beˈdeχklal] ('usually')
but: הוּא בַּדֶּרֶךְ [u ba'deʁeχ] ('he is on his way') at the end of a prosodic unit.
Sequences of dental stops reduce to a single consonant, again except at the end of a prosodic unit:
- אֲנִי לָמַדְתִּי פַּעַם
- /a'ni la'madeti paʕ'am/ > [aˌnilaˈmatipam] ('I once studied')
but: שֶׁלָּמַדְתִּי [ʃela'madeti] ('that I studied')
- Laufer (1999), p. 96.
- Laufer (1999), p. 96-99.
- Ora (Rodrigue) Schwarzwald. "Modern Hebrew", in Khan, Geoffrey, Michael P. Streck, and Janet CE Watson (eds.). The Semitic languages: an international handbook. Edited by Stefan Weninger. Vol. 36. Walter de Gruyter, 2011. p. 524-25
- Zuckermann, G. (2005). "Abba, why was Professor Higgins trying to teach Eliza to speak like our cleaning lady?: Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, Prescriptivism and the Real Sounds of the Israeli Language", Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 19, pp. 210-231.
- Zuckermann (2020), p. 46.
- Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. UK: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232.
- Based on Rabbi Saadia Gaon's Judeo-Arabic commentary on “Sefer Yetzirah” (chapter 4, paragraph 3), wherein he describes the phonetic sounds of the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet and classifies them in groups based on their individual sounds: “Aleph ( א), hé (ה), ḥet (ח), ‘ayin (ע) are [guttural sounds] produced from the depth of the tongue with the opening of the throat, but bet (ב), waw (ו), mim (מ), pé (פ) are [labial sounds] made by the release of the lips and the end of the tongue; whereas gimel (ג), yōd (י), kaf (כ), quf (ק) are [palatals] separated by the width of the tongue [against the palate] with the [emission of] sound. However, daleth (ד), ṭet (ט), lamed (ל), nūn (נ), tau (ת) are [linguals] separated by the mid-section of the tongue with the [emission of] sound; whereas zayin (ז), samekh (ס), ṣadi (צ), resh (ר), shin (ש) are [dental sounds] produced between the teeth by a tongue that is at rest.”
- Dekel (2014), p. 8.
- Laufer (1999), p. 98.
- Bolozky, Shmuel (1997). "Israeli Hebrew phonology". Israeli Hebrew phonology.
- Dekel (2014), p. 9.
- Robert Hetzron. (1987). Hebrew. In The World's Major Languages, ed. Bernard Comrie, 686–704. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-520521-9.
- Dekel (2014), p. 10.
- Dekel (2014), p. 12.
- Vowel length in Biblical Hebrew-Modern Hebrew
- Yaakov Choueka, Rav-Milim: A comprehensive dictionary of Modern Hebrew 1997, CET
- Netser, Nisan, Niqqud halakha le-maase, 1976, p. 11.
- Dekel (2014), p. 13.
- Dekel (2014), pp. 14–5.
- Dekel (2014), pp. 15–6.
- Dekel, Nurit (2014), Colloquial Israeli Hebrew: A Corpus-based Survey, De Gruyter, ISBN 9783110361780
- Laufer, Asher (1999), "Hebrew", Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, Cambridge University Press, pp. 96–99, ISBN 0521652367
- Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2020), Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199812790