Hebrew Beginnings: Dialects, Pronunciations, and Intonations

In this, and future blog posts, I invite you to come along with me as we enter the world of the Hebrew language.  Over the course of these blogs I hope to introduce you to useful resources for learning the language and some it would behoove you to stay away from.  Additionally, I hope to write to you and illuminate your eyes to points of intrigue within the Hebrew bible that you would only be able to see if you were familiar with the language.  Along the way, it is highly probable that we will rabbit trail into the domains of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the rabbis, as well as Sesame Street and Curious George.

Wait, wait.  Relax.  I know you’re thinking, “But Eric, my Hebrew’s not good enough to read Curious George.  Can’t you just stick to the biblical material so that I can cross reference with my bible software and appear to be scholarly and knowledgeable of the languages?”  Frankly, I cannot.  To miss out on the profundity of Sesame Street and its correlation to the biblical text would be to do you a great disfavor.

Yet that will need to wait for a future date.  Today, we are starting with dialect, pronunciation, and one of the greatest resources for learning Hebrew since the advent of the ulpan.  That being none other than the “Youtube(s).”

First, let’s check out dialect options.  In the world of Hebrew speakers there are three primary dialects; Ashkenaz, Sephardi/Mizrachi, and Temani.  From these three come various subcategories involving mild idiosyncrasies in pronunciation.  In the realm of the Ashkenazim (Jews whose descendancy is from Northern Europe), the greatest differences will be noticed.  This is primarily due to the impact of Yiddish.  As a result, the accent is moved back towards the beginning of the word, both the kametz and kametz chatuf are pronounced with an “o” or “oy” sound, and the tav without a mappik is said like a samekh.  Therefore the word “Shabbat” is many times pronounced as “Shobbos” or “Shabbas.”  This dialect can be found most prominently on the streets of Crown Heights or Me’ah She’arim.  While this dialect is not the best choice for finding your way around the streets of Tel Aviv, as a result of its modified accent and “S” sounding Tav, it does have the benefit of making it easier to intersperse Hebrew words into your English speech.  Which comes in handy if you are teaching Torah in English, yet need to mention key Hebrew terms in the text.  To hear a sample check out this lesson on Ha’azinu.

The second dialect is the Sephardi/Mizrachi.  Most Israelis speak in one of the subcategories of this dialect.  As a result, this is the dialect I prefer for everyday conversation in Hebrew and for reading Modern Hebrew literature.  It is also the easiest for people to start with when trying to learn to read the bible.  When listening to people speaking in Sephardi Hebrew, you will notice that the accent is towards the end of the word.  The multitude of vowel sounds that you learned in your seminary courses are reduced to five sounds; aw, ey, ee, o, and oo.  In regards to the BeGaD KePhaT letters, the Beit, Kaf, and Peh retain their distinguishing characteristics of hard and soft sounds depending on whether or not there is a mappik.  The Gimmel, Dalet, and Tav only have a hard sound, whether or not there is a mappik.  To hear a sample, check out this reading from 1 Samuel 15.

The third dialect is the Temani.  This is my favorite dialect of the three, probably because of its exotic nature, and is what I use for reading Torah and praying from the Siddur.  The Temani (Yemenite) Jews are a very unique group.  As a result of their geographical region, for much of the time since the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, they have been cut off from the rest of the Jewish world.  Their tradition is that they descend from the tribe of Dan and did not return at all during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.  As a result, their Hebrew lines up most closely to what scholars think the Hebrew of biblical times sounded like.  First, every vowel has a different sound.  Additionally, the BeGaD KePhaT letters all retain a hard and soft sound.  Therefore you will hear differences between a Gimmel and Jimmel, Daleth and Dhaleth, and Taw and Thaw.  The Vav, unlike in Ashkenazi and Sephardi, is pronounced with a “W” sound.  Hince a Waw instead of a Vav.  Much like some subcategories of Sephardi, Alef and Ayin are distinguished in their sounds as well as Chet and Khaf.  To hear a sample check out this version of “Yigdal.”


8 Replies to “Hebrew Beginnings: Dialects, Pronunciations, and Intonations”

  1. Neill,
    Thanks for checking out the blog! That’s a great question.

    Youtube(S) as a tool for language learning, while not an end-all in learning the language, is an excellent resource by way of training our ears to hear the language at full speed. Especially since outside of HaAretz we do not encounter an abundance of Hebrew speakers in our daily lives. It also gives us a reference point for how to prounounce the language, as well as encounters with vocabulary we might tend to shrug off.

    If you have a smart phone, start off by pulling up various videos (I plan on posting more at future dates) and just listening during those gaps in the day when you have a few free minutes. I.e. Waiting for the bus, shopping at the grocery store, or cooking dinner. For starters, check out this version of ״אשת חיל.״ The lyrics are משלי ל׳א י׳-ל׳א (Proverbs 31:10-31).


    1. Eric,

      Thanks for the link! I attended BLC’s Biblical Hebrew ulpan this past summer and have been scheming about how to get back to Israel ever since I left. I’ve got the Pimsleur cds, but I’ve been trying to find a more cost effective option. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. I’m definitely look forward to this series!


      1. Neill,

        You’re welcome! It’s always a good feeling to run into a fellow BUlpaner. How was it this last summer? Were you there for the first level over Jonah, or for the second level over Ruth?

        Once you have completed his programs, check out the ulpans at Hebrew U. There is also the Kibbutz Ulpan, which I went to back in 2008. It was excellent, but geared towards a younger crowd and immigrants. Never-the-less, it was exciting and the instructors were primo.

        If you are adventurous enough, and are more concerned with knowing the language and cheap prices than something official to put on a transcript, you could always try to track down ulpans out in town in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Many of the “official” ulpan teachers teach sessions out in town for much less than what you would pay at the University.

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