Hebrew Phonology

Hebrew Vowels

The original Hebrew alphabet consisted only of consonants and vowel letters. The vowel signs and pronunciation (known as vowel pointings) currently accepted for Biblical Hebrew were created by scholars known as Masoretes after the 5th century AD and are known as Tiberian vocalization. The Masoretes are thought also to have standardized various dialectal differences.

However, it is questioned that Classical Hebrew’s vowel inventory was not identical to that notated by the Masoretes. For instance, /e/ and /ē/ were both indicated with a tzeire in the Masoretic text, but in Greek transcription (Septuagint, Origen, etc.) are written with epsilon and eta respectively.

Hebrew Consonants

  • Begedkefet spirantization developed sometime during the lifetime of Biblical Hebrew under the influence of Aramaic. Its terminus post quem can be found by noting that the Old Aramaic phonemes /θ, ð/ disappeared in the 7th century BC. Its terminus ante quem in Hebrew is the 2nd century AD. It is unclear whether they should be considered allophones or separate phonemes, since after a certain development of schwa minimal pairs became theoretically possible (if almost unattested).
  • mater lectionis
  • These merged with /ħ, ʕ/ respectively at some stage, but from Greek transcriptions it is clear that they were distinguished at some point in the life of Classical Hebrew. It is unlikely that this merger occurred after begedkefet spirantization, or else /x, χ/ and /ɣ, ʁ/ would have to be contrastive, which is cross-linguistically rare.
  • Name Letter Phoneme and Allophone (IPA)
    ’ālep (‘ox’) א [ʔ]
    bēṯ (‘house’) ב [b] ~ [v] allophonically1
    gîmel (‘camel’) ג [ɡ] ~ [ɣ] allophonically1
    dāleṯ (‘door’) ד [d] ~ [ð] allophonically1
    (‘open window’) ה [h], null at the end of words.2
    wāw (‘nail’) ו [w], null after /o/ or /u/ 2
    zayin (‘weapon’) ז [z]
    ḥēṯ (‘fence’) ח [ħ], ([χ]3)
    ṭēṯ (‘snake’) ט [tˤ]
    yōḏ (‘hand’) י [j], null after /ɛ/, /e/, or /i/2
    kap (‘palm of hand’) כ, ך [k] ~ [x] allophonically1
    lāmeḏ (‘cattle goad’) ל [l]
    mēm (‘water’) מ, ם [m]
    nûn (‘fish’) נ, ן [n]
    sāmeḵ (‘prop’) ס [s]
    ʿayin (‘eye’) ע [ʕ], ([ɣ]3)
    (‘mouth’) פ, ף [p] ~ [f] allophonically1
    ṣāḏē (‘fish hook’) צ, ץ [sˤ]
    p (‘back of head’) ק [kˤ] (or [q])
    rēš (‘head’) ר [r] (trilled like in Arabic)
    śîn/šîn (‘teeth’) ש [ɬ], [ʃ]
    tāw (‘cross’) ת [t] ~ [θ] allophonically1
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