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2.1  Introduction to Hebrew Vowels

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Hebrew Vowels -

Introduction to the Nikkud

You may recall from your early school days that the English alphabet includes the vowel letters "A-E-I-O-U" (and sometimes "Y"). Unlike English, however, the Hebrew alphabet is a consonantal one: there are no separate letters for vowels in the written alphabet (though some letters, in particular Vav and Yod, can function as "consonantal vowels"). This does not mean, of course, that vowels are not used in Hebrew. In fact, it is impossible to say anything at all without vowel sounds. But ancient Hebrew contained no written vowels as distinct letter forms: the actual vowel sounds were "added" to the reading by means of oral tradition and long-established usage.

As an experiment, try reading the following:

Lv th Lrd yr Gd wth ll yr hrt

If you were able to "figure out" that the above string of letters reads "Love the Lord your God with all your heart," (Deut 6:5), then you might be able to see how a language could be entirely made up of consonants—with the reader supplying the missing vowels.

In written Hebrew the string of letters might look like this:

Non-pointed text

All of the letters in this string are Hebrew consonants you have learned—there is not a vowel in the bunch!  In order to properly read this text, you, the reader, must supply the missing "intonations" or vowels.

Adding vowel sounds to a string of letters was not too difficult as long as you were immersed in the oral tradition and regular usage of the day. However, after the Diaspora more and more Jewish people began speaking the languages of their surrounding cultures —and literacy of the written Hebrew text became a more serious issue.

Sometime beginning around 600 A.D., a group of scribes in Tiberias called the Masoretes (mesora means "tradition") began developing a system of vowel marks (called neqqudot) to indicate how the text was traditionally read. Since these scribes did not want to alter the consonantal text, they placed these markings under, to the left, and above the Hebrew letters. Beside these vowel marks, the scribes also added "cantillation" marks (in Hebrew, ta'amim) to indicate how the text was to be chanted or sung.

The "pointed" text of the Deuteronomy passage would now look like this:

Pointed Text

Notice that the little marks - the dots and dashes and so on - appear mostly below the Hebrew letters. Yes, these marks are the objects of our study in the following lessons, and if you study well, they will soon become indispensable aides as you are learning to read and write Hebrew -- especially the Hebrew Scriptures and the prayerbook (Siddur).


"Simple" Hebrew Vowels

Most vowels in the Hebrew are called "simple" vowels (or basic) because they are composed of one Hebrew letter and an identifying vowel mark:

Vowel Schema

Note that the "X" refers to any Hebrew letter (for example Aleph, Bet, and so on) and the rectangular boxes below and to the upper left of the letter refer to a possible vowel mark location. This scheme will become abundantly clear as you progress through this lesson.


"Consonantal" Vowel Letters: ו, ה, א and י

Before the vowel points were introduced, the scribes used the letters Aleph (א), Hey (ה), Vav (ו), and Yod (י) to indicate vowel sounds. These are sometimes called "consonantal vowels," or matres lectionis (Latin for "mothers of reading"), so that when one of these consonants was encountered, the reader understood to make an associated vowel sound. In general, the letter Aleph represented an "ah" sound (i.e., paran: פארן); the letter Hey represented an "ei" or "ay" sound (i.e., Leah: לאה; Moshe: משה), unless it appeared at the end of a word, in which case it represented an "ah" sound (i.e., brachah: ברכה); the letter Vav could represent either an "oh" sound (i.e., Yoel: יואל) or an "oo" sound (i.e., barukh: ברוך); and the letter Yod represented an "ee" sound (i.e., David: דויד).

Matres Lectiones

Often these consonantal letters were used to indicate "long vowels." Originally Aleph and Hey were put at the end of words, while the Yod and Vav were used to write diphthongs (combined vowel sounds, such as "oy"). The Yod was also placed after a consonant to indicate that the vowel was to be determined as a long vowel sound. Words spelled with vowel letters are sometimes called malei (מָלֵא) spellings. Apparently, the Masoretic scribal tradition later added vowel marks (diacritic symbols) to avoid any ambiguity in the spelling of Hebrew words. Today this writing system is called Ketiv menukad ("writing with nikkud").


"Full" (or mixed) Hebrew Vowels

After the scribes added vowel points to the texts, the consonantal vowels were often retained with the result that some of the vowels included both "simple" vowel marks as well consonantal letters. These are now known as "full vowels" (as opposed to the "simple vowels," which are the marks without the additional letters Vav, Yod, and Hey).

Full or Mized Vowels



My approach

As mentioned above, in English we have the basic vowel categories of "A-E-I-O-U," and we will introduce the Hebrew vowels in this same order.  In other words, we will show you the "A-type" vowels first, then the "E-type," and so on, each as a separate lesson.

A few additional comments before we begin looking at the actual Hebrew vowels. First, originally each Hebrew vowel marking had its own unique sound, but over time many of these were gradually combined to indicate the same intonation. Thus you will see examples of different vowel marks that make the same sort of sound.

Second, Hebrew vowels are given special names which you may or may not wish to memorize (though it is recommended if you wish to pursue Hebrew studies). In this book, we will provide the names for the vowels, but the important thing is for you to be able to determine the appropriate vowel sound when you see a given Hebrew vowel mark. The emphasis, in other words, is not the academic but the practical: we want you to be able to confidently pronounce the Hebrew words you will be learning.

We will present the vowels slowly and methodically, just as we did with the Hebrew letters. If you take the time and apply yourself diligently, you will soon enjoy the satisfaction of sounding out real Hebrew words. May the Lord God of Israel bless you in your study.

A word of caution

Be patient and go slowly. Each Lesson presents a separate vowel type in sequence. Review the reading exercises until you feel comfortable with what you are learning. It might help to make flash cards with a vowel mark on the front and the name of the vowel and its sound on the back.


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