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The Hebrew alphabet is a set of 22 letters used for writing the Hebrew language. It is has also been used in mildly adapted forms for writing several languages of the Jewish diaspora, most famously Yiddish, Ladino, and Judaeo-Arabic (for a full and detailed list, see Jewish languages). Hebrew is written from right to left.
The Hebrew word for "alphabet" is אלף-בית (alef-bet), named after the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet was in origin an abjad, in other words it had letters for consonants only, but means were later devised to indicate vowels, first by using consonant letters as matres lectionis, later by separate vowel points or niqqud.
The number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, their order, their names, and their phonetic values are virtually identical to those of the Aramaic alphabet, as both Hebrews and Arameans borrowed the Phoenician alphabet for their uses during the end of the 2nd millennium BC.
The modern script used for writing Hebrew (usually called the Jewish script by scholars, and also traditionally known as the square script, or the Assyrian script), evolved during the 3rd century BC from the Aramaic script, which was used by Jews for writing Hebrew since the 6th century BC. Prior to that, Hebrew was written using the old Hebrew script, which evolved during the 9th century BC from the Phoenician script; the Samaritans still write Hebrew in a variant of this script for religious works (see Samaritan alphabet).
The Hebrew alphabet consists of the following letters. Some letters have a different form used at the ends of words: these are shown in the table below the normal form.
|א א||ב ב||ג ג||ד ד||ה ה||ו ו||ז ז||ח ח||ט ט||י י||כ כ|
|ל ל||מ מ||נ נ||ס ס||ע ע||פ פ||צ צ||ק ק||ר ר||ש ש||ת ת|
|ם ם||ן ן||ף ף||ץ ץ|
Both the old Hebrew script and the modern Jewish script have only one case, but in the modern script some letters have special final forms used only at the end of a word. This is similar to the Arabic alphabet, although much simpler. The Hebrew alphabet is an abjad: vowels are normally not indicated. Where they are it is because a weak consonant such as א alef, ה he, ו vav, or י yod has combined with a previous vowel and become silent or by imitation of such cases in spelling of other forms.
To preserve the proper vowel sounds, scholars developed several different sets of diacritic symbols called niqqud (ניקוד; literally: "applying points"). One of these, the Tiberian system, eventually prevailed. Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, and his family for several generations, are credited for creating and maintaining the system. These points are normally used only for special purposes, such as Biblical books intended for study, in poetry, or when teaching the language to children. The Tiberian system also includes a set of cantillation marks used to indicate how scriptural passages should be chanted, and decorative "crowns" used only for Torah scrolls.
The following table is a breakdown of each letter in the Hebrew alphabet, describing its written glyph or glyphs, its name or names, its Latin script transliteration values used in academic work, and its pronunciation in reconstructed historical forms and dialects using the International Phonetic Alphabet. If two glyphs are shown for a letter, then the left-most glyph is the Final form of the letter (or right-most glyph if your browser doesn't support right-to-left text layout).
|Academic||Israeli||Modern Israeli|| Ash-|
|א||’āleph||'àleph||alef||alef||alef, olef||ʾ||’||'||' (1)||1||[[glottal stop|]], - ]||silent||[ ʔ, - ]||[ ʔ, - ]||[ ʔ, - ]||[ ʔ, - ]||[ ʔ ]|
|ב||bêṯ, ḇêṯ||bêth, bhêth||bêth, bhêth||bet||bet, vet||beis, veis||b, ḇ||b, bh||b, bh||b, v||2||[ b, v ]||[ b, v~v̥ ]||[ b, b~β~v ]||[ b ]||[ b, v ]||[ b, β ]||[ b ]|
|ג||gímmel, ḡímel||gímel, ghímel||gímel, ghímel||gimel||gimel||gimmel||g, ḡ||g, gh||g, gh||g||3||[ ɡ ]||[ ɡ~ɡ̊ ]||[ ɡ, ɡ~ɣ ]||[ ʤ, ɣ ]||[ ɡ, ɣ ]||[ ɡ, ɣ ]||[ ɡ ]|
|ד||dā́leṯ, ḏā́leṯ||dāleth, dhāleth||dàleth, dhàleth||dalet||dalet||doles||d, ḏ||d, dh||d, dh||d||4||[ d ]||[ d~d̥ ]||[ d̪~ð ]||[ d̪, ð ]||[ d̪, ð ]||[ d̪, ð ]||[ d̪ ]|
|ה||?||hê||hê||he||he, hei, e, ei||hei||h, Ḏ||?||?||h (2)||5||[ h~ʔ, - ]||[ h, - ]||[ h, - ]||[ h, - ]||[ h, - ]||[ h, - ]||[ h ]|
|ו||wāw||wāw||wàw||vav||vav||vov, vof||?||w||w||v||6||[ v ]||[ v~v̥ ]||[ v ]||[ w ]||[ w ]||[ w ]||[ w ]|
|ז||?||záyin||záyin||zayin||zayin||zayin||?||z||z||?||7||[ z ]||[ z~z̥ ]||[ z ]||[ z ]||[ z ]||[ z ]||[ dz ]|
|ח||ḥêṯ, (3) ḫêṯ||ħêth, (3) xêth||h`êth, (3) xêth||het||chet||ches||ḥ, (3) ḫ||ħ, (3) x||h`, (3) x||h, ch (4)||8||[ x~ħ ]||[ x ]||[ ħ ]||[ ħ ]||[ ħ ]||[ ħ, x ]||[ ħ, x ]|
|ט||ṭêṯ||ţêth||t`êth||tet||tet||tes||ṭ||ţ||t`||t||9||[ t ]||[ t ]||[ t̪ ]||[ t̴̪ ] (5)||[ t̴̪ ]||[ t̪ˁ ] (6)||[ t̪ʼ ] (7)|
|י||yôḏ||yôdh||yôdh||yod||yod, yud||yud||?||y||y||y, i (8)||10||[ j ]||[ j ]||[ j ]||[ j ]||[ j ]||[ j ]||[ j ]|
|ך כ||kāp̄, ḵāp̄||kāph, khāph||kàph, khàph||kaf||kaf, chaf||kof, chof||k, ḵ||k, kh||k, kh||k, ch||20||[ k, x ]||[ k, x ]||[ k, x ]||[ k, x ]||[ k, x ]||[ k, x ]||[ k ]|
|ל||lā́meḏ||lāmedh||làmedh||lamed||lamed||lomed||?||l||l||l||30||[ l ]||[ l~ɫ ]||[ l ]||[ l ]||[ l ]||[ l ]||[ l ]|
|ם מ||mēm||mēm||mèm||mem||mem||mem||?||m||m||m||40||[ m ]||[ m ]||[ m ]||[ m ]||[ m ]||[ m ]||[ m ]|
|ן נ||?||nûn||nûn||nun||nun||nun||?||n||n||n||50||[ n ]||[ n ]||[ n̪ ]||[ n̪ ]||[ n̪ ]||[ n̪ ]||[ n̪ ]|
|ס||sā́mekh||sāmekh||sàmekh||samekh||samech||somech||?||s||s||s||60||[ s ]||[ s ]||[ s ]||[ s ]||[ s ]||[ s ]||[ ts ]|
|ע||ʿáyin, (3) ġáyin||‘áyin, (3) ġáyin||`áyin, (3) 3áyin||ayin||ayin||ayin, oyin||ʿ, (3) ġ||‘, (3) ġ||`, (3) 3||' (9)||70||[ ʔ ~ ʕ, – ]||silent||[ ʕ, ŋ, – ]||[ ʕ ]||[ ʕ ]||[ ʕ, ɣ ]||[ ʕ, ɣ ]|
|ף פ||pê, p̄ê||pê, phê||pê, phê||pe||pe, pei, fe/fei||pei, fei||p, p̄||p, ph||p, ph||p, f||80||[ p, f ]||[ p, f ]||[ p, f ]||[ f ]||[ p, f ]||[ p, ɸ ]||[ p ]|
|ץ צ||ṣāḏê||şādhê||s`àdhê||tsadi||tzadi, tzadik||tsodi, tsodik||ṣ||ş||s`||tz, ts, z||90||[ ʦ ]||[ ʦ ]||[ ʦ ]||[ s̴ ] (5)||[ s̴ ]||[ sˁ ] (6)||[ ʦʼ, ʧʼ, t͡ɬʼ ] (7)|
|ק||?||qôph||qôph||qof||kof, kuf||kuf||?||q||q||k||100||[ k ]||[ k ]||[ k ]||[ ɡ ]||[ q ]||[ q ]||[ kʼ ] (7)|
|ר||rêš||rêš||rêsh||resh||resh, reish||reish||?||r||r||r||200||[ ʁ ]||[ ʀ ]||[ r~ɾ ]||[ r~ɾ ]||[ ɾ ]||[ ɾ ]||[ ɾ ]|
|ש||šîn, śîn||šîn, śîn||shîn, lhîn||shin||shin, sin||shin, sin||š, ś||š, ś||sh, lh||sh, s||300||[ ʃ, s ]||[ ʃ, s ]||[ ʃ, s ]||[ ʃ, s ]||[ ʃ, s ]||[ ʃ, ɬ ]||[ ʧ, t͡ɬ , s ]|
|ת||tāw, ṯāw||tāw, thāw||tàw, thàw||tav||tav||tov, tof, sov, sof||t, ṯ||t, th||t, th||t||400||[ t ]||[ t, s ]||[ t̪ ]||[ t̪, θ ]||[ t̪, θ ]||[ t̪, θ ]||[ t̪ ]|
- unwritten in initial and final positions, though often not written at all
- unwritten in final positions
- h initial or after consonants, ch everywhere else
- velarized or pharyngealized
- i in final positions or before consonants
- often not written at all
- Historically, the consonants ב bet, ג gimel, ד dalet, כ kaf, פ pe, and ת tav each had two sounds: one hard (plosive consonant), and one soft (fricative consonant), depending on the position of the letter and other factors. When vowel diacritics are used, the hard sounds are indicated by a central dot called dagesh (דגש), while the soft sounds lack a dagesh. In masoretic manuscripts, the soft fricative consonants are indicated by a small line on top of the letter; this diacritical mark is called raphe (רפה), but its use has been largely discontinued in printed texts.
- א alef, ה he, ו vav and י yod are consonants that can sometimes fill the position of a vowel. vav and yod in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants.
- ש shin and sin are two separate phonemes written with the same letter. They are not mutually allophonic. When vowel diacritics are used, the two phonemes are differentiated with a shin-dot or sin-dot; the shin-dot is above the upper-right side of the letter, and sin-dot is above the upper-left side of the letter.
- In Israel's general population, many consonants have merged to the same pronunciation. They are:
- א alef with ayin and (varyingly) ה he
- ב bet (without dagesh) with ו vav
- ח het with כ kaf (without dagesh)
- ט tet with ת tav (both with and without dagesh)
- כ kaf (with dagesh) with ק qof
- ס samekh with שׂ sin (but not with שׁ shin)
- צ tsadi with the consonant cluster תס tav-samekh
Some of the letters, as well as their consonantal function, also acted as matres lectionis to represent vowels, as follows:
|א||alef||ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô|
|ה||he||ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô|
|י||yod||î, ê, ệ|
Some of the variations in sound mentioned above are due to a systematic feature of Ancient Hebrew. The six consonants /p t k b d g/ were pronounced differently depending on their position. These letters were also called BeGeDKePHaT (pronounced /beɪgɛd'kɛfɛt/) letters. (The full details are very complex; this summary omits some points.) They were pronounced as stops [p t k b d g] at the beginning of a syllable, or when doubled. They were pronounced as fricatives [p̄ ṯ ḵ ḇ ḏ ḡ] — IPA [f θ x v ð ɣ] when preceded by a vowel. The stop and double pronunciations were indicated by the dagesh. In Modern Hebrew the sounds [ḏ] and [ḡ] have reverted to [d] and [g], and [ṯ] has become [t], so only the remaining three letters show variation.
ו vav was a semivowel /w/ (as in English, not as in German).
שׂ sin (the /s/ variant of ש shin) was originally different from both שׁ shin and ס samekh, but had become /s/ the same as ס samekh by the time the vowel pointing was devised. Because of cognates with other Semitic languages, this phoneme is known to have originally been a lateral consonant, most likely IPA the fricative /ɬ/ (as in Welsh /ll/) or the affricate /tɬ/ (as in Náhuatl /tl/).
Archeological evidence indicates that the original Hebrew script is related to the Phoenician script that was in wide use in the Middle East region at the end of the 2nd millennium BC. Eventually this alphabet evolved in Europe into the Greek and Roman alphabets. This script was borrowed by the Hebrews during the 12th or 11th century BC, and around the 9th century BC, a distinct Hebrew variant, the original "Hebrew script", emerged. This script was widely used in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah until they fell in the 8th and 6th centuries BC, respectively.
Following the Babylonian exile, Jews gradually stopped using the Hebrew script, and instead adopted the Babylonian Aramaic script (which was also originally derived from the Phoenician script). This script, used for writing Hebrew, later evolved into the Jewish, or "square" script, that is still used today. "Square"-related scripts were in use all over the Middle East for several hundred years, but following the rise of Christianity (and later, the rise of Islam), they gave way to the Roman and Arabic alphabets, respectively. According to traditional Jewish thought, the Hebrew writing system contained all the current letters at the time of Moses, although Ezra is known for his contribution to the square form.
Following the decline of Hebrew and Aramaic as the spoken languages of the Jews, the Hebrew alphabet was adopted in order to write down the languages of the Jewish diaspora (Karaim, Judæo-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, etc.). The Hebrew alphabet was retained as the alphabet used for writing down the Hebrew language during its rebirth in the end of the 19th century, despite several unsuccessful attempts to replace it with the Latin alphabet.
Hebrew in Unicode
- HebAlpha, freeware to assist in learning the alphabet
- Al's Hebrew Transliterator, converts latin alphabet transliteration into Hebrew HTML codes
- A free online course to learn the Hebrew consonants
- The original Hebrew translit, new and improved
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