Middle East Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia of the Middle East


MidEastWeb Middle East


Hebrew is a Semitic language, closely related to ancient Cana'anite and "proto-Semitic" and probably originally identical with it, and close to Arabic and Aramaic. Ancient Hebrew used the Canaanite script that was used by Phoenicians and was the basis of the Greek and later the Roman alphabets. The name of the English "Alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Semitic Phoenician  alphabet: Aleph and Bet, or in Greek, Alpha and Beta.

Hebrew was the language of every day life in ancient Judea and Israel, though it was gradually replaced by Aramaic and Greek. It remained the language of the scriptures and liturgy. Sephardic Jews   and Jews in Arabic and Asian countries used Hebrew for every day conversation and letter-writing much more frequently than European Jews. In modern times, Hebrew was revived by Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

The Hebrew language is based primarily on roots of three letter words that can be used in one of seven "constructions" as verbs, and interconvert to be nouns and adjectives.

The following rough guide is not intended as a thorough grounding in Hebrew grammar and alphabet, but should be sufficient to help understand the principles and to follow the transliterations of different terms and understand how to use them.


The Hebrew alphabet has 22 consonant letters. Modern Hebrew is written using Aramaic print letters, from right to left.  The chart below gives the entire alphabet. Hebrew has no W, J or X. The Hebrew letters can be approximated by English sounds, but the pronunciation of vowels, and of "r", and 'h (het) are often problematic for English speakers.

Several Hebrew letters are written differently at the end of the word - These are: Chaf, Mem, Nun, Phey and Tzadi.


As in Arabic, pronunciation of letters is modified by the presence or absence of a dot (dagesh) inside the letter. In Hebrew, the dagesh is always placed in certain letters at the beginning of words and of syllables. These letters are Bet ,Gimmel, Dalet, Khaf, Phey and Taf. In modern Hebrew, only three of these letters are pronounced differently with the dagesh:

Bet - is pronounced V without the dagesh, and B with the dagesh


Kaf - is pronounced Kh (Ch) without the dagesh, and K with the dagesh


Phey is pronounced P without the dagesh, and Ph with the dagesh


Kaf, Bet and Phey are always "hard" sounds (K, B, P) at the beginning of native Hebrew and Semitic-root words. They may be soft only in words borrowed from other languages such as Philharmonic and Phiberglas.  A consequence of this is that Hebrew (and Arabic) words that begin with the sound that approximates the "'Ch" sound in English such as 'Hanukkah and 'Hamas and 'Heder should always be written with as 'H because they start with 'Het, and never with "Ch," which is used to transliterate the chaf without a dagesh (see below).

Some other differences in pronunciation that depend on dots:

The Mapik - The letter shin is pronounced as follows:

The  (shin) is an SH sound when a dot is placed over the right side:


The  (sin) is an S sound when a dot is placed over the left side:

The letter Vav can also be a vowel when used with these "dots":


The  vav is an oo sound when a dot is placed inside:


The  vav is an oh sound when a dot is placed above:

Hebrew vowels are signified by a system of "nikkud" that is usually dropped in printing. Ambiguities are resolved by context. This is usually not a problem because Hebrew is a fairly regular language based on conjugation of a few roots.

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions: (see also below)

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat.  To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example. In standard Hebrew it is often hard to hear the difference between 'het and khaf.

Ayin - The letter ayin in Sephardic Hebrew is pronounced as a deep guttural sound. In standard Hebrew it is usually pronounced the same as an Aleph.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation sometimes used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

r- close to the French or Eastern European r.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

Pronunciation variants:

 Sephardic Jews and Jews from Arab countries tend to sound the "ayin" and 'het from the back of the throat, so they can easily be distinguished them from the "alef" and "chaf." That is apparently the historically correct pronounciation.


Summary of ANSI Z39.25-1975 standard: transliteration of Hebrew

(adapted from http://theochem.weizmann.ac.il/~comartin/ivrit/ansi.html )

The complete original document can be obtained from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

For the ISO standard for binary representation of Hebrew, see ISO- 8859-8.

 Blue letters are printed,  red letters are handwritten. For those letters which have a different form at the end of a word (i.e. kaf, mem, nun, pe, tzadi) the "sofi" (final) form appears leftmost. Note that a final "kaf" is always a "chaf", and a final "pe" always a "fe". Likewise an initial "Phe" and Initial "chaf" always are hard sounds - "P" ("Pey") and "K" ("Kaf") respectively.  If an "imported" word happens to end with a "p" sound (e.g. endoskop) the "non-final" letter is deliberately used at the end of the word.

Note 29.11.98: draft ISO standard column added (based on article) in Ha'aretz weekend supplement, 27.11.98). The ISO standard, being drafted by a team led by Technion Prof. Uzi Ornan, is intended not for ease of reading but for complete reversibility, including the storage of Hebrew documents in  7-bit ASCII representation .

Hebrew letter Name of Hebrew letter General purpose More strict in TeX type: draft ISO/TC46/SC2 standard remarks
aleph (nothing) ' ' ` vowel stop letter
bet b b b b without dagesh: vet
  vet v v v b  
gimel g g g g g as in goal, grand 
gimel-tchuptchik j dzh j,dzh g' English J as in John, Russian Dzh as in Dzhuk
dalet d d d d  
hey h (*) h (*) h (*) h (h) or nothing if silent hey (at end of word)
vav v, o, u w, o, u v, o, u w, o, u o or u if used as vowel
zayin z z z z  
zayin-tchuptchik zh zh zh z' French j as in jardin or Jabotinsky, Russian zh as in Zhukov or Zhabotinskii
chet ch h \d{h} x Arabic 'het as in 'Hamas - a very soft Ch sound made from the throat.
tet t t t @ obsolete: tt
yud i,y i,y i,y i,y depending on context either an "ee" sound or "y" as in "year" "your"
kaf k c k k without dagesh: chaf
  chaf ch kh ch,kh k harsher "kh" sound like in Loch Ness, Tutankhamon; Dutch "ch" (made by pressing back of tongue against palate)
lamed l l l l  
mem m m m m  
nun n n n n  
samech s s \d{s} s obsolete: ss
ayin   ` ` & vowel stop (Ashkenazi), deep throat sound (Oriental) -intermediate in standard Hebrew.
pe p p p p without dagesh: fe
  fe f ph f,ph p  
tzadik tz,ts z \d{z} c German z (ts) as in Weizmann, Zimmer; Polish c
tzadik-tchuptchik tch,tsh ch tch,ch c' Russian Tch as in Tchaikovski
kuf k q k,q q guttural, deeper than k (Oriental pron.)
resh r r r r rolling r
shin sh sh sh $ without mappik: (dot) sin
  sin s s s $' s as in Israel
tav th t t t in Yiddish: and without dagesh (dot) in Ashkenzic Hebrew,  pronounced as s

The  apostrophe ( ' ) when added to the letters gimel, zayin, and tzadik, produces three new letters which are used in modern Hebrew to represent foreign sounds (in words borrowed from French, English, Russian, ...) that do not exist in Biblical Hebrew.

 The standard pronunciation of modern Hebrew is a simplified version of the Sephardi pronunciation: in particular, the kaf-kuf, chet-chaf, and tet-tav pairs are pronounced identically and the alef and ayin are both silent vowel stops.

 In the speech of Israelis originating from Arabic-speaking countries, one does hear distinctions between kaf vs. kuf and chet vs. chaf, and the ayin is pronounced as a deep sound in the throat. These are residues of distinctions which are fully functional in Arabic. Many philologists regard the Teimani (Yemenite) pronunciation of Hebrew, which has even finer distinctions, as being closest to how Biblical Hebrew probably sounded.

 Rules of thumb for English to Hebrew transliterations (and for spelling words borrowed from Greek or Latin in Hebrew:

t is transliterated as tet (e.g. universita),

th is tav (theorema),

w is vav vav

German "au" (a sounds that does not exist in Hebrew) is aleph-vav,

German "ue" (likewise nonexistent in Hebrew) as "i" (as in Yiddish)

Special letters, suffixes and prefixes:

Two letters serve special functions:

"heh" (usually "ha") at the beginning of a word is often the definite article "the,"  Tiqva means  hope, Hatiqva - the hope

"vav" (often "ve") at the beginning of a word means "and."  Avoda means work. Torah v'avoda means "Torah and Work"


Feminine and masculine.

Hebrew words have feminine and masculine gender. Feminine gender is often (not always) signified by a "heh" (usually "ah") at the end of the word, and sometimes by a "t" - usually "et"

'Hatul means "cat"

'Hatulah is a female cat.

Tinok means baby. Tinoket means girl baby.

Sometimes the application of gender is arbitrary.

Kibbutz  is a collective settlement. Kvutzah (from the same root) is a group or a special sort of collective settlement.




Hebrew and Arabic have a similar system of conjugating words so that "my house" for example can be said as one word. This is done by adding suffixes:

XXi - Mine - 'Hatuli means "my cat"

XXcha - Yours (masculine) - 'Hatulcha means "your cat"

XXech - Yours (feminine) - 'Hatulech means "your cat"

XXeinu - Ours - Eloheinu - our god (Elohim)

XXchem - Yours, plural - Aleichem means "unto you."

XXeihem - Theirs for plural.

XXam - Theirs for singular nouns.



The Hebrew plural endings are "im" (masculine) and "ot" (feminine)

Kibbutzim (and not kibbutzes) is the plural of kibbutz.

Kvutzot is the plural of kvutzah.


Modifiers ("Smi'hut")

Words change when they are modifiers of other words, "belonging" to them:

Bayit means house. Beit Sefer means " house of book" - meaning a school.  Beit Lehem - house of bread, a place name.

The definite article is added to the second word - the school is "Beit Hasefer."

Words of feminine gender characteristically assume an "et" ending when in a "smi'hut" relation" Thus Milchama ("war") becomes Milchemet Hashichrur - War of Liberation


Adapted from - Zionism & Israel Hebrew language, grammar and pronunciation. Reproduced by permission

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Ivrit

Further Information:  Arabic

USA Credit Card - Donate On-Line - Help us live and grow

Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

Copyright 2007- 8,  MidEastWeb for Coexistence RA.

All original materials at MidEastWeb are copyright by MidEastWeb and/or by their authors unless otherwise noted. Please do not copy materials from this Web site to your Web site or to forums without permission. Please tell your friends about MidEastWeb. Please forward these materials in e-mails to friends with links to this URL - http://www.mideastweb.org and to the URL of the material. You can print out materials for your own use or classroom use, giving the URL of  MidEastWeb. For pages marked Copyright, printed material should bear this notice:

"Copyright by MidEastWeb for Coexistence R.A - Middle East Resources. - http://www.mideastweb.org. All rights reserved. "

and should give the URL of the original. Reproduction in any other form - by permission only. Consult detailed terms of use and copyright information

Mideastweb: Middle East Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Issues in a Nutshell Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Brief History Zionism Zionism: Definition & brief history

Middle East Encyclopedia