Chapter I.4. Introducing the Alphabet

Before we continue, remember one thing. In case you didn’t know, Hebrew is written right-to-left (RTL), not left-to-right (LTR) like English. This goes for tables, time ranges, various horizontal numbering (exit numbers in airports for example) and even “before – after” kinds of pictures (the “after” part is on the left). So when you get confused about something that should be in a different order, think – maybe you’re just reading it in the wrong direction? The RTL thing has several consequences too, one of the most annoying one being right alignment of the text, which adds to the confusion and makes you often try to read various papers not only in the wrong direction, but also upside-down, because this way it seems to be aligned the “right” way at first glance.

Now, I don’t want to dump the whole alphabet on you without something that can help to remember it. That’s why I put the whole alphabet into the reference part. Here, instead of studying it in the alphabet order, we’ll start with the phrases we’re already familiar with:

אני אדם.

Letter-by-letter: א – Aleph, נ – Nun, י – Yud, ד – Dalet, ם – Mem sofit. All letter names are pronounced with the stress on the first syllable for whatever reason. Now here comes the scary part: Hebrew has no vowel letters. That, not the alien look, is the hardest part of Hebrew. Fortunately, Hebrew has a system of diacritics to indicate vowels. Unfortunately, it is not used outside of special cases like religious texts, some poetry, books for kids and such. We’ll learn this system later in its entirety, but for now we’re interested in one aspect of it: some consonants are used to indicate vowels! Yud is one of such consonants. It normally reads as “y”, but sometimes it can be “i”, just like in our case. Other letters in this phrase are used in their main meaning, as consonants, but there are one other caveat: there are two letters in Hebrew that lost their pronunciation. One of them is Aleph (א). That’s why it reads “Ani Adam”. One thing to pay special attention to:

This distinction is important, and we’ll later see why. The rest of the letters here aren’t so cryptic, Nun just reads as “n”, Dalet as “d” and Mem sofit as “m”. The last one is called “sofit” because it’s a special form that is only used at the end of a word. Only five letters in Hebrew have such special forms, and Mem is one of them. In the middle (or at the beginning) of a word it would be regular Mem (מ).

Now comes the important question: how do you figure out that it’s “Ani Adam” or “Eney Odom” or whatever else it could be, with vowels omitted? Well, the truth is, you don’t. I mean, there are no universal rules for that. There are even many different words which are spelled exactly the same, but pronounced differently. That’s why I said the lack of vowels is the hardest part of Hebrew. But not everything is so bleak. Although there are no strict rules, here are some very general guidelines:

So אני אדם could be read as “Ani Adam”, “Eni Edem” and so on, but definitely not “Uni Udum”! How do you figure exact pronunciation? Patterns help. They really do. Let’s see how it works.

אני לומד עברית.

First, let’s introduce new letters: Lamed (ל), Ayin (ע), Bet (ב), Resh (ר) and Tav (ת). Ayin is the last of the two letters that lack pronunciation (the other one being Aleph). Bet can be pronounced as either “b” or “v”, and it’s always “b” at the beginning of a word and “v” at the end of a word. OK, so how is this sentence pronounced? “Ani lavmad abrit”? “Ani levemed abereyt”? Well, with some experience, you start to notice patterns, and you see that לומד looks very much like the paal pattern for present tense participle. That’s “lomed”! As for the next word, you see the “-it” ending which is typical for feminine adjectives. It makes you think that the next word ends with “-rit”, which lets you guess easily enough that’s “Ivrit”. If you know that all language names in Hebrew are feminine adjectives (which they are), it makes it even easier. Let’s have a look at another example:

אני מדבר אנגלית.

There’s only one new letter: Gimel (ג). There’s nothing really special, and it’s always “g” like in “goose”.

Now let’s try to read it. What’s מדבר? Well, it lacks any letters typically used for vowels, so it must be something like “madabar” or “medeber”. It’s actually a nice example of how patterns don’t help, because even with my limited knowledge of Hebrew, I can immediately think of two patterns that fit: “medaber” and “midbar”. Even if I don’t know what the second one means or even if such word exists at all, I know that the pattern is pretty common. What I do know is that the latter pattern is usually used for places and kinds of organized activity, so it’s most likely a noun. The next word ends in “-it” again, so we can guess it’s some sort of adjective. That’s all we can figure from the first glance.

Now let me throw some new pieces of knowledge at you:

Now you can figure out that if מדבר is “midbar” (whatever it is), then it must be masculine. But the next adjective is definitely feminine, which means it doesn’t make sense. That leaves “medaber”, and we already know that word (and if you’re intrigued, “midbar” is actually “desert” – that’s a dry, hot place). Now we can feel that the whole phrase must mean something along the lines of “I speak...”. Speak what? Some language. “Anagalit”? “Engelit”? Whatever the pronunciation is, you should have already guessed it’s English. And its actually pronounced as “Anglit”, but since it’s not a Hebrew word, you have to check the dictionary to find that out.

If all that looked scary, I have to agree: it is scary. Don’t even try to figure out patterns yet. You have to learn a lot of them and familiarize yourself with them to be able to read unfamiliar words and even then it wouldn’t be easy. But the good news is that you don’t have to learn every single word to be able to read them. If you only know 100 patterns, you’ll be able to figure out a lot, and that’s just about the number of letters in English if you count both upper and lower case and both printed and cursive.

Now the final exercise for this chapter:

מה שמך?

A couple of new letters here: Shin (ש) and Kaf sofit (ך). In fact, there are different letters in Hebrew called Shin (שׁ) and Sin (שׂ), but that small dot that makes them different is usually omitted, just like vowels. Shin is more common than Sin, though, so unless you know better you may guess that it’s “sh”, not “s”. Kaf sofit is the sofit form of Kaf (כ), which just like Bet has two readings: “k” and “kh”. And just like Bet it’s always “k” at the beginning of a word, and it’s always “kh” at the end of one. There is in fact some logic behind that: consonants like “k” and “b” called (ex)plosive (they kind of explode in the speech), and consonants like “v” and “kh” called fricative.

Now let’s try to read this. The question mark makes us think it’s a question, right? Well, then it wouldn’t be surprising if it starts with “what”, which we know is “ma” in Hebrew. We know Hey at the end of a word is most commonly used to indicate “a”, so it confirms our suspicion. Now the next word could be “shamakh”, or “shemekh” or something like that. But we know the words “shmekh” and “shimkha”. Both seems to fit this spelling, though. So which one is correct? The answer is both. There is in fact no difference between “shimkha” and “shmekh” in writing. You’ll have to know if it’s addressed to a girl or a guy to figure out the correct way to read it.

Before we conclude this chapter, I would like to point one really annoying thing about RTL, namely that mixing LTR and RTL (like in this book) doesn’t always work well. Things start with weird-looking commas (like: א, ב, ג), but when RTL is intermixed with LTR English, for example, it becomes even more bizarre. Compare this:

א, ב, ג

with this:

א, ב and ג

I typed these letters in the same order, that is: Aleph, Bet and Gimel. But in the first case it’s a single piece of RTL text, so they all appear right-to-left, while in the second case I put the word “and” inbetween, which broke the RTL text into two pieces, which are arranged in the LTR fashion since the main language of this book is English. If it was Hebrew, then there would be the opposite problem – English parts would be written LTR, but arranged RTL relative to each other.

Another big problem that arises is the line breaks. Even if there is a single piece of Hebrew text, if a line break comes in, it could look like this:

These are various Hebrew letters: א, ב,
ג - well, just three of them.

Here is how you should read this: read LTR until you encounter Hebrew, then look for its end or the end of the line, whichever comes first, and remember this point. Then continue reading RTL until you come back to the place where you’ve been already, then jump to the point you remembered. If it was the end of the line, then go to the next line and “detect” the text direction once again. On top of that, there’s also a comma “hanging out” at the end of the line – it’s actually supposed to be after Bet, but line break sort of, well, broke it. Don’t worry, it only looks scary at first glance – but in most cases you can guess the right order by context, and then you get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Now with that cleared, it’s time to conclude this chapter: