III.1.2. Vowels

There are five vowels in Hebrew: “a” (like in “bark”), “e” (like in “pet”), “i” (like in “pit”), “o” (like in “pot”) and “u” (like in – Can you guess it? – “put”). There’s also the diphthong “ei” which is treated more or less the same as “e”. Modern Hebrew has no concept of vowel length as far as pronunciation is concerned, but it used have three different vowel lengths. This has a great impact on grammar, so when learning Hebrew it’s still important to know the difference.

A vowel can only follow a letter (with one exception), so in the following table, the following placeholders are used: ב – for most vowels, א – only for those vowels that require glottal letters (with few exceptions).

Table III.1.4. Nekudot

Vowel \ LengthLongShortUltra-short (khataf)
Iבִי (Khirik Maleh)בִ (Khirik Khaser)-
Eבֵ (Tsere Khaser, sometimes pronounced as [ei])בֶ (Segol)אֱ (Khataf-Segol)
Aבָ (Kamats)בַ (Patakh)אֲ (Khataf-Patakh)
Oבֹ (Kholam Khaser)בָ (Kamats Katan)אֳ (Khataf-Kamats)
Uבוּ (Shuruk)בֻ (Kubuts)-

The Kamats Katan (Small Kamats) and the (Big) Kamats look identically. The Kamats Katan is sometimes surrounded with little circle, but, alas, regular computer fonts don’t reflect that, even though Unicode actually has a separate code for the Kamats Katan. What makes things worse, there is no Kamats Katan on Hebrew keyboard layout, so the regular (Big) Kamats is typically used instead (which applies to this book too).

Khatafs have the same pronunciation as their short counterparts, which includes Khataf-Kamats. That makes it two of the Kamats symbols that are pronounced as [o], but actually those are pretty rare, while the regular Kamats is encountered very often.

Symbols for long [i] and [u] use an additional letter called em kria (mother of reading, mater lectionis). Such symbols are called “maleh” (full). A Nikud symbol that doesn’t have em kria called khaser (“lacking”). In case with Khirik, it’s necessary to specify whether it’s maleh or khaser because there are two of them. The Shuruk, on the other hand, doesn’t have khaser variety, so it’s just called Shuruk, but it’s still considered a full Nekudot symbol. Of all other maleh vowels, the Tsere Maleh and the Kholam Maleh are used very often, so it’s necessary to indicate whether they are maleh or khaser when referring to them.

There are no khaser Nikud symbols for long [u] and [i], but there are many maleh varieties for almost every other Nikud symbol out there, except for the khatafs and the Kubuts. Typically long vowels are used for these, but short vowels can be maleh too, and some sources, including Hebrew Through the Brain [HTtB], consider short vowels promoted to long if they are maleh. The following letters can be used as matres lectionis for maleh vowels.

Table III.1.5. Matres lectionis

LetterUsed with
א Almost anything, but pretty rare
ה Almost anything, but only at the end of a word, and typically with Segol or Kamats
ו Only Shuruk and Kholam maleh: בֹו
י Almost anything, but most often with Khirik or (less often) with Tsere

In all cases, mater lectionis are not pronounced as consonant. If Hey is used at the end of a word as a consonant letter, not a mater lectionis (pretty rare case), then in vowelized spelling it’s marked with a dot called Mapiq: הּ. Note that it looks identical to dagesh, but since Hey is a glottal letter, there can be no dagesh in it, and so there can be no confusion between the Dagesh and the Mapiq.

One major source of confusion is Tsere with mater lectionis Yud: בֵי. Tsere is sometimes pronounced as [ei], so people start thinking it’s Yud that pronounced. It’s wrong, and both Tsere khaser and Tsere maleh (with any mater lectionis) can be pronounced as either [e] or [ei] depending on a wide variety of factors, including even geographical or national origin of the speaker. On the other hand, Segol is always [e], even with mater lectionis Yud.