How to pronounce the Hebrew Letters



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Learning How the Hebrew Language Works

By Eliezer Cohen 1998

The Letters

In the Hebrew language there are twenty two letters as follows are the various pronunciations. Please note that it is not possible to find HTML code for every Hebrew letter so I have written next to the letter that it has a dot inside. This dot is called in Hebrew a dagesh, which means it has an emphasis. Not every letter has a dagesh and many letters that have the dagesh are not pronounced differently in the various accents. The S'fardim (Jews from most of the Arab lands) have one set of pronunciations which has been accepted as the modern Israeli pronounciation, while the Askenazim (European Jews) have another set of pronunciations, and the Yeminite Jews have their own set. I have tried to set up a chart below to let you compare the various pronumciations.

NameAskenazic Pronunciation Modern Israeli PronunciationYemenite Pronunciation
א Aleph AhAhAh
בּ with dot inside Bais BBB
ב with No dot insideVais VVV
גGimel G as in GetG as in Get Ree
ג with dot inside Gimel G as in GetG as in Get Gee as in Jim
דDalet D as in DigD as in Dig Tha
ד with dot inside Dalet D as in DigD as in Dig Dah
הHai H as in HayH as in Hay H as in Hay
וVav VVW
זZion ZZZ
חKhess Kh *Kh*Kh*
טTes T TTah
יYod Y as in YesY as in Yes Y as in Yes
כ with NO dotKhaff Kh* (same as ח)Kh* (different than ח) Kh* (different than ח)
כּ with dot inside Kaff K as in CanK as in Can K as in Can
לLamed LLL
מMem MMM
נNoon NNN
סSamech S as in SingS as in Sing S as in Sing
עIyen Ah (same as א)Aye (deep gutteral) Aye (deep gutteral)
פּ with dot insidePay P as in PayP as in Pay P as in Pay
פ with NO dotFay F as in FayF as in Fay F as in Fay
צTzadi (Tzaddik) TzTzSa (half gutteral and half from the teeth)
קKoof K as in kukuK as in kuku G as in Get (like our )
רRaish R (see below)R (see below) R as in the Spanish rolled R
שׁ with right dotShin ShShSh
שׂ with left dotSin S as in SinS as in Sin S as in Sin
תּ with dot insideTaf TTTaah
תSaf S as in SinTTha (more of a "ss" sound than the )

*Note the "Kh" is a sound that emanates from the throat, like a the sound one makes when he clears phlegm from his throat. It is close to impossible to learn the proper pronunciation from the chart above, it is here for you to see and understand that there are differences in pronunciations. There are other Jewish ethnic groups that have different pronunciations, however the purpose of this work is not to teach all of the many types of pronunciations but to explain how the Hebrew language works.

The modern Israeli pronunciation is based on the pronunciation of the S'fardic communities. Although the various ethnic groups in Israel speak Hebrew, there is a noticeable difference in the accents. Similar to the English language, where a Scotsman, a South African, a person from India, and a American from the South all speak English. However there is a marked difference between their accents. So too in Israel, many varied groups who have immigrated from diverse lands, have accents in common with their fellow immigrants and yet differ from those immigrants from other lands.

Where as the Askenazic pronunciation differentiates between the various letters that come with and with out dageshes, (the dot inside of the Hebrew letters) such as with-out a dot and with a dot etc. they also differentiate in certain vowel pronunciation (as we shall see shortly); the S'fardic pronunciation differentiates between the ח (which is a deep guttural sound "kh")and the כ (which is less a guttural and more near the palate "kh").

The traditional Yemenite pronunciation is presented here since there are many who consider the Yemenite pronunciation to be an authentic expression of the Hebrew letters. We shall see in later lessons that their pronunciation will help us understand some problems in the Hebrew language.

The Five Ending Letters

Five of the above letters, מ נ צ פּ כ, have a special shape when they come at the end of a word. They are refered to as Menzipach as is their pronunciation when they are stringed together.

Regular Letter
End Letter

Five Divisions of the Letters

The twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are grouped into five categories. These five categories are the five parts of the mouth that create the sounds of the letters. Later you will see that there are particular rules that apply to one group and not another group.

א ה ח ע and sometimes: רThese are the letters that are produced in the throat and these are commonly called the gutturals.
ג י כ ק These are the letters that are created by the tongue coming into contact with the palate
ז ס ש ר צThese letters are formed when the tongue comes in contact with the teeth.
ד ט ל נ ת These letters are created by the air flow past the tongue.
ב ו מ פ These are the letters that are formed with the lips.

The Tricky Raish: ר

If you noticed, the ר is included in two different groups. The reason is because there is a difference of opinions between scholars as to whether should be included with the gutturals or with the group that are expressed mainly with the teeth. This is a very old argument and it is certainly not in the scope of this work to make any decision. The truth is that the ר takes on both forms. Sometimes the ר is rolled like the Spanish "R", and sometimes it is expressed from the throat. Like a guttural, it never gets a dagesh; unlike a guttural, it doesn't get a chataf. (These concepts are discussed later in the sections on Dagesh and Chataf)

If you have ever noticed, English speakers can never truly master the spoken ר as spoken in Israel today. If you will pay attention, you will notice that the ר moves from the rolling Spanish R to the slurred and not emphasized guttural ר. The guttural ר is made by holding down the front of the tongue near the base of the teeth and kind of bringing up the sound of the "raish" from the throat. We English speakers say our "R" by raising up the tip of the tongue near the top of the mouth (the palate) and saying "our". The English R and the "raish" are two separate types of sounds. No wonder the English speaker can never master the modern Israeli ר.


from the Jewish Magazine

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