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Hebrew Vowels

By now you are familiar with some of the Hebrew consonants. You probably also noticed that the Hebrew script includes little symbols under, over and inside the letters. These are called diacritics, or נִיקוּד  nikud. They represent the five vowel sounds in Hebrew:  a,  e,  i,  o, and  u, and they are pronounced after the consonant that they’re written above or below.

In this section, we will focus on two vowel sounds:  a and  i. We will also discuss the diacritic known as schwa.

Notice that the vowel sound  a can be spelled in three different ways in Hebrew, and  i can be spelled in two different ways.

ָ
 a
שָלוֹם  
shalom

hello
ַ  
a
אַתְ
 'at
you (f.)
ֲ  
a
אֲנִי
 'ani
I
ִ
 i
שִמְךָ  
shimHa

your (m.) name
יִ
 i
שְמִי  
shmi

my name
ְ 
silent
סְלִיחָה  
sliHa

excuse me

The last diacritic in the table above, known as a schwa, is silent. In the words סְלִיחָה  sliHa (excuse me) and שְמִי  shmi (my name), you can see that it follows the first consonants, ש  sh and ס  s, but it doesn’t add a vowel sound. Historically, this vowel was pronounced in a few different ways, and in fact in some words in Modern Hebrew it is pronounced e as in set. The word לְהִתְרָאוֹת  lehitra'ot (good-bye) has both a silent schwa and a schwa that is pronounced as a short e. The first schwa, which appears under the first letter, ל  l, is pronounced as a short e, while the second schwa, which appears under the third letter, ת  t, is silent. But don’t worry about the details at this point. Just learn to recognize this short vowel, and pay attention to the transliteration and the audio to tell how, or whether, it’s pronounced.

Notice that in שְמִי  shmi (my name), the letter י  y appears after the vowel ִi. In addition to vowels which are written as diacritics, Hebrew uses four letters to represent vowels. ו  v represents the vowels o and u (we’ll discuss its consonantal use later), י  y represents the vowel i and א  ' and ה  h can represent all the vowels. In fact, there is a trend today to use full spelling with these vowel letters acting as true vowels. These four letters can function as consonants as well. As explained above, '  א is a glottal stop and ה  h is equivalent to the h sound in English. You will be introduced shortly also to י  y and ו  v in their consonantal versions.

Now that you’ve learned some vowels in Hebrew, see if you can pick them out in the following familiar words. Let’s start with  a. Remember that this vowel sound can be represented by three different symbols.

אַתָה
 'ata
you (m.)
תוֹדָה
 toda
thanks
אֲנִי
 'ani
I
סְלִיחָה  
sliHa
excuse me
בְּבַקָשָה
 bevakasha
please

Now see if you can pick out the  i sounds in the following words.

לְהִתְרָאוֹת
 lehitra’ot
good-bye
שִמְךָ
 shimHa
your (m.) name
סְלִיחָה  
sliHa
excuse me

Finally, see if you can identify the schwa in the words below.

בְּבַקָשָה  
bevakasha
please
שְמֵךְ  
shmeH
your (f.) name
לְהִתְרָאוֹת  
lehitra'ot
good-bye