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Hebrew alphabet

The modern Hebrew alphabet developed from the Aramaic alphabet. Hebrew speakers call their alphabet the "aleph-bet" (aleph and bet are the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet).

Archeological evidence indicates that the original Hebrew script is related to the Phoenician script that was in wide use in the Middle East region at the end of the 2nd millennium B.C, and which eventually evolved in Europe into the Greek and Roman alphabets. During the Babylonian exile (6th century B.C), the Jews adopted a more modern form of the same script from the Babylonians (who inherited it from the Assyrians). It was the "square" alphabet that is still used today. "Square"-related scripts were in use all over the Middle East for several hundred years, but following the rise of Christianity (and later, the rise of Islam), they gave way to the Roman and Arabic alphabets, respectively. According to traditional Jewish thought, the Hebrew writing system contained all the current letters at the time of Moses, although Ezra is known for his contribution to the square form.

Following the decline of Hebrew and Aramaic as the spoken languages of the Jews, the Hebrew alphabet was adopted in order to write down the languages of the Jewish diaspora (Yiddish and Judaeo-Spanish), probably because it was easier to teach Tanakh to the children that way. The Hebrew alphabet was retained as the official alphabet used for writing down the Hebrew language during its rebirth in the end of the 19th century.

The Hebrew alphabet has only one case, but some letters have special final forms used only at the end of a word. This is similar to Arabic, although much simpler. Hebrew is an abjad script: vowels are normally not indicated. There is a set of diacritical symbols (points or nikkud) that can be used to annotate a word with its vowels---this is done, for instance, when teaching the language to children. There are also cantillation marks used to indicate how scriptural passages should be chanted, and decorative "crowns" used only for Torah scrolls.

Hebrew letters may also be used as numbers; see the entry on Hebrew numerals. This use of letters as numbers is used in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in a practice known as gematria.

See also: History of the Hebrew language.

Letters of the modern Hebrew Alphabet:

Name Sound Character Final
alef /glottal stop/ א
bet /b or v/ ב
gimel /g/ ג
dalet /d/ ד
he /h/ ה
vav /v/ ו
zayin /z/ ז
chet /kh/1 ח
tet /t/ ט
yod /y/ י
kaf /k or kh/ כ ך
lamed /l/ ל
mem /m/ מ ם
nun /n/ נ ן
samech /s/ ס
ayin /guttural2/ ע
pe /p or f/ פ ף
tsadi /ts/ צ ץ
kof /q/ ק
resh /r/ ר
shin /sh or s/ ש
tav /t/ ת

Notes 1. /kh/ here means IPA /x/, or the guttural sound in Scots loch. 2. Ayin is silent for many speakers, or pharyngeal like Arabic ain for those with more contact with Arabic.

Two sounds are given for the letters bet, kaf, and pe, and these depend on the position of the letter and surrounding vowels. When vowel signs are used, the hard sounds /b k p/ are indicated by the dot called dagesh inside them, and the soft sounds /v kh f/ lack dagesh. The /kh/ sound is normally the same as that of the letter chet, and the /v/ sound of bet is the same as that of vav.

The two sounds given for shin are not predictable in the same way. The /sh/ value is much more common. They are distinguished in vowelled texts by the position of a dot above them. The /s/ sound is the same as that of the letter samech.

The letter tet and tav are both /t/.

Kof is usually pronounced /k/, except by some speakers in closer contact with Arabic, who keep the older /q/ sound.

Ancient Hebrew

Some of the variations in sound mentioned above are due to a systematic feature of Ancient Hebrew. The six consonants /p t k b d g/ were pronounced differently depending on their position. (The full details are very complex; this summary omits some points.) They were pronounced as stops [p t k b d g] at the beginning of a syllable, or when doubled. They were pronounced as fricatives [f T x v D G] when preceded by a vowel. The stop and double pronunciations were indicated by the dot dagesh. In Modern Hebrew the sounds [D] and [G] have reverted to [d] and [g], and [T] has become either [t] or [s], so only the remaining three letters show variation.

Vav was a semivowel /w/ (as in English, not as in German).

Chet and ayin were pharyngeal fricatives, tsadi was an emphatic s, and kof was /q/. All these are common Semitic sounds.

Sin (the /s/ variant of shin) was originally different from both shin and samech, but had become /s/ the same as samech by the time the vowel pointing was devised.