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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
About this course
Lesson 1: The alphabet
What are the dots and lines? (step 4 of 8)
Vowels, doubling and cantillation

Many centuries ago, and centuries after the original composition of the Hebrew Bible, small dots and lines were added around the letters to aid the reader in pronunciation. These marks are useful in that they provide a traditional Jewish textual-level interpretation. That is, we can see how the Masoretes (who developed these markings) read different passages in cases where the Hebrew letters alone are not definitive in their intention. But this is not something to worry about for beginners.

Something of concern now is the fact that these markings can also make it easier to read the text. In this course, you will learn the markings that will aid you in this way, while the full breadth and precision of Hebrew's “diacritic” marks will be left aside so as to not overwhelm you.

These extra markings can be divided into three categories.

Given that the Hebrew alphabet is primarily made up of consonants alone, vowel sounds are indicated with dots and lines below, above and next to the letters. Note that these markings will change (as will the pronunciation) as a word is given prefixes or a suffix, or is inflected to a certain parsing. In fact, the word that comes before can also affect a word’s exact pronunciation and vowel markings. Thus, the way you say a word depends on how it is used in a sentence, but the pronunciation differences alone do not change a word’s meaning.

While this might sound complicated, it is actually far easier than English. In English, the way a word is spelled does not tell you all you need to know about how it is pronounced. For example, take the word woman. The first half of this word is written the same but pronounced differently when used in the singular (“woman”) versus the plural (“women”). That is, the “wo-” in “woman” is pronounced wu, whereas the “wo-” in “women” pronounced wi. The pronunciation has changed though it is written the same!

On the other hand, in Hebrew the vowel markings are there to tell you exactly how to pronounce the word. Like English, pronunciation will change depending on how the word is used (singular versus plural, etc). But unlike English, the Hebrew vowel markings will make this change plain.

For this reason, it is important for us to learn the Hebrew vowels. We will do so below.

On the previous step we noted how the sounds of the letters כ ,ב, and פ change depending on whether the letter begins or ends a syllable. We also learned that this is indicated by the presence or absence of a middle dot.

There are other letters that can likewise be written with a middle dot (note the ק ,י and מ in the image above), but this does not change their pronunciation—at least when using a Modern Hebrew pronunciation, as we will do. The rules for when they receive this middle dot are also far more involved. For these reasons, we will not be learning these rules.

The final category of extra markings are a series of accents called cantillation marks. There are a couple dozen of them and they are useful for knowing where to place the accent when pronouncing a word, and also can indicate the breakdown of sentences (like we use commas). However, due to how complicated and numerous they are, we have not included them in this course.

** Note: Cantillation marks can be turned on and off in Biblearc by going to the menu > Settings > Display options.
The vowels

A vowel’s sound follows the letter it is under, above or next to. For example, if the vowels in English were written under the consonants, the word “vowel” would be written “vwl” with the “o” placed under the “v” and the “e” placed under the “w.” In the chart below you will find the letter א repeated. It is simply there as a placeholder, since Hebrew vowels need a letter to be under, above or next to!

There are six basic vowel sounds with the modern pronunciation we are using, though some of these sounds have 2-3 actual vowels markings associated with them. For the purposes of this course, we will not often be distinguishing between the markings for a single vowel sound. The names of the vowels are also not the most important, but are listed below since we will need to talk about them from time to time. 

You do not need to memorize all the details below. Rather, this lesson step is meant to be a reference. The immediate learning goal is that you would know the sound of each vowel marking so as to be able to read Hebrew.

So here we go. Don't be intimidated. Just try to absorb. You will find many examples and opportunities to practice in this course.
Either like the e in red or in grey
Tsira always sounds like the e in grey when followed by י.
These are often referred to as e-class vowels.
Like the a in aqua
When petach is followed by יִ, together they sound like the y in cyan.
These are often referred to as a-class vowels.
Like the ee in green
Like the o in yellow
Notice that kamatz can sound like both a and o.
Most of the time it makes an a sound.
When it does make an o sound, it is technically called a kamatz hatuph.
Like the ue in blue
Notice that a middle dot here is a vowel called a shureq.
This is only the case for the letter ו.
Silent (or a very short e sound)
Often ends a syllable or allows consonants to combine.
Learning through examples

Now that the options are in front of you, it is time to really learn the vowels. We will do so through examining some words from Psalm 111—the acrostic psalm we examined on the previous page.
work, deed (noun)
As mentioned briefly in the last lesson step, יְהוָה is traditionally pronounced the same as אֲדֹנָי. Jewish tradition has long held it should be pronounced in this fashion to avoid using God’s name in vain. As a result, knowledge of its original pronunciation has been lost since the vowel pointing on this word is based in this Jewish tradition. For lack of a better option, we generally follow the same tradition in our reading.

For the curious, see this article for more detailed information.
give thanks, confess (verb)
heart (noun)
faithfulness, truth (noun)
righteousness (noun)
seek, demand (verb)
deed, work (noun)
heavens, sky (noun)
utterance (noun)
An exception

We learned above that a vowel sound follows the letter it is placed under, above or next to. There is one exception to this rule—namely when a ח or ע comes at the end of a word. In this case, the vowel sound precedes the sound of the letter.
strength, power (noun)
Gutturals love “a”

Finally, note that those two letters (ח and ע), in addition to a few others, tend to prefer the a-class vowels. This will be helpful to know so as to better understand later in the course why certain verbs will not follow the normal rules when they are inflected.
Guttural letters
You have done some hard memorizing work. It is time now for more joyful study. On the next step you will learn your first Hebrew worship song for the course.