The Hebrew alphabet looks much different from the Roman alphabet we’re used to for most European languages, including English. It also works a little differently in a few ways. First, it is written and read from right to left, instead of from left to write. But second of all, the letters we commonly see in Hebrew writing, including copies of Scriptures, don’t represent the full range of phonetic sounds used.
Studying written Hebrew starts by learning the alphabet, which you can from this Udemy course. You can also read some basic information about the language here.
Vowel Marks in Hebrew
Vowel sounds—the A, E, I, O, and U sounds that link the more defined consonant sounds together—are often left out of Hebrew texts. The letters used represent consonants as well as silent placeholders. When vowels are written in, often for the benefit of beginning readers (and often for non-native language learners), they’re represented by marks made under the letters, called niqqud, also known as diacritic marks.
The most standard vowel system was developed more recently than the Hebrew alphabet, around 600 AD, as part of an effort to increase literacy and to help people connect to older scriptural texts. Niqqud are written in the space beneath the letters in order to keep the rest of the letters consistent with older original texts. The vowel sound comes after the letter written above it, except for certain sounds at the end of words (such as –ach).
Before the use of niqqud to show vowel sounds, certain consonants were used to indicate vowels sounds, including vav (typically a v sound), yud (a y sound), hey (an H), or aleph, which is silent. These are sometimes called matres lectionis, and the system is known in Hebrew as “ktiv male”, or full or unvocalized spelling. In the system commonly used today, they tend to be associated with particular phonetic sounds.
Aleph tends to represent a short a/o sound, as in rock or auto.
Hey often represents a longer a/e sound, as in bake or weight, although at the end of a word it could represent the a/o short sound instead.
Vav often represents other o and u sounds, as in blue or yellow.
Yud often represents a long e sound, as in green.
Learning to Read without Vowels
Even when using ktiv male text that includes indicator consonants, reading Hebrew without vowels can be daunting for beginners. However, continuing to progress in your language learning can help increase confidence when looking through a variety of written material.
Getting a solid knowledge of the alphabet is the most important place to start, of course, as well as learning vocabulary. Learning as many words as you can, and getting a good understanding of the context in which words are used, will help you to be less dependent on vowel marks to know what words you’re looking at.
On the other hand, reading children’s books that do still have vowel marks is part of getting used to working with Hebrew texts in general, especially translations of English books that you’re already familiar with, which will help you to understand unfamiliar words. Not getting overly ambitious will help you keep from getting unnecessarily confused. Remember also to account for foreign loan words that have been directly transliterated. You can get reading practice from this Udemy course.
Along with vocabulary, a good understanding of grammar and sentence structure will help you to anticipate meanings and pronunciations. Remembering vowel conjugations is an important step in being able to recognize words. This online beginning Hebrew course can help you learn and practice.
Common Usage Today
In Israel, the standard spelling used is ktiv male. However, there are a number of situations—often in public signs—where niqqud are used to make sure that there’s no confusion, and that as many people as possible can understand the message. This can be especially important when words may be ambiguous and the context is limited.
Scriptures, particularly the Torah scrolls that are still used today, are typically left with the original ktiv haser, or missing spelling, which generally has no indicators for vowel sounds. People doing readings from texts written in this way will sometimes memorize the passage in advance.
Understanding the use of vowels is an important step in Hebrew literacy. Of course, one you have a good sense of the basics of the language, you might also want to step away from your books with this online course on conversational Hebrew.