How to Pronounce the Hebrew Letters

The Hebrew language is written with letters.  They look totally different from the Roman alphabet (which you are reading right now).  This might tempt you to refer to them as “symbols” or “characters,” but that would not be accurate.  They are letters.  Thinking about them as letters will make them easier to learn.

There are basically 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and all of them are consonants.  (See separate page about Hebrew Vowels.)  Many Hebrew letters have the same sounds, more or less, as consonantal sounds in English, e.g., ‘b’, ‘k’, ‘f’.  But there are some Hebrew letters whose sounds do not exist in English. (There are also some English sounds that do not exist in Hebrew).  This is where it gets fun!

Originally, each of the 22 Hebrew letters had a unique sound.  Today, some of those sounds have been “lost” such that even most Israelis no longer pronounce them.  And some of the sounds have been “discouraged,” for political and other reasons, and are not usually taught, inside or outside of Israel.  I teach a few of these “lost” sounds but not all of them; I choose which ones to teach based on the goal of helping my students have an easier experience learning  to read, spell, and understand Hebrew.

If you mainly speak English, there are only four or five Hebrew letters that might challenge you.  If you happen to speak Arabic, you’re in luck: you can already pronounce all the Hebrew letters.

Now let’s look at them one by one, in alphabetical order (or aleph-bet-ical order).  In each example there are two versions of the letter.  The one on the left is the “real” one; the one on the right is a simplified version.

hebrew letter alef

alef

The Hebrew letter alef (or aleph) is first, and possibly the most troublesome to get your mind around.

hebrew letter bet

bet/vet

The Hebrew letter bet can also be the letter vet. They are actually just one letter, that sometimes has a dot printed on the inside, which changes the pronunciation from ‘V’ to ‘B’.  Neither sound is difficult for English speakers to make, but the concept of a single letter with two versions — both visual and aural — is often confusing to beginners.

gimmel

dalet

hay

vav

zayin

het

tet

yud

kaf

lamed

mem

num

samekh

ayin

pey

fey

tzadi

koof

hebrew letter reish

Reish

The reish makes the sound of an ‘R’.   You can pronounce it with an American burr, or roll it at the tip of your tongue as in Spanish or Arabic, or “gargle” it way in the back of your throat, somewhat like the ‘R’ in French.  Most Israelis pronounce reish in the back of the throat.  Some Israelis, whose families immigrated from Arabic-speaking countries, are very good at rolling the reish in the front.  Grammatically, reish sometimes acts like one of the Hebrew guttural letters (aleph, hay, het, and ‘ayin).

shin

sin

tav

(This draft is in progress.)

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