Menachem's Writings

On Speaking Hebrew
How to pronounce Hebrew words correctly and why this is important

I have a friend, a professor of medicine, who travels far and wide. He told me of a recent conversation with a Japanese colleague concerning the pronunciation of English words. The old joke about the Japanese (the Chinese too) eating flied lice is indeed true. That's really how they say it. Not only that, says the Japanese doctor, but even when you say fried rice, I hear "flied lice". The "r" sound is foreign to his ear.

My friend draws from this that there is physiologic component at play. Clearly it is not something inherited in the build of the larynx nor in the shape of the mouth at birth. Second generation Japanese (and other races) born in America sound like any "native" [white] American from the same geographic area; to the extent that sometimes you hear a voice and, turning around, you are surprised to see the matching face.

In contrast to Charles Darwin's belief that "Fuegians and Australian Aboriginals" are somewhere on the evolutionary scale between apes and the English gentleman, all humans, from all over the globe, are in essence, born physiologically identical. While each person may not use all of her physical nor mental capabilities, the ability is always present.

So why do the Japanese hear "flied lice"? It's a matter of nurture, not nature. As children learn their native language, their mouth muscles, and subsequently their auditory input, develop certain forms. The brain's firmware is thus reprogrammed. This allows them to produce, and hear, their own special accents, precluding others, disallowing certain sounds from being pronounced accurately -- or from being pronounced at all.

In recent times I have been doing a lot of thinking and research re pronunciation, specifically that of Hebrew. The various forms of Hebrew among the scattered of Israel originate from a common source. Even if various dialects of Hebrew were tribe related, there must have been a common source.

In this essay, I do not propose to go back further than the latter second Temple period. By then there were two major pronunciations of Hebrew, the Israeli and the Babylonian (perhaps the Yemenite was slightly different to the Israeli). These groups, in their pronunciation of Hebrew and Aramaic for everyday conversation and in prayer, were differentiated, though not seriously so. Remnants of the "original" pronunciation remain with certain groups of Jews into our time.

The Hebrew alphabet comprises twenty-two consonants (sounds produced with a closed or partially closed mouth). And there are ten vowels (sounds created by the relatively free passage of breath through the larynx and oral cavity). Vowels usually form the central sound of a syllable; syllables are the building blocks of words.

In addition to Hebrew's twenty-two individual consonant sounds, seven letters have two voices. In written Hebrew these seven are represented by a dot in the centre of the symbol (e.g. beth/veth). In each case, the pronunciation of the dotless form is similar to that of the dotted version, but sounded with a slight opening of the mouth to allow a passage of air.

We have thirty-nine sounds, each represented by thirty-nine distinct written symbols.

The Latin alphabet is comprised of only twenty-six letter symbols (consonants and vowels are mixed together) though many more "sounds" are available to modern speakers. Most European languages indicate additional sounds by a mixture of accents, increasing the base number. English is a "poor" language to read as it uses no symbols besides the twenty-six letters, but it expects readers to "know" how to read any word, a daunting task, even to mother tongue speakers, considering that today over a million words are available to adherents. And due to many word borrowings over the centuries, there are many exceptions to the rule.

In addition, Hebrew does not use diphthongs, single letters representing a double sound, letters created from two individual consonants. Hebrew rarely has two adjacent consonants within one syllable (for example "br" as in bring in English does not exist in Hebrew). In Hebrew a very short vowel, schwa, breaks the double sound (like the "e" in "roses").

Hebrew is comprised of specific atoms of sound. In modern times, both in the Ashkenazi (originating in Israel in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple) and the Sefardi (originating in Babylon) has obscured some of these. For example, daleth in both forms is now pronounced the same way ('d') with or without a dot; taw (a soft 't') is pronounced differently without a dot by the Ashkenazim ('ss') but not by the Sefardim. Veth (beth without the dot) and vav (correctly pronounced waw) should not be both pronounced in the same way*, though they are by most Jews. Ssadi cannot be sounded as 't' followed by 'z' because that would be two distinct sounds represented by one symbol.

Why the differences? Because throughout the diverse diasporas in which our Jews have lived, certain sounds are not used in the vernacular. As a result, our people lost the required physiology for correct [Hebrew] pronunciation .

For example, most Continental languages do not have a 'w' sound. So this transformed into 'v' in that part of the world. Not all languages have guttural sounds; these too disappeared in certain regions (khaf and heth are two very different letters originating in different parts of the mouth -- throat and palette).

As Jews on their many wanderings, settled down in different exiles and learned new, foreign languages, they lost their ability and the tradition to produce the different sounds. They adapted their prayer language (spoken Hebrew was all but discarded) as best they could ('w' becomes 'v' even though another letter already had this sound, 'th' became 'ss').

Most American accents, for instance, have lost short vowel sounds and this has followed them into Hebrew. The modified European variation of Hebrew has now been remodified in America.

They also have a tendency to combine vowels with consonants. holam is a vowel sound similar to a short 'o' in English. Today, this is often pronounced as "oy" or "ow", clearly no longer a simple vowel, but a diphthong.

Ironically, many believe that they are praying and learning in the same accent as their antecedents did in Lithuania, continuing an old Jewish tradition.

In each community, different sounds were lost, resulting in today's often great variations in Hebrew pronunciation around the Jewish world.

Why is it important to pronounce each of our thirty-nine sounds of speech, consonants and vowels, differently? independently? correctly?

In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avoth we learn that God created the universe with speech. "With ten sayings the world was created".

Additionally we acknowledge this "spoken" creation each time we eat and each morning at the commencement of pray. Our general benediction over food blesses God by saying "that everything came into being by his word [singular, one word for each thing]".

Similarly we commence our prayers with, "Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into existence. Blessed be He who creates. Blessed be He who speaks and makes."

These sources demonstrate that God's utterance of a word is what brings the named object into material reality. The sources above are from the revealed Torah (the Talmud). The esoteric Kabbalah contains many more references to speech-creation concepts, but we do not need to enter into that realm. An understanding of God's creative methodology is reachable without delving into these difficult depths.

Speech is the ultimate creative tool, providing the ability to create an object from absolute nothingness. It is important to emphasise that this creation occurs via a "spoken", not a written, word. It is one thing for a word to spelt correctly -- it is another to pronounce it in its true, individual form. Pronunciation, not spelling, is paramount. But as each sound has a unique characterisation, and each printable character has a unique sound, we do in fact have a one to one correspondence, we have a truly phonetic alphabet when Hebrew is uttered as it should be.

So if God speaks a word containing a thaleth (as in the English word breathe), it is important that the correct sound be used. The object created with a d sound will be different to that created with a th.

Sounds have varying effects on the cosmos at large and on sub-particles at the micro level. Most can only begin to wonder how. How does this effect us? Why is it important? Can we too potentially create?

First, emulating God is an important concept. If that's how God pronounces a word, then we should [attempt to] pronounce it the same way. We wear tefillin because God wears tefillin. We are holy because God is Holy. Emulation is an important aspect of our relationship with our Creator.

Second, we are, after an extremely long exile, returning home. Our diaspora is over (though many of us do not yet seem to understand this). We have to become Eress Yisraeli'im again, the people of our own Land, the people of the Land of Israel. And returning to our native language and to our native pronunciation is important. It is part of our redemption**. We are a proud people. We do not want to speak our language nor pray to our God in a Hebrew that was (inadvertently) modified by Jews exiled to Germany or Syria and then remodified by these Jews on re-exile to America.

But more than that -- yes, we too [can] have the ability to create, to produce something new, from nothing. It is an ability which God only bequeathed to speakers of His language. Hebrew is the only language of prophesy, because it is the language spoken by God, it is the language of the cosmos. So pronunciation is important.

I am not saying that it is easy, that every can reach the level of prophesy -- it requires intense training and one must reach a certain spiritual plane -- and I am not saying that anyone today is capable of creating by the spoken word. But God is showing us that creation is achieved by spoken words alone. We should endeavour to use the language correctly, especially in prayer and meditation.

As with many esoteric concepts in Judaism, "creation" via words has analogies today which make understanding these ideas easier for us than they were for previous generations.

Today's computer programs are written using a subset of the English language, joined together by a simple grammar. For example, the famous program from Bell Labs,

print "Hello World!";

displays the text, "Hello World!". Misspelling the command "print", say as "pront" or "frint", will produce a type of "does not compute" error. The correct word creates in this microcosm. The wrong word, no matter how similar it appears to the required word, does not.

At the official announcement of the decoding of the human genome, Francis Collins, head of the Genome Project and a religious man, referred, at the White House event, to the human genome sequence as "our own instruction book, previously known only to God". In a similar vein, President Bill Clinton said, "today we are learning the language in which God created life." The program, the sequence, by which all biology is created, is a set of letters, of codes, of words in a language of its own.

Creation, within certain of our subsystems, is word based. In fact God's language of the entire cosmos is word based. And we are only now discovering this truth, a truth which our rabbis, perhaps going back to our forefather Abraham, knew well before the onset of the twentieth century.


* The Yemenites continue to pronounce all of these sounds independently, daleth as 'd' with dot, thaleth (as in breathe), taw as 't' with a dot, thaw without (as in breath).

** our redemption The early political Zionists also realised this, but due to their "hatred" of traditional Ashkenazi Judaism, they inappropriately decided that the Sfaradim must possess the secret to the "true", authentic Hebrew.

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