June 17, 2004

Hebrew vowels

Modern Hebrew doesn’t distinguish vowel length; therefore I usually don’t indicate it in my transcriptions. But pre-modern Hebrew did, and it is part of the Hebrew writing system. The table below illustrates the Hebrew vowels. There are six vowel sounds: i, e, a, o, u, and schwa; and three vowel lengths: long, short, and ultra-short. I have also taken care (this time) to indicate vowel length in the transcriptions of the vowel names.

Hebrew vowels are not independent: they are always associated with a consonant. In the following table, I have used the consonant aleph for this purpose.

  long short ultra short
 value name graph name graph name graph
i   אִי hiiriiq אִ    
e seeyre אֵ segowl אֶ hataf segowl אֱ
a qaamas אָ pataah אַ hataf pataah אֲ
o howlaam (haaseer) אוֹ   אֹ qaamas qaataan אָ hataf qaamas אֳ
u shuuruuq אוּ qubuus אֻ    
ә         shәvaa' naa` אְ


Except as indicated below, I have used double letters to transcribe long vowels, single letters to transcribe short vowels, and superscripts to transcribe ultra-short vowels.

The letters ', h, h, ` (ע, ח, ה, א) cannot take a shәvaa' naa`. In places where a shәvaa' naa` would be expected, they take one of the hataf vowels.

There is also a “vowel” shәvaa' naah which looks exactly like a shәvaa' naa`, but indicates no vowel. There is no ambiguity, because shәvaa' naa` is only used to eliminate consonantal clusters. (In modern Hebrew, many consonant clusters are permitted. In my usual transcription, I use a single quote ['] to indicate a shәvaa' naa`, only in places where it is still pronounced.)

The qaamas which indicates a long “a” looks exactly like the qaamas qaataan which indicates a short “o”. There is no ambiguity because short “o” only occurs in closed unaccented syllables, while long “a” only occurs in open or accented syllables.

The long “i” is indicated by a hiiriiq followed by a yud.

There are two ways to indicate a long “o” – a howlaam with a vav, or just a howlaam. The latter is called howlaam haaseer. In my transcriptions I have used “ow” to transcribe the former, and “oo” to transcribe the latter. It could be that “ow” is derived from a former “aw”.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at June 17, 2004 12:44 AM
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