Transliteration of Hebrew

Letters in the Bible

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As is well known, only the consonants were written in early Hebrew and, in general, the consonants are of more importance in carrying the meaning of a Hebrew word while the vowels are more significant in marking the form. There are twenty-two consonants (twenty-three if Sin and Shin are distinguished) and most of these have a parallel in the English alphabet. The Hebrew letters Zayin, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Qoph, Resh and Shin are easily represented as the English letters z, l, m, n, s, q, r, and sh. See the transliteration table.

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There are six Hebrew consonants whose pronunciation may be "hard" or "soft." These are the so-called Beghadh- Kephath letters, b, g, d, k, p, t: the Hebrew letters Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Kaph, Pe and Taw. When written with a hardening dot in the middle, these letters are pronounced like their English equivalents. If there is a vowel sound before them (and if they are not doubled) they are pronounced differently, but mean exactly the same thing (i.e. they differ phonetically, but not phonemically).

Technically speaking, these six letters are stops, but they receive a fricative pronunciation, i.e. the point of articulation is not entirely closed, if a vowel sound precedes them. This variant pronunciation may be represented approximately as b/v, g/gh, d/th (as th in "that"), k/kh, p/f, and t/th (as th in "thin"). Some systems of transliteration represent this variation of these six stops. But since it makes no difference at all in the meaning of the words, it has been judged better to represent all these letters always by their sound as stops - the "hard" pronunciation. So Beth is always b; Gimel, g; Daleth, d; Kaph, k; Pe, p; and Taw, t. (In some systems of transliteration the soft pronunciation is represented thus, bh, gh, dh, kh, ph, th; in others it is b, g, d, k, p, and t.)

Two consonants are called emphatics. Their ancient pronunciation is difficult to determine accurately, but the Teth is some kind of a "t" and the Tsadhe some kind of an "s." They are represented as t and s respectively. (In some systems of transliteration the Tsadhe is written "ts".)

Three more consonants have no equivalent in English. They are guttural sounds made in the larynx. They are usually represented thus: 'Aleph by an apostrophe ('), and 'Ayin by a reverse apostrophe (`), and Heth by a h. There is another kind of "h" used in Ugaritic, Arabic and Akkadian, not in Hebrew, which is made with the tongue not quite against the roof of the mouth (technically a voiceless palatal fricative). This is represented, when it occurs, by h.

A second "s" apparently was pronounced exactly like Samekh, "s," though it looks like Shin (having a dot over the left upper corner instead of the right). To distinguish this letter Sin from the Samekh we use an acute accent over the Sin, thus: s.

The remaining three consonants, He, Waw, and Yodh are sometimes pronounced and sometimes silent, being used in conjunction with vowels. When they are pronounced, their pronunciation is like that of their English equivalents. He, h; Waw, w; and Yodh, y. In some systems of transliteration the Waw is called Vav and pronounced "v" because of past German influence on Hebrew studies. If, however, these letters are used as vowels, the long vowel resulting is always (and only then) marked with a circumflex accent ^. Examples will be given below.

All double consonants (those marked in Hebrew by a doubling dot in the middle of the letter) are simply written twice in the transliteration.

The consonantal transliterations may be listed as follows:

   'Aleph                        '
   Beth                          b
   Gimel                         g
   Daleth                        d
   He (pronounced hay)           h
   Waw                           w
   Zayin                         z
   Heth (or Het)                 h
   Teth                          t
   Yodh (or Yod)                 y
   Kaph                          k
   Lamedh                        l
   Mem                           m
   Nun (pronounced noon)         n
   Samekh                        s
   Ayin                          `
   Pe (pronounced pay)           p
   Tsadhe                        s
   Qoph (English q, but not qu)  q
   Resh                          r
   Sin (pronounced seen)         s
   Shin (pronounced sheen)       sh
   Taw                           t 

There are thirteen full vowels in Hebrew and four half-vowels. Another sign, which marks the end of a syllable (the silent shewa) has no sound and is not marked in the present system. The transliterations of these vowels and also their pronunciation following the letter "m" are as follows:

   Pathah                              a     ma as in man
   Qames                               a     ma as in ma
   Final Qames with vocalic He         a     ma as in ma
   Hiriq                               i     mi as in pin
   Hiriq with Yodh                     i     mi as ee in seen
   Seghol                              e     me as in met
   Sere                                e     me as ay in may
   Sere with Yodh                      e     me as ay in may
   Qames-Hatuph
   (in closed syllable)                o     mo as au in naught
   Holem                               o     mo as in mole
   Holem with Waw                      o     mo in mole
   Qibbus (short in closed syllable)   u     mu oo in nook
   Shureq (always with Waw)            u     mu as oo in fool 

Various other combinations of vowels and silent consonants are self-explanatory:

   Qames with final consonantal He     ah       mah
   Qames with final vocalic 'Aleph     a'       ma'
   Sere with final vocalic He          eh       meh
   Seghol with final vocalic He        eh       meh 

The half-vowels are all pronounced virtually alike -- like "o" in Democrat:

   Shewa          e        me
   Hateph-pathah  a        ma
   Hateph-seghol  e        me
   Hateph-qames   o        mo 

A few examples of transliterated words are : ______, dabar,
                                             ______, dober,
                                             ______, dobera,
                                             ______, dabur,
                                             ______, medabber,
                                             ______, adubbar.

For those less familiar with the use of Hebrew in transcription, a little attention to the above tables will make the visualization of the equivalent Hebrew letters easy. For those less familiar with the Hebrew characters, the use of transcription will make the word studies fully usable.

It may here be added that the transliteration is the same for Aramaic and similar for Arabic, Ugaritic, and Akkadian. In Ugaritic and Arabic there are a few extra consonants: Ha, h for another kind of palatal "h" already mentioned; Ghain, g or g for another kind of Ayin; d and d for other kinds of "d"; z for another emphatic sibilant; and s often used for "sh." The system found in L.H. Gray, Introduction to Semitic Comparative Linguistics (Columbia Univ., 1934) is followed.

The asterisk preceding a verbal root indicates that although this root is quoted in the Qal form, it only appears in the derived stems, Piel, Hiphil, etc.

The dagger before a word indicates that this word is specifically treated in the discussions of meaning below.

In Hebrew there is considerable freedom in writing the Holem with Waw (full writing) or without Waw (defective writing). The same applies to the Hiriq with or without the Yodh. In most cases, both forms are given and are alphabetized accordingly in two different places. Sometimes, however, if the variant spelling is quite minor it may have been overlooked. So if, for instance, ___ hor is not found under Heth, Waw and Yodh, it would be advisable to look under ___ hor where it does appear. Remember always that to find a word in the Hebrew alphabetization that has been transcribed into English, it is necessary to consider only the consonants, but this includes the vowel letters which are indicated by the circumflex. Thus, megora, mentioned above, would be alphabetized under Mem "m", Gimel "g", Waw "w", Resh "r", and He "h."

In cases where there is a difference in the Hebrew text between the written consonants (the Kethib) and the vowels attached (the Qere), both forms are not always noted, but an effort has been made to list one or the other reading.


Also, see:
Romanized Bible Text
Literal Translation
History of the Bible Septuagint and early Manuscripts
Translating the Bible
Jewish Genesis (Advanced), Bereshit. A Thorough Presentation of Jewish Genesis 1 text

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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