Hebrew Time #9 - Reading without vowels
Welcome back everyone!
Firstly, a message from a certain green owl:
Welcome to Hebrew Time #9!
For those of us who are joining now – Hebrew Time is a series of weekly posts about the Hebrew language:) By extremely popular demand and as a present for you, today’s topic will be Reading Without Nikkud. Happy Purim!
Last week we learned about all the different kinds of vowels and dots in Hebrew (“nikkud”). Today we’re going to learn to read without them! Hebrew learners tend to get hung up on vowels, but reading without them is not hard, and only ever gets easier. If you don’t believe me, think about text speak – I bt u cn rd ths:) Believe it or not, Hebrew has more vowels in place than that sentence does.
Before we start, I’d like to point out that there is a very good reason they teach kids the vowels first – you can’t miss things out without knowing what it is you’re missing! So this would be a really great time to go over last week’s post. This post (and probably all from now) will assume knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet.
As we learned last week, Hebrew has 5 kinds of vowels (as well as some nikkud for the absence of a vowel and some other things). We have:
[a] – mat
[e] – bed
[i] – beep
[o] – dog
[u] – loop
As well as nikkud, each of these vowel sounds has a vowel letter/s associated with it i.e. letters that make vowel sounds just like in English.
DISCLAIMER – I didn’t have the chance to listen to the forvo pronunciations this week so some of them might be a bit dodgy. Also, some were missing. The audio stuff will always be a bit patchy I’m afraid… I did my best:)
SUPER DISCLAIMER – exceptions abound. These are not hard and fast rules and I will make sweeping generalisations. Bear in mind that you must take every rule or guideline I state with a pinch of salt…and off we go:)
As we learned last week, this sound can be made using a single dot under the consonant:
It can also be made by adding a י after that consonant:
The latter form is much, much more common in Hebrew than the former, especially in Hebrew written without nikkud. In Hebrew written without vowels, that means that any time you see a consonant followed by a י, that consonant will make an [i] sound. Not only that, it means that if you don’t see a י, odds are massively on your side that there is no [i] sound.
If you see a י at the beginning of a word (i.e. not following a consonant), don’t panic, it’s a consonant and will make a [j] sound (like the “y” in “yard”). It is not a vowel, because all the vowel letters always follow the consonant they are affecting. A good rule is י at the start – consonant, י not at the start – vowel. This also applies to all the other vowel letters.
Some example words:
מי? - who?
לי - to me
Goody! On to the next…
[o] and [u]
This works in a very similar way to the [i] sound.
We talked last week about cholam haser and cholam maleh (“missing cholam” and “full cholam”). In Hebrew without vowels, the maleh form is the most common i.e. when an [o] or [u] sound is present, you will see a ו after the consonant, and also the reverse –if you see a ו after a consonant, it will almost always be making an [o] or [u] sound. The only times when ו acts as a consonant (making a [v] sound) in the middle or end of a word is generally when using a ו means something else: For example, we learned the word אויר (“air”) but if we used a ב there instead of a ו it would be אביר, which means “knight”.
So far so good, but supposing I see a ו, how do I know which sound it makes, [o] or [u]? Well, you learn. You’ve got at least a 50/50 chance, but we’ll go on to talk about patterns which will reduce those odds. The thing is that in Hebrew, those sounds are not necessarily super-distinct, in that related words will sometimes change between them. Like for example, a chicken is עוף, related to the word “to fly” - לעוף. In the first there is an [o] sound, in the second a [u], but it’s the same letter, and is viewed as such.
לו - to him
נו - (expression of impatience)
[a] and [e]
There are 3 letters that act as vowels for these sounds – א,ע and ה. Again, if you see them after a consonant, they are acting as vowels. If you see two vowel letters one after the other, then the first one is being a consonant and the second a vowel. Does that make sense?
בא - ba - comes (masc.)
באה (she comes, 2nd word) - comes (fem.)
רע - bad
Again, like [o] and [u], [a] and [e] are represented by the same letters, so they can change around in related words. E.g. רוצה - rotse - wants (masc.) but רוצה - rotsa - wants (fem.). They are written the same, but one uses [a] and the other uses [e]. Context (or spoken speech) tells the difference.
Now, the thing is that these vowel letters aren't always present and it’s as common to see them with as without. So if you see a consonant without a vowel letter attached after it, you should assume that it will have an [a] or [e] sound. Again, there’s no hard and fast way of knowing which one of those two it is.
Complete absence of a vowel, unsurprisingly, does not have any vowel letters associated with it. So if you see a consonant without a vowel letter attached after it, you should assume that it will not have any vowel sound.
Hang on, what??
Yes, I have just contradicted myself. So the burning question is, if you see a consonant without a vowel letter after it, how do you know whether it makes an [a], [e] or doesn't have a vowel at all??
Well, rule number 1 is: The vast majority of consonants on the end of a word don’t have a vowel. So if a word ends with a vowel letter, it will have a vowel at the end, if it ends with a consonant, it won’t.
מיץ - juice
קר - cold
לול - chicken coop
Ok, what about at the start and in the middle of words? This is where syllable patterns come in.
Rule 2: The most common syllable pattern is consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC). So if you see two consonants next to each other (CC), the first will have an [a] or [e] sound, the second won’t have a vowel (making CVC). Similarly, if you see a consonant, vowel, consonant pattern (i.e. CVC), then the vowel will apply to the first consonant and the second won’t have a vowel sound (i.e. CVC, not CVCV).
Take the name Jordan, which in Hebrew is ירדן. We see a CCCC pattern from the letters. So the י will have an [a] or [e] sound (in this case [a]), the ר has no vowel, the ד has an [a] or [e] sound (in this case [e]), and the ן has nothing, making CVC-CVC.
Rule 3: The second most common syllable is CV - If you can’t make CVC, then make CV. And also Rule 4: Clusters of consonants in syllables are fairly rare. For example, if you have a word such as חמוד - cute, the pattern we see is CCVC. The V has to be attached to the C before it, leaving us with no choice but to make the first syllable CV, giving CV-CVC.
ילדה - girl. The יל makes a CVC syllable and the דה is CV since the ה is a vowel here because it’s at the end, making CVC-CV
עוגה – cake. ע is a consonant here because it’s at the start and ו is a vowel, making CV and גה makes CV giving CV-CV. It might be weird to think of the ע as a consonant but it is, honest.
As Jackie Chan’s grandmother would say: “ONE MORE THING!” I mentioned earlier about reducing the odds of guessing between [a] and [e] or [o] and [u]. Many languages stick letters on the front and end of words in order to change their meaning to other, related words, like in English you might add “-ed” or “-ing” to verbs. As well as doing this, Hebrew uses vowel changes to change the meaning of words to other related words. This might feel weird to a native English speaker because they tend to view it as changing letters in the middle of words, but in order to get to grips with Hebrew you have to let go of the notion that a vowel is an integral part of the word. Instead, it is a decoration – like the nikkud, the vowels float around the word, on the top or the bottom, but never really being part of it, in the same way you would not consider “ing” to be an integral part of the word “floating”, it’s just an attached bit. The real meat and meaning of the word comes from the “float” bit.
An example – the words for boy, girl, childhood, and the verb to give birth, along with many other related words, all come from the same three letters ילד and changing the vowels and adding letters on the start and end dictate which word out of those it’s going to be in a predictable fashion.
What has that got to do with anything? Well, it means that lots of words (especially verbs) follow certain vowel patterns, because those patterns are telling you about the kind of word it is rather than anything integral. Have a look back at Hebrew Time #6, when we learned some simple verbs. Do you notice how all of these verbs, which are given in the present tense masc. form, follow the vowel pattern [o][e]? אוכל, הולך,רוצה …this means that if you know the word is (by context) a present tense verb word (perhaps because it follows אני - “I”), you know it will make the sound [o][e] rather than [u][e], [o][a] or [u][a], which are the other possibilities.
This is something that will become easier in time. Of course, there are exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions, but these rules should at least get you started. When you learn a new word, always try and listen to audio or a native speak if you can.
Your homework this week is to go back through all of the previous Hebrew Times where we learned some vocab (links below) and see if you can use what you've learned today to read the words you learned, and match them up with how we've told you they are pronounced.
Finally, a little anecdote that my dad once told me: He had to learn Arabic at school and he was kind of a lazy kid, so he decided one day to submit his homework without writing in any of the Arabic version of nikkud, just the letters. And he got into terrible trouble – why? Because unlike in Hebrew, in Arabic the dots actually change the meanings of words, and writing without them is completely meaningless and just gibberish! So remember – despite many similarities, Hebrew is not like Arabic in that respect - you can leave the dots out and everything will be fine:)
We can't finish without telling you:
See you later!
That was Hebrew Time #9, thanks for joining us! Hooray!
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Thanks DvirBartov for helping me write this post!
Until next week!
Thanks! I hope it's all clear, I did my best to explain as clearly as I could. It's hard deciphering rules from a language you speak instinctively (but I do spent time on thinking about how to explain things I already understand as I teach maths:) If there's anything not clear or you don't understand when you do your homework feel free to ask and I will clear it up as best I can:)
Yes, I'm sure. I'm so used to reading with nikkud but the Hebrew prayers etc that I know well, I barely pay attention to the nikkud anymore because I know what the words are so just recognise the shape of the word and patterns of sentences. One of the joys of language learning, right? The more you learn, the easier it all becomes :)
Excellent article, thanks heaps. There were a few things I couldn't quite wrap my head around though.
"If you see two vowel letters one after the other, then the first one is being a consonant and the second a vowel. Does that make sense?" - I don't understand what is meant here, and the examples don't really help either.
"Rule 3: The second most common syllable is CV - If you can’t make CVC, then make CV." - I'm not sure I get the practical applications of this rule.
Any help with explaining would be greatly appreciated!