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Hebrew 101
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Lessons 202
Lesson 1

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Diacritic and Cantillation Marks

נִקּוּד וּטְעָמִים

Invention of Diacritics

The modern Diacritic system in Hebrew had been canonized around 10-11 century C.E. First diacritics were most probably introduced around 7-8 century by the Masoretes from Tiberias (ben-Asher and ben-Naphtali.) Other diacritic systems existed (like so called Babylonian diacritics), but Tiberian became the one commonly used. Diacritics were invented to preserve the right pronunciation of Scripture texts; but afterwards they became an important part of Hebrew writing.

Diacritic marks are written above, below, or inside the letter, but they never became letters themselves; this is sometimes explained by what is mentioned in Deuteronomy 13,1: All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

Diacritics are very important when we learn Hebrew in a systematic way. It's much easier to move from correct Hebrew grammar to any other form of Hebrew (writing without vocalization, reading the Scriptures, speaking "street-spoken" Israeli Hebrew, etc) - than doing it the opposite way. I've seen people among new immigrants in Israel, who perfectly speaks Hebrew, but hardly can understand the Scriptures. Even worse, a research about a decade ago found, that many native Hebrew speakers don't fully understand the language spoken by Israeli radio reporters (which is considered "too high language" for many people "from the streets".) Here one of the goals is to give our students the basis for being able to use Hebrew in any way, either reading Torah scrolls, listening/reading Israeli news, or  


Diacritic marks (nikkud or nekudot)

Usually diacritic marks are written under/above/inside the letter after which they are pronounced. (There are some exceptions, however.)

There are 4 categories of vowels in Hebrew:

  1. Long "Filled" Vowels (which always are indicated by a mater lectionis)
  2. Long "Not Filled" Vowels
  3. Short Vowels 
  4. Ultra-Short Vowels

Modern Hebrew grammar distinguishes between usage of long "filled" and long "not filled" vowels; although in Masoretic texts of the Scriptures the usage of the two types was irregular. Later writings start using "filled" long vowels in pretty much consistent way, which became a rule today.

Long "Filled" Vowels

  Kholam Male O (as [aw] in law) Stable long O, which is not changing with name declination.
Shuruk U (as [oo] in food) Stable long U, which is not changing with name declination.


  Tzeire Male E, EI, EY (as in Hey!)  

Either EY or E works for both Tzeires (Male and Khaser.) However, in some cases EY is preferred. First of all, there are certain words where EY is traditionally pronounced:


versus more common case:


[ze'ev] (wolf)


[beytza] (egg)


[rek] (empty)

EY is preferred when we want to distinguish between different grammatical constructs:

[shirenu] (our song)


[shireynu] (our songs)

Also, European-born Jews of senior age oftenly pronounce any Tzeire as EY (which is a rule in Ashkenazi/Yiddish tradition.)

Bottom line: the general rule would be, Tzeire Male is rather pronounced as EY, while Tzeire Khaser - as E in most cases. If you use this rule, it will be totally correct, and also understandable and acceptable by Hebrew-speaking Israelis.

It's important to not confuse Tzeire Male with a case when comes as an indication of Segol (see below "Special Cases of Filled Vocalization").

  Khirik Male I (as [ee] in feed)  

Long "not filled" vowels


  Kholam Khaser O (as [aw] in law) This is "unstable" O which is changing due to word declination: .


  Kamatz Gadol A (as [a] in father) See Kamatz Katan remarks (Short vowels) 


  Tzeire Khaser E (as [e] in mess) See Tzeire Male remarks (Long Full Vowels)

Short vowels


  Kamatz Katan O (as [aw] in law)  

The general rule is: Kamatz Katan (Small Kamatz) can appear in unstressed closed syllable only; in open or stressed syllable Kamatz should be read as Kamatz Gadol. Examples:

  [khokhma]   wisdom

[yoshro]   his straightforwardness, his honesty

  [omnam]   however

Of course, every rule has exceptions. Here is the most known one:

[shorashim] roots


Kubbutz U (as [oo] in book)   
Patakh A (as [a] in father)  
Segol E (as [e] in mess)  
  Khirik Khaser I (as [ee] in feed)  

Ultra-short (or Reduced) vowels

- Khataf-
_o Reduced vowels are normally coming in presence of guttural consonants, which almost cannot have Shva as their vocalization. There is a very limited amount of words (maybe half dozen) where Khatafs are vocalizing non-guttural consonants:

[kodashim] Holies

[tzipporim] birds

Also, in some words no Khataf appears even under a guttural, but Shva is pronounced in appropriate way instead.

- Khataf-
- Khataf-
Schwa [shva] _e , _a (*) When Shva is pronounced, in modern Israeli Hebrew it's usually pronounced as a short E.

In those words where Shva should "normally" turn into one of the Khatafs, and for some reason it doesn't happen - Shva itself is read as an appropriate Khataf:

  [ma`agal]   circle

  [he`epil]   broke in


Two vowels in a row

Normally, a diacritic mark indicates a vowel after the consonant it's written with.

1. Patakh Gnuva ("Stolen" Patakh)

Normally, in Hebrew a vowel should only come between two consonants. Patakh Gnuva (the "Sneaking" Patakh) is the only exception for this rule in modern Hebrew. Patakh Gnuva only appears under , , and . Although written below those letters (and supposed to be pronounced after them), it is however pronounced as if it was immediately before, such creating two vowels in a row:

[ruakh] wind; spirit

[koakh] force, power

[livroakh] to run away

[lishkoakh] to forget

[linsoa`] to go (in a vehicle) to go (in a vehicle)

The origin of Patakh Gnuva is obvious: such a pronunciation is much more convenient.

with Patakh Gnuva is also written with Mappik - a dot inside the letter, which looks like Dagesh: (Intuitively, it behaves like Dagesh too, adding "hardness" to : normally at the end of word indicates a vowel; here we indicate a consonant .)

Many Israelis today pronounce and with Patakh Gnuva in a wrong way: [gavoha], [linso`a] instead of [gavoah], [linsoa`] (or at least, considering the fact that and are almost not heard at the end of the word: [gavoa], [linsoa].) However, is always pronounced correctly. 

2. An example from the ancient language:

Surprise. In Tanakh the word Jerusalem is written without the second :

Spelling from Tanakh Later spelling

Most probably, this spelling can be tracked back to the times when the ending "-ayim" was sounding and written as if it only contained "ai": [yerushalaim], [maim], [shamaim], instead of [yerushalayim], [mayim], [shamayim]. Actually, if you try to say both, one can hardly hear the difference, right? (Also, the most ancient - 8-10 centuries B.C.E. - writings were spelling without the : .)

But whatever was the reason, in later rabbinical literature, in Siddur that we use for prayer, we see the following:

This is so called Tzurat Hefsek (Pausal Form), where we see the treated as a normal consonant, separating two syllables. , therefore, is just an anachronism.


Cantillation Marks and Punctuation

Besides the Nekudot, there are Cantillation marks (te`amim), annotating the text of Tanakh and prayers. Their role is not to mark the stressed syllables, to indicate the melody (in fact, they were probably among the first musical notations), and some punctuation. All this is rarely used today, mostly in traditional books, like Siddur etc.

Cantillation marks were introduced and canonized together with the diacritic marks, by the same Tiberian Masoretes.

Here are some simple of the cantillation marks:

  [meteg] Meteg comes to indicate an open non-stressed syllable, followed by a Schwa. It actually makes sure we don't misinterpret the Kamatz as Kamatz Katan. Therefore, in  the example, the vocalization of is A. Here the Meteg says: "hey, this is an open syllable, and therefore: 1) that Kamatz is Kamatz Gadol and should be read as A; 2) that Schwa is Schwa Na, and yes, the Bet should not contain a dagesh, it's not a typo..." Complicated? Hmm... Let's make it simpler: it's "a special mark to indicate Kamatz Gadol (open syllable), when it looks like Katan (closed syllable) to me."


Middle of the verse; is written under the stressed syllable of the last word in that verse.
  [siluk] Looks like Meteg, but the meaning is, end of the second half of the verse.
[sof pasuk] End of the verse; similar to period in modern punctuation.

There are around 20 more cantillation marks, which are used exclusively for music notation. Those signs are important only for reading the liturgical texts. Your can find more details here, for example. Or just ask your friend Google.

Along with traditional cantillation marks, the following marks are used in modern Hebrew to indicate a stress:

Both signs mean the same; there are two of them just because there was no standard, either masoretic or modern.

Also, sometimes the siluk mark is used just to indicate the stress.

In general, stress in Hebrew always behaves according to rules, and it always can be "computed" or "deduced" from the word structure. (In most cases even this is not needed, because most oftenly the stress falls just on the last syllable.)

Finally, modern Hebrew uses regular "Western" punctuation: period, colon, semicolon, exclamation mark, etc.


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