Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hebrew - Beged Kefet

Please excuse my digression in to a Hebrew grammar lecture.

In Hebrew, there are 6* letters which have different pronunciation, depending on whether or not there is a dagesh in the letter. Modern Hebrew speakers normally only differentiate between 2 of these 6 letters.

* Sefer Yetzirah lists 7 letters, adding the Reish.

These letters are:
  • ב - Bet
  • ג - Gimel
  • ד - Dalet
  • כ - Kaf
  • פ - Peh
  • ת - Taf

If we analyze these letters, they are really 3 pairs of letters. In each pair there is a vocalized and unvocalized letter.

The pairs are:

  • ב - פ - Bet and Peh
  • ד - ת - Dalet and Taf
  • ג - כ - Gimel and Kaf

That is to say that there is little to no difference in these letters when whispering them, when they are unvocalized.

This parallel should also hold true for the forms without dagesh. Indeed this is the case.

  • ב - פ - Vet and Feh - This is common usage of these letters in Israeli Hebrew today.
  • ד - ת - Dalet here is a "th" as in "the", Taf is t as in "thanks" - This is the common use among Jews from Teiman.
  • ג - כ - Gimel here sounds like a French "r", which is the vocalized version of a khaf sound, though more gentle than the way most people pronounce a khaf.

I believe this analysis is logically sound, and shows the following:

  • How Kriat Shema should be done correctly in order to lengthen the dalet of Echad.
  • A Taf without a dagesh cannot be an "s" sound.
  • A Reish is not similar to a French "r"


  1. In Hebrew, there are 6* letters which have different pronunciation, depending on whether or not there is a dagesh in the letter.

    What about the letter HEH?
    And perhaps the letter SHIN/SIN?

  2. The dot in a heh is not called a dagesh but rather a mapik, it is to indicate that a heh is pronounced at all at the end of a word.

    The dot on top of the Sin/Shin is not called a dagesh either.

    The mere existence of the Sin/Shin difference is problematic, it is the only case where two letters are pronounced the same (Samech and Sin).

  3. There's a book I looked at a while back by R' Benzion Kohen called Sefat Emet, in which he does a marvelous "birur" of the pronunciation of Hebrew. What he did is very important, as it amounts to part of the process of taking the language itself out of galut.

    He brings many very strong proofs to buttress his claims.

    The result is a kind of blend between the traditional Iraqi/Bavli pronunciation and the Temani one.

  4. Thanks, I'll take a look at it if I find it.

    I'd be interested to see how one can come to a conclusion regarding proper vowel sounds, like between an Ashkenazi and Teimani segol.

  5. As regards Sin and Samech...

    I took Chinese 101 in college and discovered that the Chinese have (at least) THREE different "s" sounds.

    They each vary by how tight the space between your tongue and the roof of your mouth is. The more space allowed, the more airy the "s" sounds. The "s" we use in English and Hebrew today uses the tip of our tongue to make a tight opening and a sharper "s" sound.

    Seeing as the "sh" in Shin is itself more airy sounding, I have wondered if the "s" in Sin should also be airy sounding...so somewhere between a Samech and a Shin...a Sin!

  6. Thanks Daniel, I was not aware of that. Sounds like the Tsaddee should also be in this class.