I strongly believe that having a more consistent way of writing Hebrew in Latin characters would better support English-speakers who want to learn or improve their Hebrew. For example, being able to easily tell whether a word is written with ט or ת, both pronounced like /t/ in English, would help any learner know how a word is spelled. It would also allow anyone to recognize whether a word is related to one they already know. Reading fluency is achieved through practice and exposure, and there’s no reason a person can’t begin to internalize Hebrew even while reading it in transliteration. That being said, in terms of consistency with common practice and in the interests of discoverability, I’ve made some concessions here and changed the more technical method I use in academic writing.
It’s true that in order to record the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, you’d need a complicated transliteration system.1 Still, I think we can get a bit closer than the haphazard, customary way of doing it that we have now. To that end, I’ve chosen to systematically transliterate Hebrew on this blog whenever feasible, with some exceptions made for commonly recognized transliterations. Below is a chart, followed by my explanations of the rules I follow. Even if you’re a beginner to Hebrew, I hope you’ll refer to the chart below as you read more in transliteration and get a sense of how Hebrew words work.
|א||a or not indicated, depending on case|
|ב||v (not indicated)|
|ס||s (not indicated)|
|ע||a (not indicated)|
|ק||k (not indicated)|
|ִ י ִ||i|
|ְ נח||not indicated|
|ְ נע||e (note: same as vowel)|
|ֳ||like the vowel (all hatafim)|
|ּ קל||only indicated in ב, כ, פ|
Letters that sound alike
There are a few letters that are completely different but pronounced exactly the same way, at least today by most, though not all, Hebrew speakers. These are כּ and ק, both said like English /k/; שׂ and ס, both pronounced /s/; ט and ת, both said like English /t/; and א and ע, the most confusing ones, because they’re sounds that don’t exactly exist in standard American English, but sound approximately like /a/. Here’s how I distinguish between them, so you can always tell which one is in a Hebrew word:
כּ = k
ק = k (not indicated) 2
שׂ = s (שׁ = sh)
ס = s (not indicated)3
ט = t (not indicated)4
תּ, ת = t5
א = either an /a/ or not indicated6
ע = /a/
Sounds that don’t exist in English
Then there’s ח, which is a gutteral sound that doesn’t exist in English. It’s often written ch, supposedly like the ch in Bach, the composer. I feel like this is confusing because ch is usually pronounced in English like in the word “chips” (and many Americans say /bok/ for Bach the composer), but I’m going with it because it’s a relatively simple way to indicate ח.7 Here’s how I do it:
ה = h
ח = ch
Next up is צ, which sounds like the combination that happens when you say t immediately followed by z or s. I take the most common route here:
צ = tz
glottal stop = ‘ (single apostrophe)
Then there are three letters in (modern) Hebrew that are pronounced differently depending on their context, indicated in vowelized texts by a little dot in the center of the letter (called a dagesh kal).8 Here is how I indicate the difference:
b = בּ
v = ב (v also = ו)
k = כּ
kh = כ
p = פּ
f = פ
Indicating vowels is one of the more complex aspects of transliteration. Hebrew vowels just function very differently than those in other languages. This is one area in which I don’t think it’s possible to give the reader an accurate picture in transliteration. Here’s how I handle two common vowel issues that affect how a word is pronounced:
- shva nakh ( ְ ) is a zero vowel, literally not pronounced. It’s like the word Spring, which has a nothing space between the s and the p. Why is this even a thing in Hebrew? Because it has grammatical significance. I don’t indicate it (as with א).
- shva na’ (written the same way, ְ ) is a partial vowel. Technically it’s pronounced just a smidge more than its zero vowel version. You’ll hear newscasters on Israeli TV pronounce it, for example. In modern Israeli Hebrew it’s often said just like a shva nakh. This is why some people will variously write the thing you put on top of a sukkah as s’khakh or skhakh or sekhakh (or s’chach, but we’re not doing that). I like using the single apostrophe for ע, so I use a regular e for shva na’. This is how most English-speakers will pronounce it naturally.9
- dagesh kaved is written with the same little dot in the center of the word as in the beged kefet letters (see above), but functions differently and has lots of important grammatical stuff attached to it. It’s easy to indicate, since it literally doubles the length of the consonant, which I indicate with doubled letters, as in kabbalah.10
- hatafim are not indicated as such; I write the partial vowel as if it’s a full vowel, because this is closer to the pronunciation.
- There are certain vowels and grammatical elements that are affected by their position in the word, like the phrase kaftor va-ferah, made up of the individual words kaftor (button) and perah (flower), and the conjunction ve- (and)11; or bi-verakhah, made up of be- and berakhah.
- I indicate final ה in Hebrew by -ah at the end of a word.
Semivowels and dipthongs
Semivowels are just what they sound like: usually vowels, occasionally moonlighting as consonants. The most important one in Hebrew is י. When it’s used as a vowel, I write it as i. When it’s used as a consonant, I write it as y, even if it’s elided in modern pronunciation. So, the name of the nation is Yisrael (Israel) and the name of the prophet is Yeshayahu (Isaiah).
Dipthongs are a grammatical term for when two vowels meet up. An example of this in Hebrew is yarhei kallah (ירחי כלה, months of convocation). The vowel under the h (not the h itself!) and the final yud (yod) that functions here as a vowel smush together. Because dipthongs are composed of vowels, I write them as vowels in transliteration as well. So, Beit ha-Mikdash rather than Bet ha-Mikdash or Bayt ha-Mikdash.
articles and prepositions
Articles (like the direct article the) and prepositions (like to or with) get stuck onto the beginnings of words in Hebrew. I make a concession to popular usage here by doing this one of two ways. For words that we’re very accustomed to seeing as a unit are essentially proper nouns, I don’t separate the prefix, so: Bereshit. For everything else, I use a short dash (-) to separate the prefix from the word. I don’t do this for suffixes, however, like shelomekha, “your (masculine singular) condition.” That’s because they alter the base word too much for it to be useful, in my opinion.
Names and titles
I use the Hebrew version of names. So, Pinhas and not Phineas. I occasionally make a modification, so Moshe and not Mosheh (the latter more accurately reflecting the Hebrew spelling). I use b. as short for the patronymic ben, son of, which has lots of variants (bar, b”r, ibn). If ibn is part of a surname and not a patronymic, I’ll use that and capitalize, so: Dunash b. Labrat, but Avraham Ibn Ezra).
Though scholars are moving away from this convention, I’m choosing to capitalize the letters of titles, then give the translated title in parentheses. So, Moreh ha-Nevukhim (“Guide of the Perplexed”).
Note to readers: I hope this is helpful to you. If it’s not, or it could be more helpful, please let me know what you’d like to see in the comments below.
- There does exist a highly technical and grammatically accurate way of rendering Hebrew in Latin characters that’s used by linguists, philologists, and some historians. However, it’s virtually unreadable and kind of superfluous, given that anybody who knows the language well enough to decipher the scientific transliteration, also knows the language well enough to just use it. (There’s a reason it’s used that has to do with the transcription preserving more information about ancient inscriptions and texts.) There’s also a less, though still technical, transliteration standard that’s used by many scholarly publications. Though it makes a lot of sense, it’s unfamiliar to most people and requires the use of special characters, like ḥ (h with a little dot underneath) for ח. I’ve opted not to use it here because I think it’s counterproductive to the goal at hand, allowing people to intuit the Hebrew even when it’s written in Latin characters.
- An easy fix here is to use a q, but this would make lots of common words difficult to find on this site, like Qabbalah instead of Kabbalah, so I decided against it. I thought about underlining it, but found it inconvenient when typing.
- Even in scholarly convention ס is not often indicated, because the special character ṣ (s with a little dot underneath), is used instead to indicate צ and its equivalent in other Semitic languages
- In scholarly convention, ט is only sometimes indicated by ṭ
- In a lot of older sources you’ll see the ת (without the dagesh, the little dot in the middle) written as /th/, which is a pronunciation preserved in Ashkenazi Hebrew as /s/, like in Shabbos (vs. Shabbat, the Sefardic pronunciation).
- It’s completely possible to note where an alef occurs, but it breaks up words weirdly, so I’ve opted not to do this. It frustrates me not to indicate alef but I think it’s the simplest. Also, in the sense that alef is often not a semivowel but an em ha-keriyah (mater lectionis), sometimes this is correct.
- In modern Hebrew, the English /ch/ is indicated with an apostrophe after the letter tzaddi(k): so, צ’יפס, which means French fries, as in “fish and chips.”
- The dagesh kal also occurs and is grammatically significant in three additional letters, ג ד ת, but when it does, they’re not pronounced any differently. These six letters together are known by their acronym, in alphabetical order, as “beged kefet letters” (בג”ד כפ”ת). It is important to note that Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew preserves an audible distinction between ת and ת, with ת being pronounced as /s/, like in Shabbos (Sefardi: Shabbat; Ashkenazi pronunciation also treats certain vowels differently). It’s hypothesized that this may reflect an ancient pronunciation of these two phonemes (sound units) as /t/ and /th/ respectively. This is in part based on comparisons with other similar languages, which retain the /th/ sound in cognate words later into history.
- There’s debatedly more kind of shva, but we’ll nerd out about that another day.
- Occasionally this gets to be a handful if the doubled letter is, say, a שׁ, but I think it’s still worth doing.
- For this phrase, see Exodus 25:33; it’s also the name of a fascinating medieval book on the geography of Eretz Yisrael written by the Provençal scholar Estori ha-Parhi, and therefore a play on his name