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What's up with the dots in Hebrew letters?

What's up with the dots in Hebrew letters?

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Question:

Why do some of the Hebrew letters have dots in them, and why do the same letters, in the same words, sometimes appear with dots and sometimes without?

Answer:

A prime example of this phenomenon is the name of the Egyptian king, Pharaoh, פרעה. In Hebrew, his name is usually pronounced as "Par-oh," but sometimes it's read as "Far-oh."

To explain this, allow me to share with you some background information about Hebrew pronunciation:

There are six Hebrew letters that have both "hard" and "soft" sounds (or, to use the technical terms, they are both plosive and fricative consonants). We put a dot, called a dagesh, in middle of these letters to let the reader know that in this instance the letter is "hard" (or plosive).1

The hard בּ is pronounced "b". The soft ב is pronounced "v".

The hard כּ is pronounced "k". The soft כ is pronounced "ch" (as in challah).

The hard פּ is pronounced "p". The soft פ is pronounced "f".

The other three letters are more confusing. Among some groups, the distinction between the hard and soft form has gotten lost. Other groups have preserved the distinction.

Jews from Ashkenazic lands traditionally pronounce תּ as "t" and ת as "s". In Sephardic communities the difference in pronunciation is more subtle.2 In modern Hebrew they are both pronounced as "t".

Most Jews pronounce both גּ and ג as a hard "g". Some Yemenite Jews pronounce גּ as "j" and ג as a hard "g".

Most Jews pronounce both דּ and ד as "d". Some groups pronounce דּ as "d" and ד as "th," as in the word "then."

So by now you know that the Hebrew word "פרעה" can be pronounced either "Far-oh" or "Par-oh," depending on whether the פ has a dot.


If you just want to know how to read Hebrew, you can stop reading now. If you are a grammar geek and like knowing the principles behind the pronunciation, read on.

The doubly endowed letters ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ת get dotted when they start a word. However, when a word beginning with ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ת is preceded by a word ending with a vowel sound, these letters may not get a dot. This rule is subject to change, based on the cantillation of the verse.

Here are some examples:

Exodus 1:19: "וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל פַּרְעֹה" ("And the midwives said to Pharaoh"). Notice the dot in the פ, because the word follows a ל, a consonant. In this verse, the Egyptian king is called "Paroh."

Exodus 2:15: "וַיִּבְרַח מֹשֶׁה מִפְּנֵי פַרְעֹה" ("And Moses ran from before Pharaoh"). The word מִפְּנֵי, "from before," ends with a vowel sound, thus the פ following is not dotted, and Moses' nemesis is called "Faroh."

Exodus 1:11 shows us an instance in which the first letter of Pharaoh's name is not the first letter of the word: "וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה" ("And [the Israelites] built store cities for Pharaoh"). That ל before פַרְעֹה means "for." Because the פ is not the first letter in the word, it is not dotted and the slave-driving monarch is called "Faroh."

However, ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ת are dotted in the middle of a word if they are preceded by a consonant sound.

There are more rules governing the pronunciation of ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ת, but the ones stated above are the most basic.

Hebrew grammar can be quite confusing. If there's anything you don't understand feel free to write back.

Rabbi Eliezer Posner

FOOTNOTES
1.

There are other instances where dots are placed inside Hebrew letters:
When the letter ו has a dot, it is pronounced "oo" as in "boot." Without a dot, it is pronounced "v", or among Yemenites as "w".
A dot, called a dagesh chazak, can be put in any letter to indicate a slight change in pronunciation. This change is rarely pronounced today.

2.

Some groups pronounce "ת" as "th," as in the word "thoughtful."

Eliezer Posner is a former member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (12)
October 30, 2009
Mixing up the alphabets
My eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Weiner, told us that your name is your own personal property and you can spell it or pronounce it anyway you want.
EP
October 30, 2009
Can these be put in English words?
Hey.
I was contemplating using one of these dots in a future child's name. I'm wondering if it would change the pronunciation of his name? His name would be Kishon, but I'd put the dot between the 'i' and the 's', kind of like this ' Ki'shon 'to emphasis the two syllables. Would this change how you'd say his name?
Thanks.
Anonymous
Kanwal, Australia
September 12, 2009
a few more updates
I have also been made aware that the pronunciation of Hebrew in general of the Talmudic community of the Andalusian Diaspora was essentially the same as Yemen and Iraq, even though their native language of Spanish lacked the phonomes of ghimel rafa, dhalet rafa, waw, hhet, `tet, `ayin, `sadi, and qof.

The statement of Rav Sa`adi'a Ga'on I referred to earlier is that Hebrew and Arabic are the same, except Arabic doesn't have vet rafa, gimel degusha, pe degusha, and resh degusha, while Arabic has 3 letters Hebrew doesn't...
...The only one relevant for our purposes is the Arabic letter jim. This statement, along with other linguistic/logical proofs, refutes the mesoret of `San`a Yemen who turned gimel degusha into jimel.
In `San`a Yemen, qof was pronounced as gof, which is the only other difference between `Aden/Iraq/Andalusia with `San`a.

Ibn Ezra statement was that resh is a trill.
Ariel Weber
Jerusalem
September 12, 2009
a few updates
With regards to resh degusha, I have just learned an ancient masoret, from the Aluf Abir, that was preserved in Habban, `Aden Yemen, that this letter makes the same sound as the 'r' that we generally use in English, the approximant. This is as apposed to resh rafa, which is a trill, as is supported by most ancient masorets and statements by Rav Sa`adi'a Ga'on and Ibn Ezra.

I have also learned that the masoret of Andalusia, or more specifically, the Talmudic community of the Andalusian diaspora (and possibly the masoret of Yemen) was that vet and fe are not the same sound as the English letters v and f, which are the voiced and unvoiced labiodental fricatives, but the voiced and unvoiced bilabial fricatives. An example of the this vet is in the Spanish pronunciation of the word Havana.
This pronunciation seems to be more accurate to me, as apposed to the standard v and f pronunciation, as it is more consistent with the rest of Beged Kefet.
Ariel Weber
Jerusalem
April 23, 2009
Dots
Really fascinating, and really confusing.
It's a lot to remember especially if like me you are endeavoring to study at a later age in life. I tend to remember pronounciation of any given word as I learned it. When I was a boy, it was all "old shul" Ashkenazi. By the time I was a teenager, this was dropped in favor of modern Hebrew, or Sephardi pronounciation. To this day I go back and forth depending on when I learned the word or phrase in question, making a concious effort depending on the venue. Some people get very particular about pronounciation. I'd like to believe that G-d hears us all in whatever is the correct pronounciation, and it's the intent that counts.
Schmuelie
September 19, 2008
Thanks, Ariel
Your comments provide the readers with a more complete and accurate understanding of this matter!
Eliezer Posner, Chabad.org
September 19, 2008
I was looking through the posts I had posted, and I noticed the IPA symbols were all change to a question mark.

That was not my intent. That symbol for the IPA represents the sound of the letter 'alef,' and the Ashkenazi and modern israeli pronunciation of the letter 'ayin.'

The 'gimel rafa' sound is transcribed by the IPA as the lowercase Greek letter 'gamma.' This looks like the letter 'v,' but with a small loop attached to it, below the letter. This is the 'voiced velar fricative.'

By the way, the 'chaf' sound is the IPA 'x,' or the unvoiced velar fricative.
Ariel Weber
September 19, 2008

Also, any letter except 'alef,' 'hei,' 'het,' 'ayin,' and 'resh' (each with possible rare exceptions) can get a dot. This geminates the sound of the letter.

Lastly, at the end of a word, the 'hei' can recieve a dot. This indicates that you must pronounce that 'hei.'
For example, the hebrew word for 'queen' and 'thier king' can be spelled the same way, 'mem' 'lamed' 'kaf' and 'hei.' The difference is the word 'queen' is pronounced 'malka' while the word 'their king' is pronounced 'malkaH.' The 'hie' in the word for 'thier king' has a dot in it. Another common example is the word 'HalleluqaH.' The last 'hei' in this word has a dot and should be pronounced as such.
ariel Weber
September 19, 2008

Most Mizrahi countries pronounced the letter 'taw' (commonly known as 'tav' or 'taf') like the letter 't' always. The only to exceptions I know of were Yemen and Iraq, where it was pronounced as 'th' as in the word 'thing,' or the IPA '?.'

Again, regarding the letter 'dalet,' only Yemen (always) and Iraq (only when pronouncing Hashem's name and the 'dalet' of the last word of the 1st line of the Shema) pronounced it like the 'th' sound of the word 'then,' or the IPA '?'. The people of these 2 countries, baruch Hashem, kept the messora alive of how to 'properly' make the 'dalet' of the word "Ehadh' (commonly written as 'echad') long, as Rabbi Aqiva did as he was dying, as is told about in the last chapter of Masechet Berachot.
ariel Weber
September 19, 2008
I would like to note the word "challah" is not with a 'chaf' but with a 'het,' (not to be confused with the letter 'hei') English does not have an equivalent sound to the letter 'het', and even though I personally know how to say this letter, I don't know how to describe it like the way I described the 'gimel' without a dot. The IPA transcribes this sound as '?.' The letter 'chaf' appears in the Hebrew word for king, 'melech.'

I would also like to note that the 'bet' without a dot was pronounced like the 'bet' with a dot in all Arabic speaking countries except Yemen, where this sound was preserved. (Arabic, also, does not have a 'v' sound.)
Ariel Weber
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