A Guide to Hebrew Transliteration

Although scholarly academic writings generally follow a standardized system of rendering Hebrew sounds and letters into Latin letters (i.e., the alphabets used in English and other European languages), many of the works that you will be consulting do not reflect this system, especially in editions that are aimed at traditional Jewish audiences. The problem is the result of the different pronunciations that are in use among Jews. Thus, the first tractate of the Mishnah might be rendered "Berakoth" in an academic publication, "Berakhot" or "Berakhot" according to the "Sepharadic" ("Spanish") tradition that forms the basis of modern Israeli Hebrew, and "Berochos" in the Central- or Eastern-European ("Ashkenazic") tradition that dominates most contremporary Orthodox seminaries. The complexity is further compounded by the inconsistent phonetic systems among the diverse European languages (e.g., the letter "s" might be pronounced in German as either an English "sh" or "z").

Following is an incomplete table indicating alternative possibilities that are worth trying if you have trouble identifying a Hebrew word or title.

a

in Ashkenazic pronunciation, long "a" is represented as: "o".

b

can appear in aspirated or unaspirated forms (depending on its phonetic context). The aspirated form (pronounced like a "v") can be represented as either a "b" (underlined) or as a "v"–sometimes even (in German-language works) as a "w".

c

can be used to represent a "k," a "sadi" (see below) or in a "ch") combination.

ch

pronounced in the German manner ("ach"). It represents the aspirated version of the sound that, in other phonetic contexts, would be a "k".

In Ashkenazic writings it is used to represent the aspirated "h" that is usually written in scientific writings as "h" with a dot underneath.

In French, it represents the "sh" sound.

d

has an aspirated form that is not usually pronounced (it would sound like the soft "th" in "the"), and can be rendered as "dh" or "d" (underlined).

e

long "e" can sometimes be written as "ei" or "ey".

The "i" is sometimes represented as "ee" (in modern American texts aimed at a religious audience).

The "sheva nah," a half-vowel, is usually written as a superscript e, but may appear as an apostrophe (').

f

The aspirated variant of "p" can be rendered as either "f", "ph" or "p" (underlined).

g

has an aspirated form that is rarely represented, but could be "gh" or "g" (underlined).

In Biblical names, the "g" is also used to represented the guttural "ghayin" (e.g., "Gaza"), a completely different letter. The "ghayin" is not represented in standard Hebrew notation, and merges with the "‘ayin".

h

represents several different Hebrew letters and sounds. These include:

soft "h" (like the English), usually unpronounced at the ends of words. (When it is pronounced at the end of a word, it might be underlined).

The strongly aspirated "h" that is rendered in scientific notation with a dot underneath. In Ashkenazic texts it pronounced as a guttural, German-style "ch" is not distinguished from the aspirated "k"; both letters are written as either "ch" or "kh"

i

always the "short" English kind (like "kid", not "shine"), even when the Hebrew vowel is long (sounds like "mean"). The "i" is sometimes represented as "ee" (in modern American texts aimed at a religious audience).

j

originally sounded like a "y" and it often is used to render that letter (especially in German writings, but also in "Bible English").

Can also be used to render the aspirated "g" sound (see above).

k

kh

represents several different letters:

the "kaf" –sometimes represented as "c", which also has its aspirated variant, represented as "k" (underlined), "ch" or "kh" and pronounced.

"kof"–usually written in scientific texts as "q", but sometimes as "k" with a dot underneath, and sometimes just as "k".

o

In Ashkenazic texts can sometimes be written as "oi" or "oy".

p

see on "f" above.

q

"kof"–usually written in scientific texts as "q", but sometimes as "k" with a dot underneath, and sometimes just as "k".

s

In addition to the simple "s" sound that is similar to the English, there are other letters that can be rendered as "s". These inlcude:

"sadi"–an emphatic sound, usually designated in scientific texts by placing a dot underneath. The same letter can be rendered as "z" (with or without a dot or line underneath), "c", "ts" or "tz".

"shin" like the English. In some scientific texts this is represented by an "s" with a typographical sign above it, usually a carat or upside-down carat.

"sin" evidently identical in pronunciation to the regular "s", but often distinguished in scientific writing by an additional typographical symbol above the letter.

In German. the "s" usually sounds like an English "z", and is sometimes used to indicate the Hebrew " z" letter.

t

represents two distinct Hebrew letters:

"tet" is an emphatic sound, usually represented in scientific transliterations with a dot underneath.

"tav" is a normal "t" sound but has an aspirated variant that was originally pronounced like an English "th." In scientific transliteration this can be represented as either a "t" (underlined ) or "th". The "Sepharadic" modern Israeli pronunciation does not use the aspirated version, and hence will usually not indicate it in transliteration. The Ashkenazic tradition pronounces it as an "s" and transliterates it accordingly.

u

In scientific transliterations this always indicates an English "long" vowel (sounds like "woof" or "woo") and might be written as "ou" or "oo" in some popular works.

You might occasionally find it used to represent an "a" sound (see above).

v

used to represesent two different Hebrew letters:

"vav"–a "v" or "w" sound; the latter is often used in German writings (but not only).

Aspirated "b" (see above).

w

See on "v"

x

Sometimes used to represent an emphatic "h" (see above). Rarely, it can be the equivalent of an underdotted "h" (see above) or "kh".

z

Sometimes (especially in German writings) used to indicate the "sadi" consonant (see on "s" above).


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