Tiberian Hebrew

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Closeup of Aleppo Codex, Joshua 1:1 Aleppo Codex Joshua 1 1.jpg
Closeup of Aleppo Codex, Joshua 1:1

Tiberian Hebrew is the canonical pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) committed to writing by Masoretic scholars living in the Jewish community of Tiberias in ancient Galilee c.750–950 CE under the Abbasid Caliphate. They wrote in the form of Tiberian vocalization, [1] which employed diacritics added to the Hebrew letters: vowel signs and consonant diacritics (nequdot) and the so-called accents (two related systems of cantillation signs or te'amim). These together with the marginal notes masora magna and masora parva make up the Tiberian apparatus.


Although the written vowels and accents came into use in around 750 CE, the oral tradition that they reflect is many centuries older, with ancient roots.


Page from Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy Aleppo Codex (Deut).jpg
Page from Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy

Today's Hebrew grammar books do not teach the Tiberian Hebrew that was described by the early grammarians. The prevailing view is that of David Qimḥi's system of dividing the graphic signs into "short" and "long" vowels. The values assigned to the Tiberian vowel signs reveals a Sephardi tradition of pronunciation (the dual quality of qameṣ (אָ) as /a/, /o/; the pronunciation of simple shva (אְ) as /ɛ̆/).

The phonology of Tiberian Hebrew can be gleaned from the collation of various sources:



Tiberian Hebrew has 29 consonantal phonemes, represented by 22 letters. The sin dot distinguishes between the two values of ש, with a dot on the left (שׂ) being pronounced the same as the letter Samekh. The letters בגדכפת (begadkefat) had two values each: plosive and fricative.

Tiberian Hebrew consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Denti-alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
plain emphatic
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless p t k q ʔ
voiced b d g
Fricative voiceless f θ s ʃ x ħ h
voiced v ð z ɣ ʕ
Trill ( r ) ʀ
Approximant w l j

The following are the most salient characteristics of the Tiberian Hebrew consonantal pronunciation:


This vowel chart gives a general idea of the vowel space of Tiberian Hebrew. It is not meant to be a precise mapping of the tongue positions, which would be impossible to do anyway since there are no native speakers of Tiberian Hebrew. Tiberian Hebrew vowel chart.svg
This vowel chart gives a general idea of the vowel space of Tiberian Hebrew. It is not meant to be a precise mapping of the tongue positions, which would be impossible to do anyway since there are no native speakers of Tiberian Hebrew.
Figurines holding Tiberian vowel diacritics. Limestone and basalt artwork at the shore in Tiberias. Tiberian-vocalisation-david-fine.jpg
Figurines holding Tiberian vowel diacritics. Limestone and basalt artwork at the shore in Tiberias.
Tiberian Hebrew phonemic vowels [2]
Front Back
Close iu
Close-mid eo
Open-mid ɛɔ
Open a
  1. marginal

The vowel qualities /aeiɔou/ have phonemic status: אָשָׁם הוּא אָשֹׁם אָשַׁם (Lev. 5:19) and אָשֵׁם 'guilty', אִם 'when' and אֵם 'mother'. [3] /ɛ/ has phonemic value in final stressed position רְעֶה רְעִי רָעָה, מִקְנֶה מְקַנֵּה, קָנֶה קָנָה קָנֹה, but in other positions, it may reflect loss of the opposition /a/: /i/. [3] By the Tiberian period, all short vowels in ultimately-stressed syllables had lengthened, making vowel length allophonic. [4] [nb 1] Vowels in open or stressed syllables had allophonic length (such as /a/ in יְרַחֵם, which was previously short). [5] [nb 2]

The Tiberian tradition possesses three reduced (ultrashort, hatuf) vowels ɔ̆ɛ̆/ of which /ɛ̆/ has questionable phonemicity. [6] [7] [nb 3] /ă/, under a non-guttural letter, was pronounced as an ultrashort copy of the following vowel before a guttural (וּבָקְעָה[uvɔqɔ̆ˈʕɔ]) and as [ĭ] preceding /j/, (תְדַמְּיוּנִי[θăðammĭˈjuni]). However, it was always pronounced as [ă] under gutturals: חֲיִי[ħăˈji]. [8] [9]


Tiberian Hebrew has phonemic stress (בָּנוּ֫/bɔˈnu/ 'they built' vs. בָּ֫נוּ/ˈbɔnu/ 'in us'). Stress is most commonly ultimate, less commonly penultimate, and rarely antepenultimate stress: הָאֹ֫הֱלָה/hɔˈʔohɛ̆lɔ/ 'into the tent'. [10] [nb 4]


As described above, vowel length is dependent on syllable structure. Open syllables must take long or ultrashort vowels; stressed closed syllables take long vowels; unstressed closed syllables take short vowels. Traditional Hebrew philology considers ultrashort vowels not to be syllable nuclei.


transliterationʾb, g, d, hwzyk, lmnsʿp, fqrš, śt,
pronunciation (Modern)[ ʔ ][ b ]
[ v ]
[ ɡ ][ d ][ h ][ v ][ z ][ χ ][ t ][ j ][ k ][ x ], [ χ ]ʀ̥[ l ][ m ][ n ][ s ][ ʔ ][ p ]
[ f ]
[ ts ][ k ][ ʁ ][ ʃ ]
[ s ]
[ t ]
pronunciation (Yemenite)[ ʔ ][ b ]
[ v ]
[ ]
[ ɣ ]
[ d ]
[ ð ]
[ h ][ w ][ z ][ ħ ][ ][ j ][ k ]
[ x ]
[ l ][ m ][ n ][ s ][ ʕ ][ p ]
[ f ]
[ ][ g ][ r ][ ʃ ]
[ s ]
[ t ]
[ θ ]
pronunciation (Tiberian)[ ʔ ][ b ]
[ v ]
[ ɡ ]
[ ɣ ]
[ d ]
[ ð ]
[ h ][ w ][ z ][ ħ ][ ][ j ][ k ]
[ x ]
[ l ][ m ][ n ][ s ][ ʕ ][ p ]
[ f ]
[ ][ q ][ ʀ ]
[ r ]
[ ʃ ]
[ s ]
[ t ]
[ θ ]
pronunciation (Biblical)[ ʔ ][ b ]
[ β ]
[ ɡ ]
[ ɣ ]
[ d ]
[ ð ]
[ h ][ w ][ z ][ ħ ],
[ χ ]
[ ][ j ][ ]
[ x ]
[ l ][ m ][ n ][ s ][ ʕ ],
[ ʁ ]
[ ]
[ ɸ ]
[ ][ q ][ ɾ ][ ʃ ],
[ ɬ ]
[ ]
[ θ ]
niqqud with בבַבֶבֵבִבָבֹבֻבוּ
name pathaḥ seghol ṣere ḥireq qamaṣ ḥolam qubuṣ shuruq
niqqud with בבַא
name pathaḥ male seghol male ṣere male ḥireq male qamaṣ male ḥolam male shuruq male
niqqud with אאְאֲאֱאֳ
name shwa ḥaṭaf pathaḥ ḥaṭaf seghol ḥaṭaf qamaṣ
name daghesh rafe mapiq shin dot sin dot
pronunciationGemination of a consonant /Cː/, or the stop pronunciation of the בגדכפ״ת consonantsFricative pronunciation of the בגדכפ״ת consonants (its use is optional)/h/, being the last letter of a word/ʃ//s/

The simple sheva sign changes its pronunciation depending on its position in the word (mobile/vocal or quiescent/zero) and its proximity to certain consonants.

In these examples, it has been preferred to show one in the Bible and represents each phenomenon in a graphic manner (a chateph vowel), but the rules still apply when there is only a simple sheva (depending on the manuscript or edition used).

When the simple sheva appears in any of the following positions, it is regarded as mobile (na):

The gutturals (אהח"ע), and yodh (י), affect the pronunciation of the sheva preceding them. The allophones of the phoneme /ă/ follow these two rules:

It must be said that even though there are no special signs apart /ɛ̆/,/ă/,/ɔ̆/ to denote the full range of furtive vowels, the remaining four (/u/,/i/,/e/,/o/) are represented by simple sheva (ḥaṭaf ḥiriq (אְִ) in the Aleppo Codex is a scribal oddity and certainly not regular in Hebrew manuscripts with Tiberian vocalization).

All other cases should be treated as zero vowel (quiescent, nah), including the double final sheva (double initial sheva does not exist in this Hebrew dialect), and the sheva in the words שְׁתַּיִם/ˈʃtajim/ and שְׁנַיִם/ˈʃnajim/, read by the Tiberian Masoretes as אֶשְׁתַּיִם/ʔɛʃˈtajim/ and אֶשְׁנַיִם/ʔɛʃˈnajim/ respectively. This last case has similarities with phenomena occurring in the Samaritan pronunciation and the Phoenician language.

Depending on the school of pronunciation (and relying on musical grounds, perhaps), the metheg sign served to change some closed syllables into open ones, and therefore, changing the vowel from short to long, and the quiescent sheva, into a mobile one.

That is referenced specifically by medieval grammarians:

If one argues that the dalet of 'Mordecai' (and other letters in other words) has hatef qames, tell him, 'but this sign is only a device used by some scribes to warn that the consonants should be pronounced fully, and not slurred over'.

Abu al-Faraj Harun, Hidāyat al-Qāri (Horayat Ha-Qore), quoted in Yeivin (1980:283–284)

The names of the vowel diacritics are iconic and show some variation:

The names of the vowels are mostly taken from the form and action of the mouth in producing the various sounds, as פַּתַ֫ח opening; צֵרֵ֫י a wide parting (of the mouth), (also שֶׁ֫בֶר) breaking, parting (cf. the Arab, kasr); חִ֫ירֶק (also חִרֶק) narrow opening; ח֫וֹלֶם closing, according to others fullness, i.e. of the mouth (also מְלֹא פּוּם fullness of the mouth). קָ֫מֶץ also denotes a slighter, as שׁוּרֶק and קִבּוּץ (also קבוץ פּוּם) a firmer, compression or contraction of the mouth. Segôl (סְגוֹל bunch of grapes) takes its name from its form. So שָׁלֹשׁ נְקֻדּוֹת (three points) is another name for Qibbúṣ. Moreover the names were mostly so formed (but only later), that the sound of each vowel is heard in the first syllable (קָמֶץ for קֹמֶץ, פַּתַח for פֶּתַח, צֵרִי for צְרִי); in order to carry this out consistently some even write Sägôl, Qomeṣ-ḥatûf, Qûbbûṣ.


  1. In fact, all stressed vowels were first lengthened in pause, see Janssens (1982 :58–59), as can be seen by forms like Tiberian כַּף/kaf/ < */kaf/, pausal כָּף/kɔf/ < */kɔːf/ < */kaːf/ < */kaf/. The shift in Tiberian Hebrew of */aː/ > */ɔː/ occurred after that lengthening but before the loss of phonemicity of length (since words like ירחם with allophonically long [aː] show no such shift).
  2. That is attested to by the testimony of Rabbi Joseph Qimḥi (12th century) and by medieval Arabic transcriptions: Janssens (1982 :54–56). There is also possible evidence from the cantillation marks' behaviour and Babylonian pataḥ: Blau (2010 :82).
  3. See אֳנִי/ʔɔ̆ˈni/ 'ships' אֲנִי/ʔăˈni/ 'I', חֳלִי/ħɔ̆ˈli/ 'sickness' חֲלִי/ħăˈli/ 'ornament', עֲלִי/ʕăˈli/ 'ascend!' (Num 21:17) and בַּעֱלִי/baʕɛ̆ˈli/ '(with the) pestle' (Prov 27:22). Blau (2010 :117–118)/ɛ̆/ alternates with /ă/ frequently and rarely contrasts with it: אֱדוֹם/ʔɛ̆ˈðom/ 'Edom' versus אֲדֹמִי/ʔăðoˈmi/ 'Edomite'. Blau (2010 :117–118)/ɔ̆/ is clearly phonemic but bears minimal functional load. Sáenz-Badillos (1993 :110)/ă/ is written both with mobile šwaְ and hataf patahֲ. Blau (2010 :117)
  4. In fact, it is not clear that a reduced vowel should be considered to be a whole syllable. For example, a word's stress shifts to a preceding open syllable to avoid it from being adjacent to another stressed syllable skips over ultrashort vowels: עִם־יוֹ֫רְדֵי בוֹר/ʕimˈjorăðevor/ 'with those who go down into the pit' מְטֹ֫עֲנֵי חָ֫רֶב/măˈtˤoʕăneˈħɔrɛv/ 'pierced with a sword'. See Blau (2010 :143–144)
  5. These two rules, as well as the rule that metheg changes sheva from an ultrashort to a normal vowel, are recorded by Solomon Almoli in his Halichot Sheva (Constantinople 1519), though he states that these differences are dying out and that in most places vocal sheva is pronounced like segol. In Oriental communities such as the Syrians, these rules continued to be recorded by grammarians into the 1900s (such as Sethon, Menasheh, Kelale Diqduq ha-qeriah, Aleppo 1914), but they were not normally reflected in actual pronunciation. The rules about yodh and metheg, though not the rule about gutturals, is still observed by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam: Rodrigues Pereira, Martin, 'Hochmat Shelomoh.

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  1. Tiberian Hebrew Phonology: Focussing on Consonant Clusters, Andries W. Coetzee
  2. Blau (2010 :105–106, 115–119)
  3. 1 2 Blau (2010 :111–112)
  4. Steiner (1997 :149)
  5. Blau (2010 :82, 110)
  6. Blau (2010 :117–118)
  7. Sáenz-Badillos (1993 :110)
  8. Yeivin (1980 :281–282)
  9. Blau (2010 :105–106)
  10. Blau (2010 :143–144)