Hebrew 101

According to Ethnologue, the currently spoken dialects of Hebrew are "Standard Hebrew (General Israeli, Europeanized Hebrew)" and "Oriental Hebrew (Arabized Hebrew, Yemenite Hebrew)". These refer to two varieties used for actual communication by native speakers in Israel; they differ mainly in pronunciation, and hardly in any other way. (Incidentally, the term "Arabized" is misleading, in that it implies that it differs from "General Israeli" mainly because it changed under the influence of Arabic. In fact, "Oriental Hebrew" retains features of ancient Hebrew that were shared by Arabic but lost in non-Arabic-speaking parts of the world.)

Immigrants to Israel are encouraged to adopt "Standard Hebrew" as their daily language. Phonologically, this "dialect" may most accurately be described as an amalgam of pronunciations preserving Sephardic vowel sounds and some Ashkenazic consonant sounds with Yiddish-style influence, its recurring feature being simplification of differences among a wide array of pronunciations. This simplifying tendency also accounts for the collapse of the Ashkenazic [t] and [s] allophones of ת‎ (/t/) into the single phone [t]. Most Sephardic and Mizrahi dialects share this feature, though some (such as those of Iraq and Yemen) differentiate between these two pronunciations as /t/ and /θ/. Within Israel, however, the pronunciation of Hebrew more often reflects the diasporic origin of the individual speaker, rather than the specific recommendations of the Academy. For this reason, over half the population pronounces ר‎ as [ʀ], (a uvular trill, as in Yiddish and some varieties of German) or as [ʁ] (a uvular fricative, as in French or many varieties of German), rather than as [r], an alveolar trill, as in Spanish. The pronunciation of this phoneme is often used among Israelis as a shibboleth, or determinant when ascertaining the national origin of perceived foreigners.

There are mixed views on the status of the two dialects. On the one hand, prominent Israelis of Sephardic or Oriental origin are admired for the purity of their speech and Yemenite Jews are often used as newsreaders. On the other hand, the speech of middle-class Ashkenazim is regarded as having a certain Central European sophistication, and many speakers of Mizrahi origin have moved nearer to this version of Standard Hebrew, in some cases even adopting the uvular resh.

It was formerly the case that the inhabitants of the north of Israel pronounced bet rafe (bet without dagesh) as /b/ in accordance with the conservative Sephardic pronunciation. This was regarded as rustic and has since disappeared. It is still said that one can tell an inhabitant of Jerusalem by the pronunciation of the word for two hundred as "ma'atayim" (as distinct from "matayim", as heard elsewhere in the country).

Featured Video