Hebrew 101

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Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form. A similar system is used in handwriting, but the letters tend to be more circular in their character, and sometimes vary markedly from their printed equivalents. Biblical Hebrew text contains nothing but consonants and spaces, and most modern Hebrew texts contain only consonants, spaces and western-style punctuation. A pointing system (nikkud, from the root word meaning "points" or "dots") developed around the 5th Century CE is used to indicate vowels and syllabic stresses in some religious books, and is almost always found in modern poetry, children's literature, and texts for beginning students of Hebrew. The system is also used sparingly when it is necessary to avoid certain ambiguities of meaning — such as when context is insufficient to distinguish between two identically spelled words — and in the transliteration of foreign names.

All Hebrew consonant phonemes are represented by a single letter. Although a single letter might represent two phonemes — the letter "bet," for example, represents both /b/ and /v/ — the two sounds are always related "hard" (plosive) and "soft" (fricative) forms, their pronunciaton being very often determined by context. In fully pointed texts, the hard form normally has a dot, known as a dagesh, in its center.

The letters hei, vav and yud can represent consonantal sounds (/h/, /v/ and /i/, respectively) or serve as a markers for vowels. In the latter case, these letters are called "emot qria" ("matres lectionis" in Latin, "mothers of reading" in English). The letter hei at the end of a word usually indicates a final /a/, which in turn is usually indicative of feminine gender. Vav may represent /o/ or /u/, and yod may represent /i/. Sometimes a double yud is used for /ej/. In some modern Israeli texts, the letter alef is used to indicate long /a/ sounds in foreign names, particularly those of Arabic origin.

Terminal syllabic emphasis is most common, penultimate emphasis being the only other official option. Fully pointed texts will note variations with a vertical line placed underneath the first consonant of the emphasized syllable, to the left of the vowel mark if there is one. Spoken Hebrew admits of more stress variation than the official dialect.

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