Tiberian Hebrew

Closeup of Aleppo Codex, Joshua 1:1

Tiberian Hebrew is the canonical pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh committed to writing by Masoretic scholars living in the Jewish community of Tiberias in ancient Judea c.750–950 CE. 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.

Though the written vowels and accents came into use only c. 750 CE, the oral tradition they reflect is many centuries older, with ancient roots. Although not in common use today, the Tiberian pronunciation of Hebrew is considered by textual scholars to most accurately reproduce the original Semitic consonantal and vowel sounds of ancient Hebrew.


Page from Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy

Today's Hebrew grammar books do not teach the Tiberian Hebrew described by the early grammarians. The prevailing view is that of David Qimchi'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 qames (אָ) as /a/, /o/; the pronunciation of simple sheva (אְ) as /ɛ̆/).

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

In the last two it is evident that the chain of transmission is breaking down, or that their interpretations are influenced by local tradition.



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.

Labial Interdental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Plain Emphatic
Nasal m n
Stop Voiceless p t k q ʔ
Voiced b d ɡ
Fricative Voiceless f θ s ʃ x ħ h
Voiced v ð z ɣ ʕ
Trill r ʀ
Approximant w l j

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

a) "Normal" Resh /ʀ/ pronounced thus (according to Eldar, as a uvular sound [ʀ]) in all other instances (except for the circumstances described below). Example: אוֹר [ʔoːʀ]
b) The "peculiar" resh [r] before or after Lamed or Nun, any of the three being vocalized with simple sheva; and Resh after Zayin, Daleth, Sin / Samekh, Taw, Tzadi, Teth, any of them punctuated with simple sheva. Example: יִשְׂרָאֵל [jisrɔːˈʔeːl], עָרְלָה [ʕɔrˈlɔː]. Given the proximity of a dental consonant, it is likely that this form of resh was pronounced as an alveolar trill, like resh in Sephardi Hebrew.
c) There is still another pronunciation, affected by the addition of a dagesh in the Resh in certain words in the Bible, which indicates it was doubled [ʀː]. Example: הַרְּאִיתֶם [hɐʀːĭʔiːˈθɛːm]. As can be seen, this pronunciation has to do with the progressive increase in length of this consonant. It was preserved only by the population of Ma'azya, which is in Tiberias.


Figurines holding Tiberian vowel diacritics. Limestone and basalt artwork at the shore in Tiberias.
Tiberian Hebrew phonemic vowels[2]
Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a
Reduced ă ɔ̆ (ɛ̆)1
  1. marginal

The vowel qualities /a e i ɔ o u/ have phonemic status: viz. אשָם הוא אשֹם אשַם (Lev. 5:19) and אשֵם 'guilty', אִם 'when' and אֵם 'mother'.[3] /ɛ/ has phonemic value in final stressed position: רעֶה רעִי רעָה, מקנֶה מקנֵה, קנֶה קנָה קנֹה, but in other positions it may reflect loss of the opposition /a : i/.[3] By the Tiberian time, all short vowels in stressed syllables had lengthened, making vowel length allophonic.[4][nb 1] Vowels in open or stressed syllables had allophonic length (e.g. /a/ in יְרַחֵם, which was previously short).[5][nb 2]

The Tiberian tradition possesses three reduced (ultrashort, hatuf) vowels /ă ɔ̆ ɛ̆/ 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, e.g. וּבָקְעָה [uvɔqɔ̆ˈʕɔ], and as [ĭ] preceding /j/, e.g. תְדַמְּיוּנִי [θăðammĭˈjuːni], but was always pronounced as [ă] under gutturals, e.g. חֲיִי [ħăˈji].[8][9]


Tiberian Hebrew has phonemic stress, e.g. בָּנוּ֫ /bɔˈnu/ 'they built' vs. בָּ֫נוּ /ˈbɔnu/ 'in us'; stress is most commonly ultimate, less commonly penultimate, and antipenultimate stress exists marginally, e.g. הָאֹ֫הֱלָה /hɔˈʔohɛ̆lɔ/ 'into the tent'.[10][nb 4]


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


transliteration ʾ b g d h w z y k l m n s ʿ p q r š, ś t
letter א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כך ל מם נן ס ע פף צץ ק ר ש ת
pronunciation (Modern) [ʔ] [b]
[ɡ] [d] [h] [v] [z] [χ] [t] [j] [k]
[l] [m] [n] [s] [ʔ] [p]
[ts] [k] [ʁ] [ʃ]
pronunciation (Yemenite) [ʔ] [b]
[h] [w] [z] [ħ] [] [j] [k]
[l] [m] [n] [s] [ʕ] [p]
[] [g] [r] [ʃ]
pronunciation (Tiberian) [ʔ] [b]
[h] [w] [z] [ħ] [] [j] [k]
[l] [m] [n] [s] [ʕ] [p]
[] [q] [r] [ʃ]
niqqud with א אַ אֶ אֵ אִ אָ אֹ אֻ אוּ
name patah segol tzere hiriq qamatz holam qubutz shuruq
value /a/ /ɛ/ /e/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /u/
niqqud with א אְ אֲ אֱ אֳ
name shva hataf patah hataf segol hataf qamatz
value /ă/, ⌀ /ă/ /ɛ̆/ /ɔ̆/

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

In the examples given below, it has been preferred to show one found precisely in the Bible which represents each phenomenon in a graphic manner (i.e. a chateph vowel), although these rules still apply when there is only 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/, /ɐ̆/, /ɔ̆/ to denote the full range of furtive vowels, these remaining four (/u/, /i/, /e/, /o/) are represented by simple sheva (chateph chireq (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 word שְׁתַּיִם /ˈʃtɐːjim/, read by the Tiberian Masoretes as אֶשְׁתַּיִם /ʔɛʃˈtɐːjim/. 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.


  1. In fact, first all stressed vowels were lengthened in pause, see Janssens (1982:58–59). This 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 this lengthening, but before the loss of phonemicity of length (since words like ירחם with allophonically long [aː] don't show this shift).
  2. This is attested to by the testimony of Rabbi Joseph Qimḥi (12th century) and by medieval Arabic transcriptions, see Janssens (1982:54–56). There is also possible evidence from the cantillation marks' behavior and Babylonian pataḥ, see 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, e.g. 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 šwa <ְ> and hataf patah <ֲ>. Blau (2010:117)
  4. In fact, it is not clear that a reduced vowel should be considered as comprising a whole syllable. Note for example that the rule whereby a word's stress shifts to a preceding open syllable to avoid being adjacent to another stressed syllable skips over ultrashort vowels, e.g. עִם־יוֹ֫רְדֵי בוֹר /ʕimˈjorăðe vor/ 'with those who go down into the pit' מְטֹ֫עֲנֵי חָ֫רֶב /măˈtˤoʕăne ˈħɔrɛv/ '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 (e.g. Sethon, Menasheh, Kelale Diqduq ha-qeriah, Aleppo 1914), though 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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