When you are choosing a Hebrew or Israeli baby name, it’s important to understand how it will be pronounced. English spelling doesn’t usually give an accurate way of pronouncing the name. There are many more vowel sounds in English than in Hebrew, and they are often pronounced slightly differently.
Here are some guidelines for understanding how modern Hebrew is pronounced.
- Ch. The Hebrew letters chaf and chet are pronounced with a guttural H sound. There is no way to represent that in English, and most non-native speakers have trouble with it. Examples: Girls: Chana (Hannah), Boys: Chermon (place name). Unisex: Chen (favor). The letters are represented in English with Ch or H.
- R. It’s important to keep in mind that the English R is not the equivalent of the Hebrew Resh, which is more of a rolled sound. Israelis often don’t understand what the English speaker is saying if it includes that sound. Example: Boy: Reshef (spark).
- Ah. Hebrew has no short A sound like in yam or bat. The sound most commonly represented by the English letter “A” represents the “ah” sound like in “baa.” The Hebrew vocalization symbol used is kamatz or patach. Example: Boy: Matan (gift).
- Eh. The short e sound is usually represented by an e in English and by the symbol known as segol in Hebrew. Example:Boy: Peleg (brook).
- I. There is no real short I sound in Hebrew. The English letter I usually represents a long E sound, vocalized by the hirik symbol in Hebrew. Example: Unisex: Li (for me).
- Ay. The long I sound is represented by the vocalization symbol patah followed by the letter yod, and often appears at the end of the name. Examples: Boy: Hayim (life). Unisex: Shai (gift).
- Ei. The long A sound is represented by the vocalization symbol tzeireh. Example: Boy: Eitan (strong).
- Tz. Hebrew has a letter tzadi, pronounced “tz.” In English it can be written as ts, tz or Z. It is often mispronounced.
- Accent. Most names with more than one syllable are accented on the last syllable. Example: Girl: Ma’ayan (stream).
Variations in Hebrew Pronuncation
There are three or more traditions for pronouncing Hebrew, which has been spoken by Jews around the world for thousands of years. Modern Hebrew is generally pronounced with Sephardic, or North African pronunciation. Ashkenazi accents are spoken by Jews of Eastern European descent, especially in the US and in ultra-Orthodox or haredi communities in Israel. Ashkenazim pronounce an unvocalized tav as sav. Example: Boy: Yonasan (instead of Yonatan).
Ashkenazim also pronounce the vocalization symbol kamatz as “oh” instead of “ah.” Example: Doniel (instead of Daniel).
Yemenites pronounce Hebrew similar to sephardic pronunciation, but they distinguish some similar sounding letters. The unvocalized tav is pronounced “th,” ayin and chet are more guttural than their equivalents, aleph and chaf.
Parents choosing an Israeli or Hebrew name for their children must consider these pronunciation issues to find the best fit.