Pronunciation

The only way to really learn Hebrew and Chinese pronunciation is by listening and practicing. We offer here just a basic description of some of the sounds and characteristics of written (and pronounced) Hebrew and Chinese.


Hebrew

Hebrew is written in 22 letters (five of which have a second form when they are at the end of a word), from right to left.

Vowels: The vowel sounds of Hebrew are:
a, e, ei, i, o, u
(a as in "father", e as in "bed", ei as in "eight", i as in "elite", o as in "note", u as in "fluke").

Note: If you are learning Hebrew pronunciation for the first time, ensure you are pronouncing these vowels correctly, as described here, before continuing.

Consonants: The consonants of Hebrew are similar to sounds in English, with the exception of the sound "ts" at the beginning of words (like the ts in its), the sound kh (like German ach Scottish loch or Spanish jota - similar to the rough sound you would make to clear your throat in order to spit, but less harsh), and the sound "r", which is more guttural, similar to the German "r". English speakers can easily learn to say the "ts" and "kh", but the "r" will probably be the telltale sign of an American/English accent.

Accent: The accent of Hebrew words always falls on the last syllable of the word, unless otherwise marked with an accent mark. If marked with an accent mark, the accent will always fall on the second to the last syllable.
(These marking rules apply to Hebrew that is actually marked, such as in the Prayer Book or Hebrew Bible. Modern written Hebrew is usually not marked with vowels/accents, as the readers are assumed to be familiar with the correct pronunciation).

Note: In the names of the Hebrew letters printed on this page (alef, bet, gimel, etc.), all of the names of the letters are pronounced with the accent on the second to the last syllable: alef, gimel, dalet, zain, lamed, samekh, ain, and tsadi.

Additional (more advanced) Pronunciation Notes:
1. Two of the vowel marks of Hebrew have more than one possible pronunciation (see chart). One of the "a" vowels can sometimes be pronounced "o" in certain (somewhat infrequent) cases. (The most common case is the Hebrew word for "all" - "kol"). When a person is familiar with the Hebrew language and grammar, it becomes clear when this vowel is pronounced "o". For beginners, it is just a matter of practice. Also, the "ei" vowel mark is often pronounced "e". Compare the letters "hei" and "mem".
2. The letters "khet" and "ain" have a certain rule when they are the last letter in a word, and the vowel combinations "ei-a", "i-a", "o-a", or "u-a" fall under them. This affects the pronunciation of the khet, as instead of being pronounced "kha", it is pronounced "akh" - as in the Hebrew word for "happy" - "samei-akh".

Syllables: One will observe that, like other phonetic writing systems (like English, and unlike Chinese), Hebrew has an almost unlimited number of possible sylables, because you can have a consonant at the beginning, a consonant at the end, and a variety of vowels in the middle. For example: bab, bad, bat, beb, bed, bet, and so on.
Click to download PDF file of Hebrew letters, vowels, and sylables
(This table contains each Hebrew letter combined with each Hebrew vowel).

Chinese

Tones: Chinese (Mandarin Chinese) is a language in which tones are important. Every syllable in Chinese is represented by a different Chinese character, and every syllable has a tone. There are four tones: high, rising, low, and falling. While this concept of tones may at first seem foreign to an English speaker, English actually often uses tones in sentences. When thinking of tones, it is also helpful to think of analogies to music and singing.
1. The high tone in Chinese is like the sound you make at the doctor's when you have to open your mouth to say "aaaaah". Or imagine tuning an instrument (like a guitar) and saying the tone you are trying to tune it to - it would neither rise nor fall. This is the tone English speakers have the most difficulty with. There is a simple aid to remembering it: while practicing Chinese pronunciation, when you arrive at the high tone, just remember to imagine that you are singing any musical tone (such as "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti or do", for example). The tone is neither rising, nor does it have a drop at the end.
2. The rising tone is like the sound at the end of a question in English. For example:
"Guess what is in the house. Is it a cat?"
The tone on the word "cat" rises. Or imagine that you are singing a rising tone - starting from a low tone and moving the tone up.
3. The low tone is pronounced deliberately lower, and is something like the word "so" in this sentence: "I don't know for sure, but I think so."
4. The falling tone goes the other way, like in a statement emphasizing something:
"No, it's a dog!"
The tone on the word "dog" falls. You can imagine this as singing a tone from high to low.
That's all there is to the four tones.
They can be practiced on each Chinese syllable, such as saying "ah" four times: ah (high), ah (rising), ah (low), ah (falling).

On the table of radicals printed on this page, the tones of the first six radicals in the list are as follows: yi=high, gun=low, pie=high, zhu=low, yi=falling, jue=rising.

Syllables: Chinese, unlike Hebrew, has a fixed, limited number of syllables. Pronouncing Chinese correctly involves mastering the pronunciation of the table of syllables, as well as the four possible tones each syllable has. All Chinese vocabulary derives from a combination of these tones and syllables, with each tone-syllable combination being written with unique Chinese characters.

Pinyin and Zhuyin Tables: While Chinese characters are ordinarily taught in the school to children who already understand spoken Chinese, a person with no knowlege of Chinese is first going to have to learn Chinese pronunciation, and then begin matching Chinese characters with the vocabulary they are learning. To aid non-native speakers in learning Chinese pronunciation, phonetic tables have been devised containing all of the Chinese syllables. One is the Pinyin Table, which uses Latin letters, and is common in the People's Republic of China, and the other is the Zhuyin (Bopomofo) Table, which instead of Latin letters uses phonetic characters adapted from Chinese radicals, and is common in the Republic of China. Both tables, of course, represent the same number of syllables and sounds, and each may have certain unique advantages.
[Note: The potential advantages of one table over the other derive from the fact that - unlike other languages traditionally written with phonetic alphabets, where the pronounced language is forced to correspond to the written pronunciation - Chinese pronunciation (matching Chinese characters) existed first, and the artificial phonetic alphabets to represent Chinese pronunciation were only invented recently.]
Click to download PDF file of Pinyin and Zhuyin pronunciation
(This table contains all possible syllables of Chinese. Adding each of the four tones to each syllable will produce all of the possible sounds of Chinese).