PRONUNCIATION GUIDE FOR SINGING IN HEBREW
Material is excerpted from Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, Volume 4: Hebrew Texts by Ethan Nash and Joshua Jacobson. Published in 2009 by earthsongs.
WHAT IS HEBREW?
Hebrew is a Northwestern Semitic language that developed between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea during the latter half of the second millennium B.C. It was spoken as a national language in ancient Israel, but by about 200 A.D., Hebrew existed primarily as a liturgical and literary language, much like Latin in the modern world. It was only with the rise of Jewish nationalist movements in the late 1800s that Hebrew was revived as a spoken language. Today, Hebrew is the national language of the State of Israel.
Other Jewish Languages referred to in this website:
(1) Aramaic, like Hebrew and Arabic, is a Semitic language. It is closely related to Hebrew, and the pronunciation of the two languages is essentially the same. Aramaic was the spoken language of the Jews for some time following the Babylonian exile of 586 B.C. Several prayers in the liturgy are at least partially in Aramaic, including Kaddish and Kol Nidré.
(2) Yiddish is a blend of old German and Hebrew that was spoken by Ashkenazic Jews (the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe). It has its own grammatical structure and is written in an alphabet based on Hebrew characters.
(3) Ladino is a dialect of Spanish influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic. Ladino was spoken in the places where Jews settled after being expelled from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497).
TRANSLITERATION OF HEBREW
In order to be accessible to those who do not read Hebrew, the text of most Hebrew music is transliterated or “romanized” into roman characters. Perhaps the biggest challenge in learning how to pronounce Hebrew is the fact that there is no single, universally used or accepted transliteration system. The IPA transcriptions used in Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, Volume 4: Hebrew Texts are intended to solve this problem. The book also features analyses and pronunciation guides to many of the most frequently performed choral works in Hebrew, as well as a CD. featuring clear pronunciation of the texts.
SACRED AND SECULAR
Many composers of Jewish and Israeli concert music will use biblical texts for their lyrics. These compositions are not liturgical or sacred; they were intended for concert use. Furthermore, most of the works listed in this website as intended for liturgical use will work equally well (perhaps even better) in a concert program.
THE PRONUNCIATION OF GOD’S NAME
For many observant Jews, singing the name of God as Adónai in a concert or anywhere outside of a prayer service or a comparable situation is considered to be a violation of the third commandment of the decalogue, “You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain.” The name Adónai, literally meaning “my Lord,” is a dysphemism (the use of a common word in place of a more elevated word) for the holy name of God, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. However, observant Jews would argue that even the dysphemism Adónai must be treated with care and respect. Therefore, in concert performances, it is common practice among observant Jews (or when the audience consists predominantly of observant Jews) to avoid singing even the word Adónai. Some choral singers substitute Adómai for Adónai.
Ashkenazic and Sephardic Pronunciations
The two major pronunciations of Hebrew that conductors will encounter are known as Ashkenazic and Sephardic.Most generally, these terms refer to regions of origin: Ashkenaz is the Hebrew word that came to designate “Germany” and Sefarad is a Hebrew word that came to designate “Spain.” The terms can be confusing as they are used in multiple contexts to describe ethnicity and liturgical practice as well as pronunciation. The term Ashkenazic became identified with German Jews and their descendants in other countries; these included France, Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia, Moravia, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, all the countries that would today be referred to as “the former Soviet Union,” and parts of Italy. The term Sephardic, while often incorrectly used to describe all non-Ashkenazic Jews, refers to descendants of Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal prior to the sixteenth century. Jews who were expelled from these countries settled primarily in the lands of the Mediterranean basin (North Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe), while some even went to communities in Amsterdam, Venice, Leghorn, London, Bordeaux, Bayonne, and Hamburg, as well as parts of Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia, and eventually, even South and North America and the Caribbean. Occasionally, one may encounter transliterations that suggest regional variations such as Yemenite Hebrew, Mizrahi Hebrew, or Italianate Hebrew.
Below is the system that Joshua Jacobson and the Zamir Chorale of Boston have used in their editions.
PRONUNCIATION GUIDE FOR SINGING IN HEBREW
Use the standard rules for Italian pronunciation.
ay (sometimes ai) = [a:i], as in why
e = open [ɛ] as in bed
é = closed [e] as in passé
i = open [I] as in bit
í = closed [i] as in beet
h = [h] as in head
o = open [ɔ], as in cough
ó = closed [o], as in most (but no diphthong)
g = [g] (always hard), as in get
k = [k], as in kid
kh (sometimes ch)= [x], as in the German Bach, or the Scottish "loch"
r = [r], always flipped, as in the British “very, very”
s = [s] (unvoiced), as in sail
sh = [ʃ] as in shall
ts = as in Betsy
z = as in zoo
Any syllable beginning with a vowel should begin with a glottal plosive.