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Lesson Transcript

Michael: How can you read Hebrew without vowel letters?
Katja: And what's the best reading strategy for learners?
Michael: At HebrewPod101.com, we hear these questions often.
In the following situation, Ben Lee is at a restaurant with his friend. Ben picks up a menu and tries to spell out one of the words in the drink section. He reads out the name of each Hebrew letter he sees, saying,
Ben Lee: ה- פ - ק.  (K-F-H)
Ben Lee: ה- פ - ק.  (K-F-H).
Keren Cohen: זה קפה. (ze kafeh)
Once more with the English translation.
Ben Lee: .ה- פ - ק  (K-F-H)
Michael: "Qoph Pe He."
Keren Cohen: זה קפה. (ze kafeh)
Michael: "It's coffee."
Michael: Hebrew is often said to have no vowels. However, this statement is not true. Hebrew language is written in a kind of script called an abjad
Katja: .אבג'ד (abjad)
Michael: Unlike the alphabets you find in languages like English or Greek, an abjad only has letters for consonants. Thus it's sometimes called a "consonantal alphabet." The language itself has vowel sounds. What's more, over time Hebrew has come to use a so-called "impure abjad," that is, a consonantal alphabet which indicates vowels with the use of certain consonants. For example, the letter
Katja:  (he) ה
Michael: in
Katja: קפה (kafeh)
Michael: is often used at the end of a word to indicate the presence of a vowel. In fact,
Katja:  ה
Michael: and
Katja: ו (Vav)
Michael: are more often used to represent vowel sounds than consonants.
Katja:  י (Yod)
Michael: indicates i or e sounds, while
Katja:  ו 
Michael: indicates o or u sounds.
Consonants carrying out this function are called "matres lectionis," a Latin term that means "mothers of reading." In Hebrew, it's
Katja: אם קריאה (em kri'ah).
Michael: Aside from the aforementioned characters, it's experience and practice that enables the Hebrew users to know which vowels go with different words. Context and the word's position in the sentence, as well as words' consonantal Semitic roots, help a native speaker to identify the consonants. This is why it is so easy for Ben's friend to read the word for "coffee" on the menu. What about non-native learners though? They can take advantage of
Katja: ניקוד (nikud).
Michael: This is a system of optional diacritical marks, which look like dots and lines, used to indicate vowels and distinct pronunciation in Hebrew. This system will be used, for example, in children's books or dictionaries, but may be of great help when learning Hebrew. But for now, take comfort that there's help! There's also a number of Roman transliteration systems.
Katja: ליטוּן של עברית (Litun shel ivrit.)
Michael: These systems almost always include vowels to help you read.
Michael: Great job. Now you know about vowels in Hebrew. That's all there is to it!
Be sure to download the lesson notes for this lesson at HebrewPod101.com — and move onto the next lesson!