Pronunciation Changes

   As pronunciation changes developed in the two dialects of Proto-Semitic that diverged to eventually become Arabic and Hebrew, Arabic and Hebrew word pairs arose whose common origins are not so apparent. Below are two (rather extreme) examples illustrating this development:

                                                                   Table 7

   Despite their differing outward forms, for each example to the right there is a single Proto-Semitic word from which both the Arabic and Hebrew words have descended. In the first, it would have been a word denoting a type of opening; in the second, a negative emotion. The words' meanings have diverged somewhat, and even more so have the sounds of the words, so that the original one-to-one root letter correspondence between the pairs of words in each example is at this point invisible. If however one understands the predictable way in which Semitic sounds have changed over time, one can recognize each pair as having root letters that were originally exactly the same. 


  Most letters of the Hebrew alphabet are related to letters of the Arabic alphabet in a one-to-one predictable correspondence, having exact counterparts in the other language that, for the most part, represent the exact same sounds. These (they amount to a total of 16 letters pairings out of the 22-letter Hebrew and 28-letter Arabic alphabets) are given in the table below:

Table 8

   Below are a few examples of words that use only these letters. Because they limit themselves to using only these letters, the words in each pair below are extremely similar or identical:

Table 9

  But there are other Hebrew letters that correspond to not one but to two or even three different letters of the Arabic alphabet, and it is this type of relation that is the cause of most of the seeming dissimilarity in the word pairs noted at the top of this page, in Table 7. These letters are listed in the table below. 

Table 10

   Most of the multiple correspondences outlined above originate in phonetic changes that arose in formative stages of what would become Arabic and Hebrew. (Some of the correspondences among the sibilants, or 's' and 'sh' sounds, are an exception -- see below). First, speakers of what would become Hebrew began to no longer differentiate in their speech between certain previously distinct Semitic sounds. Sounds that Arabic would retain until the present day, represented by the letters

 ث th,     خ kh,     ذ dh,     غ gh,     ض ,     and      ظ

would completely disappear in Hebrew pronunciation, and instead merge with the sounds represented by the already present Hebrew letters

 שׁ š,     ח ,     ז z,     ע ,     and     צ ṣ, respectively. 

(See here and here for proof that at least some of these changes were quite late, with distinctions between the merged sounds still pronounced at the time of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.)

  Separately, changes occurred that caused sibilants to "trade places" between Arabic and Hebrew. One can thus find many word pairs of similar meaning where the Arabic word contains a ش š, whereas its Hebrew counterpart contains a שׂ ś. Alternately, where Arabic س s is found, a parallel Hebrew word will often display a שׁ š. Sometimes the Hebrew counterpart of س s will instead be ס s, a Hebrew letter not existing in Arabic, today pronounced exactly the same as שׂ ś, all three of which sounding just like the English letter 's'. Other correspondences among the letters representing sibilants can be found as well, but these originate in later loan-words, or in confusions within Hebrew between the homophones ס s and שׂ ś. 

   A visual summary of the main points covered above is provided below:

 The word pairs in the following two tables illustrate the sound changes discussed thus far. Two words are provided as examples for each sound change.

Table 11

Table 12

 In accordance with the decrease in Hebrew’s inventory of sounds, Hebrew's alphabet has less letters than that of Arabic—Arabic's alphabet possessing 28 letters and that of Hebrew only 22. 

   Hebrew's loss of differentiation between certain sounds is also associated with the arising of pairs of Hebrew words (and in one instance - that of ex. 4 in Table 17, below - a group of three words) that appear to be of the same root, but which have curiously unrelated meanings. Comparison of these near (or actual) homonyms with corresponding Arabic words reveals that they can be traced back to originally completely separate Semitic roots that merged in Hebrew in ancient times due to its inability to distinguish them in pronunciation.  

For example, خ kh and ح , remaining separate in Arabic, would both come to be pronounced in Hebrew as ח :

Table 13


Arabic ذ dh and ز z would both come to be pronounced as ז z in Hebrew:

Table 14



Arabic ث th and س s would both come to be pronounced as שׁ š in Hebrew:

Table 15


ع and غ gh would both merge to become the Hebrew letter ע :

Table 16


and ظ , ض , and ص would all three come to merge in the single Hebrew letter צ :

                 Table 17


   Another change that we may observe as Hebrew developed from Proto-Semitic is the tendency for the sound represented in Arabic by و w to often manifest as י y in Hebrew. Some examples:

Table 18

 The changes did not stop there. Another development in Hebrew pronunciation was the transformation of the sounds represented by the letters בּ b, גּ g, דּ d, כּ k, פּ p, and תּ t. Depending upon where they occur within a word, they would come to be pronounced as “softer” versions of themselves: ב v, ג gh, ד dh, כ kh, פ f, and ת th. This would have the effect of distancing the sound of Hebrew now slightly even further from her sister language Arabic. (An exception exists in the case of the Hebrew letter פּ p. Hebrew פּ p corresponds to Arabic ف f, so in a word where פּ p turns into פ f, this actually makes it closer to its Arabic counterpart). In contemporary spoken Hebrew three of the six softer variants have dropped away, but distinctions do continue to exist for בּ/ב b/v, כּ/כ k/kh, and פּ/פ p/f, as shown in Table 19 below, which provides three examples for each sound change.

Table 19

   Lastly, notice the pairs below, in which the Arabic letter ن n is present in the Arabic word, but in which the Hebrew letter נ n, its corollary, is mysteriously absent in the Hebrew word. This is because at some point before Hebrew was ever written down, its speakers ceased to pronounce the sound represented by the letter נ n when נ n occurred in the middle of a word without a vowel following it. Under these conditions the sound represented by Hebrew נ would become silent. The Arabic letter ن would, however, continue to be pronounced in Arabic under these conditions, and is thus present in each Arabic word in the table below.

Table 20

   To conclude our discussion of the development of differences in pronunciation between Hebrew and Arabic, we move forward to modern times, in which we can observe a phenomenon that began in the late 19th century. As the dominant pronunciation system of contemporary Hebrew originated in the speech patterns of people whose mother tongues were not Semitic, many found difficuty in producing the unique sounds characteristic of Semitic languages. Because of this, the following Hebrew pronunciations, not reflected in writing, are common today. Hebrew, at least in its spoken form, was in this way further differentiated from Arabic, which itself never lost the original pronunciations listed in Table 21, below.

Table 21


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