Whence the Sabra Accent?

A reader writes:

This is a question I’ve been wondering about for a long time – where did the modern Hebrew pronunciation come from? From what I know, when Hebrew was revived by the Haskalah and the Zionists, they chose a “Sephardic” pronunciation – but it still doesn’t explain in my mind the accent.

What I mean is this – if you listen to the founders of Israel – they still sound like Eastern European Jews when they speak Hebrew (בן גוריון בראיון שהיום היה נחשב ימני קיצוני, תוכנית מוקד עם מנחם בגין). Furthermore, on your blog there was a question I asked about why certain Israeli singers like Meir Ariel or Naomi Shemer rolled their R’s, and the answer from your commenters was that it was the prescribed pronunciation for all artists, radio/TV etc. So for the Sabras, if their parents spoke with a European accent, and the media was rolling R’s, where did they get the current Israeli accent?



  1. Ben Gurion speaks with a Russian accent: he velarizes some of his l’s (I haven’t looked for a pattern), palatalizes consonants before /i/, and uses a trilled r. He does pronounce his /h/, though. He also reduces unstressed /o/.

    Begin velarizes some l’s, but between them his Hebrew does not sound all that different from that of native (‘sabra’) speakers.

    Hebrew varieties with a trilled r are of various categories: those of Russian immigrants, of current and older generations; those of speakers of Mizrahi, Yemeni, Sephardi, and Arab-accented Hebrew; and the registers used by singers, actors and newscasters. The person interviewing Begin has a very pronounced newscaster variety: he uses a velar r, but uses overly distinct final consonants, much like those of American ministers (like the Rev. Lovejoy of The Simpsons).

    I’ve heard that standard newscast Hebrew adopted the trilled r as a sop to Mizrahi pronunciation, considered by Ashkenazis more ‘correct’ but harder to imitate, but I suspect that, as in other public performance speech, it is used because it is more distinctly heard than the velar r.

    There remains the question of why the velar rhotic of European Jewish immigrants won over the considerable presence of the Russian trilled r of people like Ben Gurion. That is an interesting question to which I don’t know the answer. I think there was a discussion on LH somewhere, maybe instigated by me, of velar r as a characteristic of Jewish Russian.

  2. I’ve always understood that the apical trill [r] was the pronunciation recommended by the “revivalists” but transfer from Yiddish has inevitably led to the widespread use (and growing prestige) of dorsal [ʁ] (by which I mean a continuum of realisations, from velar to postvelar to uvular, and from approximant to fricative, or even an occasional uvular trill). It’s the dominant pronunciation in Eastern/Central European Yiddish, though many speakers vacillate between an apical trill/tap and a dorsal continuant, not necesarily depending on the level of formality or stylistic considerations: my impression, based on casual observation, is that the apical tap is especially common in obstruent+/r/ clusters. The same range of pronunciations can be heard in Yiddish-influenced Polish.

  3. George Gibbard says:

    Interestingly, the “velar rhotic” isn’t only a feature of Ashkenazi pronunciation: it is also attested for Jewish dialects of Arabic in the Maghreb. According to Yoda (2005), the Arabic of the Jews of Tripoli (Libya, not Lebanon) in fact has (or had) three distinct phonemes all pronounced [ʁ], corresponding to [ʁ], [ɾ] and [ɾʶ] in non-Jewish dialects, which each had different effects on the surrounding vowels.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    my impression, based on casual observation, is that the apical tap is especially common in obstruent+/r/ clusters

    That’s where I find it easiest to pronounce.

    three distinct phonemes all pronounced [ʁ]

    Now that’s awesome.

  5. I don’t see what’s any more awesome about that than the merger of LOT, THOUGHT, and PALM in Western U.S. / Canadian English.

  6. I think George is saying that there were three phonemes which, though realized with the same phone, remained distinct through their allophonic effects on the other vowels – more like the case of “writer” and “rider” in northern North American English.

  7. What about other features that aren’t considered Ashkenazi? Like the pronunciation of the gutturals, the ’emphatic/ejective’ phonemes, spirantization of /d/, /t/, and /g/? And what about other phonological changes like the loss of consonant gemination and the merging of vowel quality/length? Any ideas as to when these were standardized in Modern Hebrew? It seems as tho a lot of these changes were towards an Ashkenazi pronunciation, no?

  8. marie-lucie says:

    [ʁ], [ɾ] and [ɾʶ]

    I can do the first two, but am nonplussed by the third one.

  9. “Colouring” influence on adjacent sounds often survives the loss of contrast. The three PIE “laryngeals” eventually merged with one another and with zero, but their effects (especially on vowels) linger on even now, a few thousand years after the merger. In Indo-Iranian there was a three-way merger of vowels (*a, e, o > *a), but in many cases their original quality can be recovered from the effects they once conditioned: only *e palatalised a preceding velar, and only *o was lengthened in a non-final open syllable (Brugmann’s Law). Both effects are visible in PIE *kʷekʷóre > Vedic cakāra ‘has made’ (3sg. perf. of the root *kʷer-).

  10. All interesting comments above, but not really addressing the main question, which is – how did the “native” speakers of modern Hebrew wind up with their present accent given that their parents didn’t speak that way?

  11. e-k: So in which ways do you feel that the accent of Ben Gurion or Begin differs from the current Israeli one?

  12. @minus273,
    Unfortunately, I am not a linguist so I don’t have a good quantitative or “professional” way to describe it (I think Y had some details in the first comment above). But I can hear it. Are you asking me because you feel that it doesn’t differ?

  13. I don’t speak modern Hebrew, nor haven listened to it much, so I don’t have the baseline yet to judge their accent upon.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I can do the first two, but am nonplussed by the third one.

    Many, perhaps all, kinds of modern Arabic have an “emphatic” r phoneme analogous to the other “emphatic” consonants; they’re all usually described as pharyngealized or velarized, but perhaps they’re uvularized in some varleties – that would, after all, be in the middle of a continuum.

    Take an exaggeratedly “dark” L, and then replace [l] with [r].

  15. marie-lucie says:


  16. ~”All interesting comments above, but not really addressing the main question, which is – how did the “native” speakers of [insert any language] wind up with their present accent given that their parents didn’t speak that way?”~

  17. Rick,

    Basically, kids learned the more standardized from their teachers and other adults. Although not everyone had a good facility for pronouncing the somewhat standardized modern Hebrew, those who did were recognized, appreciated and imitated, and often ended up as teachers.

    A good and pithy quote as to how Hebrew pronunciation was shaped is by Shlomo Goitein: “The common pronunciation among the yishuv [the Jewish residents of Palestine] is Sephardi by desire and Ashkenazi by ability. It attempts to be Sephardi using the sounds present in the Ashkenazi.”

  18. BTW, near my high school in Israel was a bookstore run by a young immigrant from the United States, who had learned Hebrew as an adult. He was completely fluent, with no trace of an American accent. Moreover, he learned to pronounce his ח , ‎ע and ק (i.e. ħ, ʡ, q) in a way that put most of us Ashkenazi Hebrew speaking students to shame. He would pronounce קַר כַּקֶרַח ‘ice cold’ as [qar kaqɛraħ] with perfect ease, which I still can’t do very easily; in my idiolect it would be [kɐʀ kɐke̞ʀɐx].

  19. Y: A great quote and a great anecdote!

  20. I stand by e-k that the difference is definitely there. My parents (born in the early ’50s) speak just like me (phonetically) while none of my grandparents reallly did. In school they were probably goaded towards the “radio” variant (e.g. trill r) and on the street they mainly heard accents – German, Russian, Sepharadic. I agree is a wonder this standard came along, and in some place I’m tempted to “blame” pop culture – could Arik Einstein and Dan Ben-Amotz be responsible for this?…

  21. Ugh. By “they” I was referring to my parents, who clearly didn’t get it from their parents.

  22. Yuval, My experience is the same. My parents were born in the 1930s in Israel, and their Hebrew is definitely like mine and not like their parents’. It goes back quite earlier than Einstein and Ben Amotz.

    Ben Gurion aside, some politicians, like Levi Eshkol and Uri Avneri, for whom Hebrew was a second language, learned to speak it with something quite close to a standard ‘sabra’ accent.

  23. Would people originally from Odessa talk with the most Sabra accent? Seems that the genesis is parallel: deracinated, generic koiné Yiddish should sound like Hebrew with an deracinated, generic koiné Yiddish accent.

  24. Odessa Yiddish is no more of a koiné than New York Yiddish.
    I can’t think of any Odessa natives recorded speaking Hebrew. There’s one of Jabotinsky speaking Yiddish, which to my Israeli ears does not sound anything likea native Israeli accent.
    Russian-born, Yiddish-raised Tchernikhovsky, Agnon and Shlonski—all of them intellectuals, polyglots and literary lions of Moden Hebrew—have been recorded and are on YouTube. None of them speak in what would pass as a ‘sabra’ accent. Shlonski (my favorite) speaks with an unremarkable Russian accent. Agnon‘s accent is Yiddish-flavored, for example in realizing /e/ as [ei]. Tchernikhovsky (who studied in Odessa) also has strongly Yiddish-tinged vowels.

  25. Noah Kaye says:

    Ben Gurion def. speaks with a Russian accent.

  26. Wow, just listening to the Jabotinsky recording.

    My Yiddish is a combination of phrases from grandparents + university German — am I right in thinking Jabotinsky is speaking a high-flow, German-influenced Yiddish?

  27. A colleague (native French speaker) relates: “I would add something the exchange, a story that I know from my own family. Eliezer Benyehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, tried to find the closest pronunciation from the Hebrew time…he traveled to Algeria, even was hosted by my great great Grand father Messaoud Cherqui, because it seems that the Hebrew spoken in remote areas was not influenced by other languages.”

    Ben Yehuda apparently visited Algeria between 1879-1881. See the bibliographic entry on Page 14 of the linked PDF.

  28. My colleague’s name is Noam Assouline; he says that if memory serves, his great-great-grandfather lived in Medea, which Google Maps tells me is a short distance southwest of Algiers.

  29. Wow, what a story! I love that sort of unexpected long-distance connection.

  30. So I keep going back and forth about what personal phonology I should use when speaking Hebrew – mostly regarding ע ,א and ה. I usually aim for a boringly neutral variety in any language I learn, neither too high or low on the sociolectal scale. In this case,

    – The idea of the pronouncing these three “fully” – that is, consistently realizing ה as [h], and א and ע as [ʔ], at the onset of a syllable, even at the start of a word – has an appealingly simple conservatism to it, but I fear that it may sound too affected for regular use. I was able to find one learning site in which a native speaker pronounces the example sentences in this way, but she may well have been overenunciating.

    – On the other hand, the idea of omitting them all entirely, which I know is common, just seems a little too low for my purposes.

    – But the idea of omitting א and ע while realizing ה as a full-bodied [h], although it would come easily to me, would seem to betray an English-speaking bias.

    So what I’m currently thinking is that I should omit א and ע, while – as a concession to the [h]-droppers – realizing ה as [h] post-pausally or after voiceless consonants, and as [ɦ] between vowels or after voiced consonants. (I found this particular formulation in a description of the /h/ in Arabic, but it seems to fit here too.) To me this tentatively seems like a compromise approach, but I’m still concerned that the consistent absence of glottal stops – for example, in a /VˈV/ sequence – might make my speech sound a little too low in some contexts. (The alternative, of course, would be to adopt some nuanced rule about when to use [ʔ], but I like to keep these things relatively simple when I can.)

    So… any thoughts? Is my “ה ;[∅] = ע/א = [h/ɦ]” approach good for general use?

  31. Excellent questions, and I hope there are some informed responses!

  32. Lazar, that’s how I talk (I think), but I’m old fashioned. Many people nowadays pronounce all three as a ‘full-bodied’ [ʔ].

    I should add that I (and everyone) drop the /h/ in combinations like /beit hasefer/ ‘the school’.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Paul O: My [French-speaking] colleague’s name is Noam Assouline

    I have seen the name Assouline in some French publications but did not pay special attention to it or to the people bearing it. I guess I assumed it was a traditional French name from some province, but I wonder if it could be of Jewish origin.

    There are several Assouline’s on the internet, some on Wikipédia.fr, with some prominence in French cultural circles (a biographer, a publisher of art books, and others). They seem to be members of the same family, who came to France from Morocco, and at least one member is in Israel. What Hebrew or Arabic name could have ended up as French Assouline?

  34. @Y: Thanks. Yeah, I think this’ll be my working pronunciation, at least for now.

    @marie-lucie: From what I can see online, the majority of sources seem to derive it from a Berber word for “rock”, although the closest thing that I can find in Berber dictionaries is aẓru.

  35. January First-of-May says:

    As I happened to mention in April, I’ve been taught (as a kid) to use [ɦ] (or something very close to it, anyway) for ה in pretty much all contexts (where it doesn’t disappear entirely, anyway).


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