Anatoly Vorobey (Avva) posts (in Russian) about a 300-page book (also in Russian) called Никудену [Nikudenu], ‘Our Niqqud.’ He begins:

Reading this book gave me an odd feeling. On the one hand, it’s written understandably, explains everything well, clears up many complicated questions and exceptions, and is beautifully designed (it’s a pleasure to leaf through). On the other hand — and here the author is not to blame in any way, of course — its subject, vowel pointing in modern Hebrew, is striking in its obscurantism and needless complexity.

У меня странные ощущения от чтения этой книги. С одной стороны, она написана понятным языком, все хорошо объясняет, проясняет много сложных вопросов и исключений, и прекрасно оформлена (просто даже приятно листать). С другой стороны – и тут автор книги ни в чем не виноват, разумеется – предмет, которому она посвящена – огласовки в современном иврите – поражает своим обскурантизмом и никчемной сложностью.

He goes on to explain the problems summarized in the Wikipedia article thus:

One reason for the lesser use of niqqud is that it no longer reflects the current pronunciation. In modern Hebrew, tzere is pronounced the same as segol, although they were distinct in Tiberian Hebrew, and pataḥ the same as qamatz. To the younger generation of native Hebrew speakers, these distinctions seem arbitrary and meaningless; on the other hand, Hebrew language purists have rejected out of hand the idea of changing the basics of niqqud and fitting them to the current pronunciation – with the result that in practice niqqud is increasingly going out of use.

Anatoly ends his post as follows:

In brief, it would be a great deal simpler, better, and easier for everyone simply to start writing modern Hebrew as it is actually pronounced. Only six points would be needed (a e u o i plus schwa) and dagesh for the three letters where it means something; everything else could be tossed out. But this won’t happen for complicated cultural reasons (the aforementioned asininity).

Короче, было бы намного проще, лучше, легче для всех просто начать записывать современный иврит огласовками так, как он реально произносится. Нужно было бы шесть огласовок (А Э У О И плюс шва) и дагеш только для трех букв, где он что-то значит, все остальные можно выбросить. Но это не случится по сложным культурным причинам (вышеупомянутый маразм).

I’m curious what my Hebrew-speaking readers have to say about this; of course my sympathies are with the write-as-you-speak crowd, but I have no skin in the game.


  1. One could also write Hebrew in the Roman alphabet, as some have proposed, but for the small problems of tradition and historical continuity. We’re talking about Hebrew, not Esperanto or even Yiddish. Niqqud is used in the traditional Tiberian vocalization of the Torah and other biblical texts, as well as in a vast corpus of pre-modern (and later) poetry. The system of vocalization of biblical texts won’t be changed before the advent of the messianic age, and there’s no reason to think it will be changed afterwards.

    Since niqqud is largely irrelevant to the reading of Modern Hebrew texts, which are almost completely unvocalized, there’s no great impetus for reform from that quarter. As English orthography attests, languages (if not all language users) easily put up with many greater inconsistencies than those involved in the use of niqqud in Israel.

  2. I only read Hebrew liturgically, which is the state of affairs for a lot of American Jews. The living language is driven by Israelis, and if they revert to a heavily simplified system of vowel denotation, that is what is going to win out. In America, prayers that have long been transcribed with nikud* will continue to be, and those parts of the liturgy that are written without any pointing will likewise continue to be. In particular, that means the Torah, and the fact that all religious Jews are exposed to the completely unadorned Torah lettering is probably part of why many fluent Hebrew speakers apparently feel that they can largely do without the nikud.

    * I don’t understand the spelling “niqqud,” or, in fact, the use of a double “q” in lots of un-geminated situations. I suppose there is a reason for this orthographic choice, perhaps related to the generally marginal position of q in Latin-derived writing systems, but it looks unnatural to me.

  3. @Brett: I think the spelling niqqud reflects gemination in Tiberian Hebrew, seeing as how [according to Wikipedia] it’s spelled נִקּוּד (with a dagesh).

  4. *
    [A brief look at wiki shows that Modern Hebrew word is נִקּוּד that is (theoretically) geminated. — scooped by F] The wiki page on Hebrew romanization shows that the only source of k for kuf is Hebrew Academy 2006 system. Which probably is the only thing that should have mattered as far as non-Israelis are concerned, but if everyday Israeli practice is different then there is some jusificaion for stubborness of others as well.

  5. I’ve long thought the same as Anatoly. It’s true that nikud isn’t used much in most Hebrew writing, but it is used sometimes, and kids learn it when they learn to read; why use an illogical, needlessly complex system when it could easily be simplified? The Biblical texts could still be printed with the traditional nikud system without much loss of intelligibility.

  6. And indeed they sometimes are:

    I’ve muddled my way into a moderate understanding of written Hebrew using this text/transliteration/translation. Though I probably could’ve done better if I just took a class.

  7. There is precedent in Greek for adopting the simpler monotonic system of diacritics that correspond to modern pronunciation instead of the traditional polytonic system that captures obsolete distinctions. I wonder if a Hebrew equivalent of monotonic orthography could ever win acceptance, but it doesn’t appear likely to me.

  8. This Hebrew-speaking reader has been giving talks about Hebrew script reform for twenty years now, with the most recent one even being in English – the recording should be available on request from my CUNY host. Some material is up on my website.

    I snickered at “increasingly going out of use”; nobody uses niqqud except for in specific contexts, and this hasn’t changed towards either side in decades, even a century I’d wager.

    As for your question about a simplified schema – I’m in favor, but it needs to be made clear that it’s ill-suited for older texts, and the typographical hardships are still there, so the best way would be to elevate vowels to character level, and the best way to do that would be total reform to Latin-based script (see my talks mentioned above).

  9. Ben Tolley says

    Like Hat, I’ve got no skin in the game and tend to automatically favour write-as-you-speak orthographies, but the assumption that native speakers would use a system of vowel marking if only there was a more logical one available seems pretty dubious. As S Leaf commented, people put up with a lot of inconsistencies (and omissions) in writing systems. If Hebrew-speakers can do fine without niqqud (which they clearly can), why would they bother, even if it is an ‘improved’ system?

  10. I can’t believe Anatoly missed the chance to call his post Никудышный никуд [Worthless nikud].

  11. It’s pleasure to see that level of comprehension of the language from a non-native speaker of Russian.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I am sort of surprised to learn that, as best I can tell via casual googling, no orthographic scheme for writing Yiddish in Cyrillic was adopted in Birobidzhan back at the time that a lot of other Soviet minority languages were being forcibly Cyrillicized. Which makes it even more speculative to assess whether any such orthography would have been smoothly adaptable in turn to Hebrew.

    I imagine one practical problem for Hebrew is parallel to one which has afflicted Greek over the last century or so, viz. the understandable (for cultural/political reasons) pretense that the modern spoken language is the “same” language as (or at most a subtly different variety of) the language in which the scriptures were written some millennia previously.

  13. Because all Jewish Israeli students have compulsory Bible lessons, I imagine they must learn the Tiberian system anyway. Which would be hardly possible to change for religious reasons. Of course, a simplified system can be adopted specifically for secular writing, but that also would look kind of weird, no?

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Re the “one-off,” if the idea were that a Russophone gentile government functionary might need to read the Yiddish text out phonetically to a Yiddish-speaking witness, Cyrillic transliteration would have an obvious function. But if a rabbi was anticipated to be acting as an intermediary for the occasion, that no longer makes sense. Unless the government printer didn’t have an appropriate non-Cyrillic font handy when doing the typesetting?

  15. Dmitry Pruss says

    Apropos Никудышный, isn’t a more appropriate Cyrillic pun никуда не денется?

  16. My entry into the competition for the best title to make one sound as a cheap shot is Дорога в никда (the road to nowhere) meaning either the uselessness of niqqud as it is or the uselessness of attempts to change it. Or both.

  17. David Marjanović says

    no orthographic scheme for writing Yiddish in Cyrillic was adopted in Birobidzhan back at the time that a lot of other Soviet minority languages were being forcibly Cyrillicized.

    Indeed not. Yiddish did get a spelling reform, but that amounted to little more than spelling out the vowels in the Hebrew/Aramaic words as Hebrew letters.

  18. Because all Jewish Israeli students have compulsory Bible lessons, I imagine they must learn the Tiberian system anyway.

    Not exactly — they learn the symbols, but with the phonetic values of the modern five-vowel system. They’re not usually taught about (let alone made to try to reproduce) the phonetic distinctions between e g. tzere and segol. Also, passive knowledge of the system doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to apply it correctly, which very few people master.

  19. TR, thank you for the info. I do not have the first-hand knowledge and it is hard (which means, I don’t know how) to find anything clear on internet.

  20. Well, ahem. I’m against it.

    First, if you do orthographic reform, and only go part way, you’ll end up with a solution that will satisfy no one. Suppose you cut down niqqud to the five-vowel system of Standard Israeli Hebrew. You’ll still have the “redundant” letters ת tav, תּ tav with dagesh, and ט tet, formerly [t], [θ], and [tˠ] but now merged into [t], and a couple of other sets like this. Aleph א and ayin ע, formerly [ʔ] and [ʕ], have merged (except in the speech of some Mizrahis), and ה hei [h] is in the process of merging them as well (not among older speakers). Do you keep them all, out of consideration for variant lects? If so, shouldn’t you keep niqqud out of consideration to those who still speak Yemeni Hebrew and maintain more vowel distinctions?

    If you’re going to have a clean, purely phonemic orthography, you’ll have to transmogrify the Hebrew script until it’s unrecognizable (or use a Latin system like Yuval’s). If you only go halfway you’ll have on the one hand a script that is still ambiguous and challenging to learn, and on the other hand one that no longer wears its beloved patina.

    Moreover, as Yuval pointed out, niqqud isn’t used very much, except in three domains: liturgical texts, including the Old Testament and the Haggadah; poetry; and books for children. For the first two, niqqud is mostly performative; for the third, it is practical, in that it helps young learners know what the vowels are. In any event, those who learn to read growing up with children’s books and the Bible learn to read niqqud, where the ambiguities are harmless. Learning to write correct niqqud is indeed very hard, and most people never learn to use it correctly, but most people will never use niqqud in writing during their lifetime. So niqqud reform is a solution to a problem that mostly does not exist.

    In principle niqqud is helpful for language learners, disambiguating what are now homophones, e.g. חָלָב ‘milk (n.)’ and חָלַב ‘(he) milked’, both now pronounced /xalav/.

    Personally, I love niqqud. I love reading it and I love writing it, and I find it painful to see a a patah instead of a qamatz. I grew up with old books. We had around the house tons of books printed in the 1920s, when even young adult literature was published with niqqud, so I absorbed it young. That’s just me, though.

  21. @Y: “So niqqud reform is a solution to a problem that mostly does not exist.”

    That’s what I thought on reading Anatoly’s post and some of the comments to it. It’s only a problem for poets – if improperly niqqud-ized poems are considered as unworthy of publication as poems with spelling errors. One could argue, of course, that it’s not merely an inconvenience but an injustice since it disproportionately affects poets from underprivileged backgrounds who have had limited educational opportunities.

  22. One could argue, of course, that it’s not merely an inconvenience but an injustice since it disproportionately affects poets from underprivileged backgrounds who have had limited educational opportunities.

    I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s a compelling argument. Of course, the easier solution would be to stop requiring books of poetry to be niqqud-ized (what a pointless… er, I guess I mean pointed… tradition!).

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely the poet ought to be able to delegate niqqudization to the publisher’s copy-editors?

  24. Publishing House: Thanks for your submission, Mr. Cummings. We’ll be happy to do all the capitalization and punctuation for you.

    cummings: what!

  25. (That wasn’t a challenge to what J.W. said. I mostly agree. Just an amused reflection.)

  26. the easier solution would be to stop requiring books of poetry to be niqqud-ized

    Not at all! They should require every poetic text to be marked for exact vocalization, just like the Bible.

  27. I’m guessing few poets do their own nikud (because again, hardly anyone knows how). The convention of printing poetry with nikud has always struck me as a bit of artsy-fartsy pretentiousness, especially these days when a lot of poetry is deliberately colloquial in style.

    To Y’s point about Hebrew orthography generally being opaque, that’s true, but when two components of a system are easily separable and one can be reformed independently of the other, it makes sense to do so. And a one-to-one system would obviously be easier for both child and adult learners. I guess mostly as a linguist it bothers me to see a baroque and inefficient transcription being used where a simple and elegant one could be used instead. But maybe I’d feel differently if I actually knew how to do nikud.

  28. Even good schools produce few graduates who can do niqqud right. Religious school graduates probably do a lot better, having read the siddur every day from a young age, but most poetry comes from the secular side of society.

    I imagine that these days, if you publish poetry in a respectable place, an editor will either go over and correct your niqqud or provide it for you. There was a period, in the early ’60s, when some kids’ books had niqqud errors (omitting the dagesh was common, as I recall); those books bothered me. That was the in-between period, when, I imagine, authors/translators with sub-par niqqud skills were first coming of age, and before editing protocols were established.

    In the last few years a new monster has come to life: computerized niqqud (no doubt using AI™), such as dicta. You see passages with full niqqud in unexpected places (like comments in news sites), nearly all correct, but interspersed with errors only a robot would make, not of wrong niqqud per se, but of not understanding the context.

  29. TR: agreed on the artsy-fartsy pretentiosness of poetry, but, tradition. One man’s patina is another’s dirt. I like seeing niqqud. It’s very much like color.

    Some poetry is printed without niqqud, but that would be strictly of the rabble.

  30. Can’t believe I’m the first to suggest it on this thread, but if you want niqqud reform without radical novelty, what about adopting Palestinian vocalisation? That had only five vowels plus schwa, and it’s actually older than the Tiberian system so it can hardly be accused of destroying continuity.

  31. Well, sure, but it’s completely unfamiliar to all but a handful of speakers.

  32. (with my particular variety of yiddishist skin in the game)

    pretense that the modern spoken language is the “same” language as (or at most a subtly different variety of) the language in which the scriptures were written
    seems to me the entire heart of the question.

    as someone who doesn’t speak ivrit, but fairly regularly has to deal with text in it, i’m all for any writing system for that actually reflects how the language is spoken (which loshn-koydesh has, but ivrit does not). to me, that’s neither the current nikud-less system nor a tiberian or palestinian nikud system created for an entirely different language. by the same token, it’s also not any system that erases mizrahi pronunciations of ayin &c. that’s what i want partly because a system like that would serve me well, and partly because it would be a step away from the fantasy that ivrit is any closer to biblical (or even non/pre-zionist 19thC literary hebrew) than esperanto is to ibero-romance.

    but most importantly, a writing system that reflected speech would serve the reality that ivrit is a language spoken by a wide range of people – many of them non-cradle-speakers already fluent in other languages that use other writing systems (tagalog, phasa thai, various arabics, russian, english, &c) who should be able to read and write ivrit without needing to study an entirely other language and its writing system. for that matter (kal v’khomer!) cradle-tongue speakers of ivrit shouldn’t have to learn biblical hebrew to be able to write and read their first language in a way that reflects how it’s spoken!

    (that’s also why i’m somewhat ambivalently a fan of the main soviet move in yiddish spelling. it’s incredibly restful to read an oktybrish text and not have to puzzle over hebrew/aramaic-derived words that i know but can’t recognize from an etymological spelling – just like the vast majority of yiddish speakers up to the 1960s, whose exposure to biblical/liturgical language was almost entirely aural.)

    that said, i’m far from anti-nikud: i’m unfashionably fond of older yiddish texts that use them, and i love the additional information about pronunciation that i get there! but with yiddish, as with other jewish languages, nikudes are usually a supplemental layer doubling characters used to show vowels, and dispelling ambiguities in the alefbeys’ relationship to speech (not mechanically imposing the tiberian hebrew system on a different language). that, it seems to me, is the function they should serve with ivrit, another diasporic jewish language with its own sonic system that its spelling should reflect.

  33. Sounds good to me.

  34. Many of the books I read when I was a kid were published by Omanut (‘art’), a non-profit publisher of Hebrew books which operated from 1917 until the nineteen-forties, for the first few years in Moscow, and later in Tel Aviv. It made a point of publishing everything with niqqud. A letter from the publisher to the socialist daily newspaper Davar (2/18/1926) adds a few details to an item published about it, and adds:

    Omanut books are published, as is well-known, with niqqud. Many people are accustomed to view niqqud as characteristic of ‘books for children’, and they are in error when it comes to Omanut books, whose overwhelming majority are of interest to old and young alike. Omanut considers niqqud an important principle, a primary duty, in our work toward reviving the language and instilling it; and it willingly and purposefully burdened itself with that duty, without shrinking back from the technical difficulties of the matter and its associated expenses.

    They instilled niqqud in me, to be sure, decades later.

    (Incidentally, on the same page of that newspaper there is a discussion of whether the Council of Workers of Palestine should protest a recent attack by the “League of the Protectors of the Language” on a theater presenting a Yiddish play (“The Thieves”), on the grounds that this was an attack of bourgeois youth on a proletarian culture center. I haven’t looked into that particular event, but there were many anti-Yiddish provocations then, ranging from loud protests to stink bombs.

    P.P.S.: A member of the League once heard H. N. Bialik speaking Yiddish in public, and told him to stop. Bialik told him to, quote, go to hell. The man sued Bialik, and lost.)

  35. I wonder what language Bialik used and then what wording. Gey in dr’erd ‘drop dead’, lit. ‘go into the earth’, perhaps?

  36. @John Cowan: I would guess, “Zolst ligen in drerd!” or maybe just, “Lig in drerd!” would be the most idiomatic ways of saying it in Eastern Yiddish (which was presumably what Bialik spoke).

  37. Hebrew. לֵךְ לַעֲזָאזֵל lekh la’azazel ‘go to [the] Azazel’, which is still current.

    Hebrew was already the lingua franca then, and surely a member of the League (I should call it the “Brigade”, more accurately) would address him in Hebrew.

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