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The joy of reading without vowels

July 30, 2010

Hebrew is really, really old. Back when it was invented, I’m sure the fewer letters needed to decipher a word the better, as I imagine stone wasn’t the friendliest medium for superfluously long words. Yet to this day, people still don’t write out vowels once they hit second grade or so.

Until then, children learn to read with נקודות (nekudot, dots), a system of dots that represent the vowels that are usually missing from Hebrew words. For example, here is a children’s book called הדובון לאלא (Ha’Dubon Lolo, No No the Bear), which I’m particularly fond of. You can clearly see the giant dots above and below the title:

הדובון לאלא / Ha'Dubon Lolo

And a sample of text from the book:

text from הדובון לאלא / Ha'Dubon Lolo

If you know the Hebrew alphabet and nekudot, you can read this perfectly even if you don’t know what it actually says. For kids who already speak Hebrew fluently before they begin learning to read, it’s a lot easier to recognize words without their vowels, while non-native speakers learning to read and speak simultaneously have a harder time being literate.

Nekudot are similar to 振り仮名 (furigana) in Japanese, which is a system that spells out the phonetic pronunciation of complex characters. It’s more common in kids’ stuff, but sometimes used for difficult or ambiguous words in more advanced publications or subtitles too. It’s too bad such systems don’t exist in English, as it would have been handy to know how to pronounce words like “pseudo” and “chasm” while reading without ever having heard them spoken aloud before, and the IPA isn’t very helpful when you’re seven years old.

The problem with learning Hebrew later in life is being able to connect the written word to the words you know. A native English speaker can figure out what words like “attn,” “txt,” “congrtultns” mean even though we don’t have a lifetime of practice reading without vowels (unless you have and for some reason remain friends with people who text like that). For non-native speakers who lack fluency and linguistic intuition, it’s rough going. Even though I may know a word in Hebrew, I can’t always immediately or easily recognize it when it’s written down. To make matters worse, plenty of written words can be pronounced multiple ways with multiple meanings depending on the vowels you choose to add.

It’s a lot like trying to read Japanese names. Unless you’re a native speaker or already know how to pronounce the name, it’s really, really hard to get it right the first time you see it written down.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in Hebrew
Pages from the non-voweled Th Mzng Dvntrs f Kvlr nd Cly.
(Click picture for larger version.)

Some day I’ll find joy in finally being able to read the hundreds of Hebrew books without vowels that now fill every corner of my house. Here’s a picture of some of them just waiting to be enjoyed:

Hebrew books
(Click picture for larger version.)

And here is a small sample of the very old Polish books that we somehow inherited from my in-laws, which appear to have been enjoyed plenty of times already:

old Polish books
(Click picture for larger version.)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2010 9:11 am

    Shalom/こんにちは/Hello Katie,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and now I have the pleasure of visiting yours 🙂 You are so right about the similarity of nekudot and furigana, it never even occurred to me. It’s so nice to discover someone like you who is not only a fellow gaijin here in Israel but who also knows Japan! I look forward to reading your future posts. And it’s funny, I grew up in Michigan too! Please also feel free to be in touch via email.


  2. adisasullivan permalink
    August 3, 2010 12:27 pm

    Don’t know Japanese- but have been studying Biblical Hebrew with nekudot. Easier to read for a non-Hebrew speaker but incredibly hard to write. No wonder native speakers quickly ditch it.

    • August 3, 2010 1:33 pm

      People, even kids, hardly ever write with nekudot because they are definitely a pain. It’s easy to write what you want to say without them and put the burden of deciphering it on the reader 🙂

  3. Stephan permalink
    March 3, 2011 9:49 am

    Great post!

    We do have a system like this in English, but like Hebrew however we are brought up not to use that system when we read, write, etc. because of course we are exposed to these words all day everyday. if you are looking at a word in the dictionary though, we use this system. They use dots, to sound out the words properly. we here, we use accents on letters for example: á , ê , ü , ç , ā

    they are called Diacritics! 🙂

  4. micheal permalink
    July 28, 2011 1:51 am

    Hi. I enjoyed reading your post. I’m a native hebrew speaker and I can tell you right off, it’s A LOT easier and faster for us to read without nikud. It’s true that a lot of words have different meanings depending on pronunciation, but to us it’s automatic depending on contex. Also when you write (with pen/pencil, not computer) we use different letters then those you see printed. It’s the same alphabet, only it looks different and it’s a lot easier and faster to write with a pen/pencil than normal letters. It looks like this:

    • July 29, 2011 5:55 pm

      Thanks for your input! In the year that’s passed since I wrote this post, I still generally find it easier to read with nikud, but some very familiar words do seem more complicated with dots than without. I imagine for native speakers this feeling must be infinitely magnified.

  5. daniel permalink
    December 12, 2013 1:42 pm

    “attn,” “txt,” “congrtultns” I am not a Native English speaker, but have learned since I was a kid or should i say hv lrnd snc i ws kd. I dont get “attn” attain?

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