Research Query: Pronunciation of tsere

Jacob Adler's picture

In the late 1960s, many American synagogues switched from the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew to the Israeli.  There was, however, one exception:  in all cases that I know of, the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the tsere was retained. In such congregations, it is pronounced like a long "a" in American English. In Israel, it's pronounced identically with the segol.  Two questions:


1. Does anyone know why this happened?


2.  For those of you who teach Hebrew, how do you teach students to pronounce the tsere?  Do you teach the American pronunciation, which is the pronunciation of the communities that most American Jews will interact with?  Or the Israeli pronunciation, which is the pronunciation of native speakers?


Jacob Adler
University of Arkansas

As one who remembers when my Hebrew school switched from Ashkenazi to Sefardi pronunciation, I can offer an anecdotal response and a hypothesis.

Anecdote: I attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue on Boston's North Shore, and the decision to switch pronunciation was made in the summer of 1961, after I had completed Kitah Aleph. When I returned in the fall for Kitah Bet we were taught that "Israeli pronunciation" meant making three changes: pronouncing a "saf" (ת) as a "taf"; placing the accent on the last syllable, e.g., Sha-vu-OT rather than She-VU-os; and pronouncing the kamatz the same way as the patach. Regarding the last, we were never actually taught the grammar of kamatz katan, but merely learned by rote when we encountered it. ("This is an exception.")

Hypothesis: I suspect that we were not taught to change the pronunciation of the tsere for the same reason that we were not taught to change our pronunciation of the resh. That is, there was no expectation that American teachers and American students would acquire Israeli accents, and pronouncing a tsere like a segol was a matter of accent.

Joan S. Friedman
Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies
College of Wooster

I recall the day in the fall of 1963 when the suburban Conservative synagogue school where I spent several hours each week switched from "Ashkenazi" pronunciation to "Sephardi" pronunciation... more or less. The changes involved only some consonants. It did not encompass the true Sephardi pronunciation of 'ayin, of course; that was not in the phoneme collection of anyone around. And it didn't begin to touch the vowels. What was being taught, of course, was (mostly Ashkenazi) Israeli Hebrew. In that dialect, there are no long or short vowels, but only vowels of medial length, and that too wasn't part of the phoneme distinction package in our American English.

Peretz Rodman

My Liberal synagogue in London switched from Ashkenazi to Sephardi pronunciation around 1963. The teachers became confused and as a result I and my contemporaries never learned to read Hebrew properly as children, thrown by the inconsistency of approach. Despite my searches, I have not been able to find any documentation of the switch in the UK. My only knowledge of it is from my own dim memories. I would be really interested to know if any research has been done on this in the USA, particularly on what effect it had on children and how teachers and children coped with the switch. For example, were there bar/bat mitzvah tutors who felt they couldn't cope with the change, and stopped teaching?

There was actually a second major exception in the US: Schools continued to pronounce the cholam as in a diphthong [ou], e.g. [sukout], rather than adopt the Israeli ‘pure vowel’ [o]. Schools in the UK managed to shift towards the Israeli [o] , and as a Brit in the US, I am always struck by this American-Jewish [ou].

The only explanation I can offer is that there is no standard US equivalent of the Israeli [o].

Regarding American tzere, there’s no phonetic obstacle to adopting the open Israeli [e] as in ‘bet’, and you’d think there’d be no phonemic problem either, because you’re merging two phonemes to one – [bein] ‘son’ and [ben] ‘son of’ merge to become [ben]. So if the kamatz and patach phonemes (as in the Hebrew for ‘remembered’ vs ‘male’) merged without a problem, why didn’t tzere and segol? Inertia? But then why was there not the same inertia with kamatz~patach?

Or did American ashkenazit really have a neat kamatz~patach distinction in the first place? Listening to Ashkenazish leining, I wonder sometimes.

Lewis Glinert
Dartmouth College

Perhaps the reason that the 'tsere' was retained is simply that it makes sense to keep it.

If we are to assume that differences between how different letters and vowels are pronounced best estimates an original pronunciation, then two letters or vowels pronounced in the same way would indicate a corruption. The move from a 'saf' to a 'taf' seems harmless, considering that in the former case it was pronounced in the same manner as two other letters, and in the latter the same as one other. Similarly, 'kometz' pronounced as a 'patach' is just a move between traditions, seeing as there is a strong Sefardi tradition as to when to pronounce the 'kometz' in the manner that Ashkenazi pronunciation always does. But pronouncing the 'tsere' as a 'segol' is just the loss of a distinction, and seems unwarranted.