Musa for Modern Hebrew

This page was written by Yehonathan Shatz.

Modern Hebrew is spoken by about nine million people, counting both native speakers and learners. It is the official language of Israel, and is spoken by the majority of Israelis. As the first successful example of a revived language, Modern Hebrew is quite unusual. Because the majority of Hebrew revivalists originally spoke European languages, Modern Hebrew phonology is quite different from Biblical Hebrew phonology. However, Hebrew orthography is very conservative, and hasn't been updated to reflect these sound changes.

This page will cover how to write Modern Hebrew as it is actually spoken by most native speakers, rather than a prescriptive approach for "correct" pronunciation. We'll also cover the Musa letters needed to write more conservative dialects, as we believe that people should write how they speak, no matter their dialect.

Why Hebrew script isn't a good fit for Modern Hebrew

The biggest problem with the Hebrew alphabet is that there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. There are often multiple ways to spell the same sound, like כ and ק for k, ת and ט for t, ב and ו for v, ח and כ for χ, א and ע for ʔ, and ש and ס for s. Conversely, many letters can be pronounced in more than one way: ב can be b or v, כ can be k or χ, פ can be p or f, ש can be ʃ or s. And some foreign sounds, like ʤ ʒ ʧ, are missing their own letters.

Beyond the issues with representing consonants, the Hebrew alphabet does a bad job writing vowels. Occasionally, a system of vowel diacritics is used to fully specify vowels. But the system doesn't correspond well to modern pronunciation: Modern Hebrew has only five vowels, but ten vowel signs! Some sign can occasionally be silent, and the same vowel can be written in more than one way. Because the system is clumsy, it is rarely used beyond specialized contexts. Instead, in everyday writing, people generally write in ktiv male: basically, the letters י, ו, and sometimes א, ע, and ה are used to hint at vowels. But this system doesn't fully specify pronunciation. Overall, the Hebrew alphabet just doesn't do a good enough job in writing vowels.

That's where Musa comes in!

Musa is a new writing system, which is meant to be used for all the languages of the world. It includes all the letters that are needed to write Hebrew, along with letters to write any other language. Each letter is built up from combinations of a few basic shapes. The shape of the letter tells you how it's pronounced, making it easy to learn. It also makes it easy to guess how foreign letters are pronounced. Every letter has only one pronunciation, and all vowels are always spelled out: Musa spelling lets you easily and unambiguously determine how each word is pronounced. It even has a way to write stress! That lets you write the difference between בירה birá (capital) and בירה bíra (beer), for example, along with many similar pairs. Does that sound good? If so, read on to see how Musa is used to write the sounds of Hebrew!

A small note: Musa spelling is based on how words are actually pronounced. As mentioned before, n is pronounced ng before k and g, so that's how we spell it in Musa. For example, בנק (bank) is pronounced bangk, so it's spelled  in Musa. Additionally, the first consonant in a consonant cluster usually changes to match the voicing of the second consonant. For example, סבתא (savta) is actually pronounced ספתא (safta), לסגור (lisgor) is actually pronounced לזגור (lizgor), and so forth. The Musa spelling reflects this change, so סבתא would be spelled , לסגור would be spelled , and so forth. In words like חשבון (kheshbon), which is actually pronounced חז׳בון (khezhbon) because of voicing assimilation, this leads us to use some letters that are otherwise not found in native Hebrew words. In our example, חשבון (kheshbon) would be spelled as .

Letter Shapes

The shapes of the Musa letters indicate their pronunciation :

You'll notice many more regularities as you learn Musa. Of course, you don't have to figure all this out as you read Musa! You'll just learn the letters, as you did with the Hebrew alphabet when you learned to read Hebrew.

But the fact that the letter shapes form a system is a big advantage, both for learning Hebrew and in case you spot an unfamiliar letter in a foreign language. Since Musa is a universal script, it has letters for all the sounds we don't have in Hebrew, too! But you don't need to learn all those letters - just the ones for the languages you want to read and write.

Musa for Hebrew

If you're still reading this, you're probably interested in seeing how Musa could be used to write Hebrew. That's what this section is for! We'll cover the Musa letters used to write the sounds of Hebrew and provide some examples of Hebrew written in Musa. A note: unlike Hebrew, Musa is written from left to right. Musa normally writes Hebrew in the Abugida gait.

To start, I will show you how to write vowels in Musa. (In Musa, all vowels are always written. But since each vowel has its own letter, writing them out is easy and fast!)

The Hebrew vowels follow the common five vowel scheme, a e i o u. In Musa, these are written     . The shape of the letters represent how they are pronounced: i is pronounced with the mouth almost closed, and the lips aren't rounded, so it's spelled with a closed, sharp shape. u is made with the lips almost closed, and rounded, so it's written with a smooth, closed shape. e is a more open version of i, so we open up the triangle to write it. Similarly, o is a more open version of u, so we write it with an open circle. Finally, a is the most open shape. To maximize the contrast of shapes, we write it with an open square, opening downwards, unlike the two other open shapes.

i e a o u

Remember, in Musa, we spell things as we say them. Every vowel is written out, and there are no silent letters. Musa shows stress by writing stressed vowels high, so you can write the difference between אכל okhél (he eats) and אכל ókhel (food), and similar words.

Hebrew has two glottal consonants (consonants which are pronounced at the back of the throat). The first is the glottal stop ʔ. Musa writes this consonant with the letter . The other Hebrew glottal consonant is the voiceless glottal fricative, h. Musa writes this consonant with the letter .
 שער sha'ar (gate)
 הר har (mountain)
Because these are "weak" consonants, we write them with simple pointy tops. The softer h sound is written with a rounded bottom, while the sharper ʔ is written with a sharp bottom.

Musa also has letters for semivowels, which are basically vowels used as consonants. In Modern Hebrew these are j (y) and w, with the latter restricted to loanwords. The Musa letters for these sounds are  .
 יד yad (hand)
 וואו wau (wow)

(Interestingly, the Hebrew letters י and ו originally both represented semivowels, and that's why they are used even today to mark vowel sounds in the traditional script, along with their use to mark consonants. Since Musa has separate letters for all these sounds, however, it simplifies spelling and removes any ambiguity about pronunciation.)

Next, I'll show how you how to write the "true" Hebrew consonants in Musa. I'll start by showing you how to write the voiced plosives.

Voiced plosives: these have the most basic form in Musa. The Hebrew voiced stops are b d g, which are written as    in Musa. They all share the same top, a simple flat line, while the bottom shows you where they are pronounced. is written with the bottom pointing towards the left of the letter (the front), to represent the lips. is written with the stem pointing straight down, like the teeth (and coincidentally, it looks like Hebrew ד). is written with the bottom pointing to the left, that is, the "back" of the letter, because g is pronounced in the back of your mouth.
 בובה buba (doll)
 דוד dod (uncle)
 גג gag (roof)
 בד bad (cloth)
 דובי dubi (teddy)
 דג dag (fish)

Next, I'll show you how to write the Hebrew voiceless plosives. In Hebrew, the voiceless stops are p t k. The Musa letters are   . It's easy to remember how these are written in Musa: you just replace the top of the corresponding voiced letter with a "sharper" top.
 פה pe (mouth)
 תות tut (strawberry)
 עט et (pen)
 אוטו oto (car)
 כיפה kipa (kippah)
 פתק petek (note)
 פקק pkak (bottlecap)
 כיתה kita (classroom)

Now I'll show you how to write nasal sounds. These are made by replacing the top of the corresponding voiced stop with a triangle, which looks like a nose. The Hebrew nasals are m n, but ŋ is sometimes produced from assimilation, as in bank. The Musa letters for these sounds are   .
 אמא ima (mom)
 מים mayim (water)
 נענע nana (mint)
 בנק bangk (bank)

Hebrew has 3 main affricate sounds: ts ch dj [ʦ ʧ ʤ]. They are usually written as ג׳ צ׳ צ respectively. Only one of them is a plain letter; the other two must be written with a diacritic. In contrast, Musa has full letters for all of these sounds:   . By the way, Musa writes the ch sound with the same letter in all places: a word like תשובה is written as , using the Musa affricate letter , just like the foreign word צ׳ילי is written .
 עץ ets (tree)
 צ׳ילי chili (chili)
 ג'ינג׳י gingi (redhead)
(The sound dz [ʣ] occurs in some foreign words. When it does, it's written .)

Fricatives: these are sounds made by channeling air through a narrow passage. The Hebrew fricatives are f χ v s ʃ z ʒ (with the last only appearing in loanwords). These are written        in Musa.
 אף af (nose)
 אח akh (fireplace)
 אביב aviv (spring)
 סוס sus (horse)
 אש esh (fire)
 עז ez (goat)
 ז'אנר zhanra (genre)

Only two sounds are left! The first is l. It's spelled in Musa.
 לול lul (henhouse)
 לילה layla (night)

The second is ʁ, which is made by trilling with your uvula. It's spelled in Musa.
 עיר ir (city)
 אור or (light)
 ראש rosh (head)

Congratulations! You now know how to write all the sounds of Hebrew in Musa! Here's a chart of all the Hebrew consonants, in Musa:

mמ nנ ŋנ(ג) lל
bבּ dד ʣדז ʤג׳ gג
pפּ tת ʦצ ʧצ׳ kכּ ʔא
vו zז ʒז׳ ʁר
fפ sס ʃש χח hה

Other Dialects

The letters above cover the most common Israeli accent, but Musa has the letters for all the dialects! Musa doesn't follow a "standard" dialect: we encourage everyone to write how they speak. Here are some more letters:

Sample Texts

‏שאלה של אדם חכם מכילה חצי מהתשובה‎
‏מה אמרה הנעל לשרוך? נהיה בקשר.‎

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