Dealing with Hebrew Characters
Frequently Asked Questions

Stephen P. Morse , San Francisco

Sections:

100 Pronunciations
200 Limitations
300 Israeli Phone Book

100 PRONUNCIATIONS


101. Isn't Hebrew phonetic?  If so, why are there alternate choices given whenever transliterating from Hebrew to English?

Hebrew is certainly much more phonetic than English.  But even in Hebrew there are cases where a letter can have more than one pronunciation.  Specifically the letter BET is sometimes pronounced B and sometimes V.  Similarly KAF is sometimes K and sometimes KH, and PEH is sometimes P and sometimes F.  In elementary texts, the ambiguity is resolved by placing a dot in the middle of the letter to differentiate between the hard-consonant sound and the soft-consonant sound.  But in normal published Hebrew these dots are omitted.

Another ambiguity has to do with the letter VAV.  Sometimes it is pronounced as as consonant (V), and sometimes as a vowel (either OH or OO).  Again the ambiguity is resolved in elementary texts with the use of dots -- a dot on top of the VAV makes it an OH, in the middle makes it an OO, and no dot makes it a V.  But the dots are not present in normal published Hebrew.

And finally there's the issue of vowels.  A few vowels are explicitly represented by letters in the alphabet.  Specifically VAV for OH and OO as described above and YUD for I.  But the other vowels do not have letter counterparts.  Instead they are denoted by dots under the consonants in elementary texts, and not at all in normal published Hebrew.
 

102. Since most vowels are omitted in Hebrew text, how do you know what vowel to use when you transliterate from Hebrew to English.

I don't know.  So my transliteration program simply leaves such vowels out.  For example, the name "David" is written in Hebrew as DALET VAV DALET and my program will transliterate it as DVD.  When reading the English transliteration you should consider it as a sort of shorthand and slur the word when sounding it out so as to recreate the vowel sounds.  This is the same thing that you would have to do if you tried to read the Hebrew text directly.
 

103. What's the purpose of the Sephardic/Ashkenazi/Yiddish radio buttons?

Although all three use the Hebrew alphabet, there are slight differences in the way they pronounce certain letters.  Therefore the transliterations are different depending on which radio button is pressed.

Sephardic and Ashkenazi are two different dialects of Hebrew, with Sephardic being the dialect spoken in Israel today.  The differences are minor and for the most part deal with the pronunciation of certain vowels.  But these are the vowels that are omitted in published Hebrew and therefore don't affect the transliteration.  The only difference that affects transliterations is the pronunciation of the letter TAV.  In Sephardic it is always pronounced as as a T.  But in Ashkenazi it is sometimes a T and sometimes an S.  The choice is made explicit with a dot in elementary texts.

Yiddish is not another dialect of Hebrew but rather is a completely different language which happens to use the Hebrew alphabet.  Although the Yiddish pronunciation is closer to Ashkenazi than it is to Sephardic, there are some differences.  Specifically BET is always hard, KAF is always soft (KHAF) except in words borrowed from Hebrew, a single VAV is always a vowel, the sound of V is generated by two consecutive VAVs, and all the vowel sounds are explicitly designated with letters in the alphabet (such as ALEF and AYIN).  So most of the ambiguities are removed, and the only one remaining is the letter PEH which can still be either a P or an F.


200 Limitations


201. Why am I unable to see Hebrew characters?  All I get is a sequence of strange-looking vowels.

The earlier browsers do not have the proper language support for Hebrew.  These include Netscape browsers with version numbers less than 5, and Microsoft browsers with version numbers less than 5.5.  Although you can use my Hebrew-Alphabet websites with those browser, the experience will be very unsatisfying.  It is strongly recommended that you go to a more-recent browser when using my Hebrew-Alphabet sites.
 

202. I have a recent browser but I am still not able to display the Hebrew characters.  What should I do?

I originally thought that the newer browsers would display the Hebrew fonts properly with no special installation required on your part.  And that indeed is the case for the newer Netscape browsers, Netsccape 6 and Netscape 7.

But unfortunately not so for IE.  In that case you need to have the CD for your operating system.  The first time you visit a site that needs Hebrew characters, you will get a pop-up directing you to install the Hebrew language pack.  When you press the INSTALL button in that dialog, you are asked to install the operating-system CD into the CD drive.  The specific file that will be needed is ftlx041e which is in the i386 folder.

But having the Hebrew font is only half the battle.  You must also tell your browser to use that font.

For the Netscape 6 and 7 browsers, they will use the Hebrew fonts as soon as the browser is installed, but that's actually a bug in the browser.  If you look at Character Encoding under the View menu, you will see that Western ISO 8859-1 is initially checked off.  With that encoding you should not be able to display Hebrew characters, but indeed you can.  If you change the check mark to Hebrew Visual 8859-1, nothing appears to change.  That's because it was the initial setting even though the check mark indicated otherwise.  If you should then restore the checkmark to 8859-1, you will lose the Hebrew characters.

For the IE browser, look at "Encoding" under the view menu and select "more".  Under "more", select Hebrew ISO Visual.
 

203.  Do you generate an accurate transliteration?

No.  It's not possible to do so because of the ambiguities when transliterating in either direction (see question 101).  But I try to do the best that is possible.

On the Hebrew->English and English->Hebrew transliteration pages, I actually display all possible choices when there are ambiguities.  The choices are ordered by most-likely according to some ad-hoc Hebrew grammar rules that I've programmed in.  For example, BET is always a B sound when appearing at the beginning of a word and usually (but not always) a V sound elsewhere.  It's then up to the user to decide which of the various possible transliterations to use.

When transliterating the matches found in the Israeli phone directory, I don't have the space to include every possible transliteration.  So instead I only present you with the most likely.  It's frequently inaccurate, but usually recognizable.  For example, according to the rules a leading PEH is pronounced P, so names like Freedman might come out as Pridmn.  Once you get used to such idiosyncrasies, you should have no trouble finding the name you are looking for.
 

204. I am running the Safari browser on a mac.  Why am I unable to see some of your transliteration results?

There is a serious problem with using Hebrew (or Russian) fonts on a mac.  The IE mac browser does not offer support for these fonts (at least it didn't as of the time of this writing).  The Safari browser supports these fonts but it has a serious problem involving window-open commands.  This problem is more far-reaching than just my webpages -- I'm sure that many other sites are affected as well.

For an in-depth discussion of the cause of the problem, see question 403 on the frequently-asked-questions page associated with my Jewish Calendar page.  Also see the work-around suggested there under "second thoughts" -- namely to use one of the gecko-based browsers (Netscape, Mozilla, Firefox).

[Second thought.  A user has informed me that the Russian to English page will load correctly in Safari if the page is refreshed.  I assume that the same is true for the Hebrew page.  I don't have a mac so I can't test any of this out.]

[More second thoughts.  A user has informed me that the latest released version of Safari (2.0.4) does not have the problem described above.  Again, I don't have a Mac so I can't test this it.]


300 Israeli Phone Book


301. What are the advantages of using your form rather than going to the bezeq website directly?

The obvious advantage is that my form is written in English whereas the bezeq form is in Hebrew.  So you'll be able to read and understand the names of the fields on my form even if you can't read Hebrew.  Furthermore, you don't need to know Hebrew in order to fill in the fields.  Instead you can enter the names in English letters (actually Latin letters) and then select one of the possible English->Hebrew transliterations that I generate for you.  And when you perform the lookup and get to the set of matches found, I display a Hebrew->English transliteration of each match as well as a translation of certain standard texts that appear on the matches page.  I also show you the original Hebrew text that appeared in the phone directory, so you can compensate for errors in my transliteration.

Beyond that, there are a few things that you can do from my form that you cannot do from the bezeq form.  For example, you can select the city from a list rather than having to type in the name of the city.
 

302. Can I enter the names directly in Hebrew or must I go through your transliteration box at the top?

Sure you can enter it directly in Hebrew if you have access to a Hebrew keyboard.  If not, you need to copy-and-paste the desired Hebrew characters from some other source.  One such source of course is my transliteration box at the top.  Or you could use the virtual keyboard found on my Hebrew-to-English transliteration page as the source of your Hebrew characters.
 

303. Once I find the name and address in the phonebook, how can I find the postal code?

There is a website that lets you enter a city and street and will tell you what postal code it is in.  The website is at

http://www.postil.com/newmail.nsf/homepage?Openform

But guess what -- that page is all in Hebrew!  And it requires that you have a Hebrew keyboard for entering your city and street.

Rather than writing an English front end for it, I'll give you a tip on how you can use it even if you can't speak Hebrew and don't have a Hebrew keyboard.  Instead of using their homepage, go to the following internal page of their website:

http://www.postil.com/zipcode.nsf/getzip?OpenForm&locid=0&streetid=0&m=0

This too is all in Hebrew, but it is easy to use.  It contains a single dropdown list which contains all the cities in Israel.  Select the city that you want and click on the button to the left of the dropdown list.  Of course the list of cities are written in Hebrew, so if you can't read Hebrew you'll have to use one of my transliterators (Hebrew to English or English to Hebrew) to figure out which city to select.  After that, things differ depending on whether the city has one or many postal codes.  But it's not that difficult to navigate through it, even if you don't speak or read Hebrew.
 
[Second thoughts: The above websites appear to no longer exist.  But here's is another one that seems easy to use and lets you obtain the postal code for any address: http://www.addressdoctor.com/lookup/default.aspx?lang=en&country=ISR]

-- Steve Morse