According to "A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew" by Jacob Weingreen, page 19, the four gutturals are ALEF (א), HEI (ה), CHET (ח), and AYIN (ע). And gutturals make a difference as to vowels on the article HA- preceding nouns, and impacts what makes verbs irregular.

But CHAF (כ) (KAF with the dagesh lene omitted) is pronounced very similar to CHET.

Any ideas why it isn't considered a guttural? Is it because it has the two forms, KAF (כּ) and CHAF (כ)?

3 Answers 3


I concur essentially with user6726's excellent answer, but in case it's a bit too technical, here's an attempt at a simpler answer:

You're right that in most modern pronunciations, כ (KHAF, kaf rafe) is pronounced the same as ח (CHET), but this was not always the case in earlier versions of Hebrew.

In Masoretic Hebrew, which is the language stage (from around 900 CE) that we commonly find in printed versions of the Bible, כ was pronounced as a uvular fricative (IPA [χ]), whereas ח was pronounced as a pharyngeal fricative (IPA [ħ]), somewhat further back in the mouth.

  • I think the second paragraph is a bit misleading: in standard Modern Hebrew, כ is pronounced identical to ח, rather than very similar, while in pronunciations that distinguish the two the distinction is essentially the same as it was in Masoretic Hebrew.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 3:41
  • 1
    @TKR in some school pronunciations of Biblical Hebrew כ is moved to the front, [x], to distinguish it from ח [χ], for students who have trouble with [ħ] but do want to distinguish the two. I don't know how widespread this is, but I just wanted to note that the "modern pronunciations" in the second paragraph can refer to both MH and contemporary pronunciations of BH.
    – Keelan
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 10:54
  • @TKR: You're right. I was just repeating the wording of the original post, but I actually thought right after I posted it that that particular choice of words might be a bit misleading, so your point is very valid. I've edited my answer a bit to accommodate your objection.
    – pinnerup
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 21:53

Alef, He, Ḥet, Ayin are the names of the phonemes originally pronounced [ʔ h ħ ʕ], which are phonetically laryngeals and pharyngeals, sometimes known by the cover term "guttural". Kaf [k] is a velar, and millenia ago allophonically lenited to [x] post-vocalically hence the dagesh qal. However, things changed in pronunciation, now there are no pharyngeals – the consonant system was substantially reanalyzed. Furthest in the past there was no [x] or [χ], then [x] became an allophone of /k/, but then /q/ (which did not lenite) and /k/ merged; plus the pronunciation of [x] became further back and is often [χ]. But this is how Ḥet (Cheth, etc) is generally pronounced in Ashkenazi Hebrew (though not Yemenite Hebrew).

The classification as "guttural" is based on archaic phonology – Hebrew as it was spoken long ago, not the way it is pronounced now.

  • 2
    Very good answer, even if the technical terminology may be a bit dense for some. One minor point, though. "Furthest in the past" there was in fact a /χ/ (or /x/) distinct from /ħ/, but since Hebrew was written in a script borrowed from Phoenician, in which these two phonemes had merged, this distinction was not represented graphically – both phonemes were written ⟨ח⟩. Proto-Semitic distinguished /ħ/ from /χ/~/x/ and so did Hebrew up until around 200 BCE. We see this by how names with ⟨ח⟩ are transcribed differently in the Septuagint depending on whether they originally had /ħ/ or /χ/~/x/.
    – pinnerup
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 19:19
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    Rather like the English educational terms "long vowels" and "short vowels" are based on archaic ME phonology.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 19:50

I strongly disagree with user6726, Ḥet and Chaf are two clearly distinct sounds. This is not limited to Yemenite pronounciations. North-African Jews as an example kept this difference. The Ashkenazi Jews forgot this sound and hence the hebrew language as spoken in Israel followed the trend. The use of the terms "archaic phonology" or "long ago" are clearly misleading since they are more a cultural bias than well established fact.

The chaf sound is exactly what you have in the spanish "J" (la Jota). It doesn't originate from the throat. Het does, and you may hear it in arab languages.

  • 1
    The term ‘guttural’ used in A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew (what the question is specifically asking about) describes a phonological category in Classical Hebrew, which is indeed archaic and was spoken long ago, compared to modern-day Hebrew. There is nothing “misleading” or “cultural bias” about that; it is simple fact. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 18:09
  • Don't North African Jews also generally pronounce ayin as /ŋ/, which would make it no longer guttural?
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 18:18
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    You're not understanding what I'm saying. Pronunciations differ over time. Contemporary pronunciations of Biblical Hebrew are not uniform.
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 18:48

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