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FIELD GUIDE TO YIDDISH/HEBREW LETTERS

Here are samples of cursive Yiddish/Hebrew letters in action. These versions are based on scan of 1870 cursive death records describing the Jews of Kremenets, Ukraine.



ALEPH: the Hebrew equivalent of A. In Yiddish, it usually represents an A sound, but sometimes some other vowel sound. The Kremenets clerk sometimes seemed to write this letter as if it were a scraggly English X, and sometimes as two vertical, parallel lines. When the clerk writes it as two parallel vertical lines, it's easy to confuse aleph with a double Vav, or even with a double Yud.


BET: the Hebrew equivalent of a B.


VET: a Hebrew equivalent of a V.


GIMEL: the Hebrew equivalent of a G. Personally, I have a very hard time telling a cursive gimel from a cursive zayin.


DALET: the Hebrew equivalent of a D. In messy cursive, it can look like a bet, a vet or a zayin.


HAY: the Hebrew equivalent of an H. Even in messy cursive, it's usually pretty clear. You will often see it at the beginning of words, because it's the Hebrew word for "the," and it seems as if a lot of the "Yiddish" records (in Kremenets, at least) are actually Hebrew records. The Kremenets clerk sometimes looped the bottom of a nun around so that it would join the top of a hay.


VAV: a Hebrew equivalent of V. It seems to me that it gets used as a V sound a lot more than vet does.


In addition to being a V-type letter, Vav can stand in for three other English sounds. If you put a dot on top, it's an O. If you put a dot near it's waist, to the left of the letter, it represents an Oo sound. If you put two Vavs in a row, you get the Yiddish version of our letter W. Unfortunately, it's fairly easy to mix up a cursive double Vav with an aleph or a double Yud if you don't know much Yiddish.


ZAYIN: the Hebrew equivalent of the English letter Z. Personally, I have a hard time distinguishing a cursive zayin from acursive daleth or gimel.


KHET: a letter representing the "kh" sound. It's usually pretty easy to spot, even in messy cursive.


TET: a Hebrew equivalent of the English letter T. It's usually pretty easy to spot, even in messy cursive.


YUD: a Hebrew equivalent of the English letter Y. It's usually pretty easy to spot, even in messy cursive, but a clerk might sometimes write very long Yuds. In that case, the Yuds might look like Vavs. You can also write a double Yud and get a vowel that rhymes with the I in "nine" or the "ay" in "Wayne."
KHOF: a letter representing the "kh" sound. At the beginning and middle of a word, it looks like a backward c and is easy to reocognize. At the end of a word, it looks sort of like a kuf.


KOF: an equivalent of the English letter K. It looks just like a khof, except that a clerk sometimes distinguishes it from a kof by marking it with a dot.


LAMED: the Hebrew equivalent of the English letter L. It's usually easy to spot. It's an ego letter, because clerks have a tendency to enjoy drawing the long, ribbon-like ascender.


MEM: the Hebrew equivalent of the English letter M. It has a version which comes at the beginning or middle of a word. This version is supposed to look sort of like a small version of an English capital N, but in the records I've seen, it usually looks like a blurry dot. This letter also has a final version that looks a bit like a lower case English p.


NUN: the Hebrew version of the English letter N. It has a version which comes at the beginning or middle of words, which looks like a backwards L. There is also a version that comes at the end of words that looks like a long straight line. The Kremenets clerk often took the loop at the bottom of the version that comes at the beginning and middle of words and looped it around till it joined with the next letter. I.e., the bottom of the nun might loop around join with a resh, making the resh look like a circle, rather than a nice separate resh.


SAMEKH: a Hebrew equivalent of the English letter S. It's a circle, so it's pretty easy to recognize.


AYIN: a Yiddish vowel that seems mostly to be used for the O and Eh sounds in Yiddish. Like samekh, it's pretty easy to recognize, even in messy cursive.


PAY: the Hebrew equivalent of P. It's easy to spot because it looks like a spiral, but a very messy clerk might make it look like a samekh, or somehow mangle a resh to make it look like a pay.


FAY: the Hebrew equivalent of F. The version that comes at the beginning and in the middle of words has a line over it. The version that comes at the end of words has a lot of curlicues.


TZADI: This represents the sound "tz," as in "tzedakah" (the Hebrew word for charity.) The version that goes at the beginning and in the middle of words looks sort of like a 3 and is usually easy to recognize. The version that goes at the end of words is very ornate. Personally, I have a hard time remembering which letter is a cursive final Fay and which a cursive final Tzadi. When in doubt, you can check to see how the clerk writes his F's by looking to see how the clerk writes the given name "Yosf."


KUF: an equivalent of the English letters K and Q. A kuf at the end of a word, kuf can look a little like a final nun, but the Kremenets clerk usually put a very clear "hook" at the top of the letter.


RESH: the equivalent of the English letter R, and it looks like a backwards English R. It's usually easy to recognize, but the Kremenets clerk sometimes made it look strange by connecting it with a nun or some other letter that preceded it.


SHIN: the SH sound. It looks like a backward nine with a dot. The Kremenets clerk always drew big shins that were easy to recognize.


SIN: an equivalent of the English letter S and looks like a shin, without the dot.

TAU: an equivalent of the English letter T. It looks like a sau with a dot in the middle.

SAU: an equivalent of the English letter S, or the sound Th. It looks like a khet with a tail. The Kremenets clerk's taus were usually easy to recognize.


Vowel marks at work




Yiddish and Hebrew use some letters as vowels, but, in some cases, it also uses small marks rather than full letters to indicate vowel sounds. Here are three examples, combined with the letter hay. The first example shows a horizontal bar underneath the hay. You pronounce this combination "hay." The second example, with one dot underneath the hay, is pronounced "hee," and the third example, with a dot up above the hay, is pronounced "ho."