Phonetic Features of Oral Speech of Native Hebrew Speakers Using English as a Foreign Language (Based on the Interview of Y.N. Harari)

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Дата публикации:
07 декабря 2020, 14:32
Проблемы межличностной и межкультурной коммуникации
Patrikeeva Irina Sergeevna
Higher School of Economics
Doshlygina Anna Vladimirovna
Higher School of Economics
The article addresses the problems of phonetic variation in English as a lingua franca used in multicultural communication. Focus is given to the specific phonetic features traced in the oral speech in English of Hebrew native speakers. The phenomenon of phonetic interference is reflected in the pronunciation of speech sounds, stress placement, and intonation contours in oral speech discourse. The study was based on the analysis of an extract from an interview of the Israeli macro-historian Prof. Yuval Noah Harari given to the journalist Romi Noimark for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in October 2020. The choice of the material has been stipulated by the increasing popularity of Prof. Harari’s literary works and public speeches around the globe, therefore, it is of great research interest to examine the markers of Hebrew in English speech with regard to the international character of communication. Moreover, the speech of the interviewer, Romy Neumark has also been marked by the Hebrew influence. The main methods used were auditory and comparative analysis, which allowed to draw a conclusion about the influence of Hebrew phonetics on the speech of both speakers. Special attention is given to the problem of using English as a means of international communication in the era of globalization, as well as the phenomenon of linguistic interference and the issue of preserving individual features of pronunciation of the speaker's native language. The article considers options for using the results of the study for the development of cross-cultural competence in teaching English as a foreign language.
Ключевые слова:
phoneme, phonetic interference, phonetics, cross-cultural communication, linguistic and extralinguistic factors
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The problem of second language acquisition has always been one of the key questions in the study of the English language. The question has become especially relevant in the era of globalisation when English is regarded as a lingua franca used for intercultural communication around the globe. The increasing need for studying English as a second language inevitably leads to the cases of native language interference with English. The most notable changes may be observed in the phonetic structure of speech which appears most vulnerable [1], while grammatical and lexical changes also take place but to a lesser extent [2]. Moreover, according to J.C. Wells, interference occurs due to the fact that it is natural to perceive a foreign language through the phonetic system of a native language which leads to the specific manner of speech production that is also done on the basis of the mother tongue’s articulation [3]. As a result, the current situation with the use of English as the language of global communication may as well be reflected through the prism of the other world languages native to the speakers participating in international discourse. One of such languages is Hebrew being native to over nine million speakers around the world and considered to be the official language of Israel. Increasingly, the speakers of Hebrew are becoming the dominant figures on the global arena in the spheres of science, art, medicine and technology that is why it is of primary importance to study the ways in which Hebrew and English are intertwined in the oral speech of public figures.

The study of phonetic interference heavily depends on the analysis of the sociocultural background of the particular speaker which is significant in terms of cross cultural communication. Therefore, it is essential to regard this aspect as the key one while analysing the audio material of a speaker which is going to be conducted in his paper.

Methods and Materials

The main informant of the research presented here is the historian Prof. Yuval Noah Harari who is regarded as one of the notable representatives of modern Israeli scientists. The biographic data presented further in this paragraph contributes to the overall analysis of his speech both from linguistic and sociocultural perspectives. According to his official website, Harari was born on 24 February in 1976  in Kiryat Ata, Israel to a secular Jewish family. His parents were employed primarily in the spheres of state service and office administration which makes it possible to refer to his family as middle class. It is worth mentioning that as a socialist state at the period of Harari’s growing up, he had all the educational opportunities given to the citizens of Israel. Having used this opportunity, he first enters the Leo Beck Education Center located in Haifa joining a group of intellectually gifted children and then continues his studies in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to research history and international relations specializing in medieval and military history. He then completes his PhD at Jesus College in Oxford and continues his postdoctoral studies as a Yad Hanadiv Fellow which is an Israeli philanthropic fund. As for the present time, Harari lives in the suburbs of Tel Aviv and continues his work in the study of macro-history publishing popular scientific books and touring the globe delivering public speeches and giving interviews. Some of the most bestselling books include Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). 
The choice of the primary source for the phonetic analysis lay on the interview given by Yuval Noah Harari in October 2020 for the official website of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem titled “The Era of the Coronavirus: Living in a New Reality”. The video material of the interview lasts for 35 minutes and is held in English. The speech of the interviewer, however, is also of special interest for this research and therefore, it is necessary to introduce some of the background data about the interviewer as well.
To conduct the conversation with Prof. Harari, Israeli journalist Romy Neumark had been appointed. Romy Neumark was born in 1982 in Israel. She grew up in the Hefer Valley region of the Sharon plain in central Israel. She holds an undergraduate degree in Literature and a graduate degree in the History of the Middle East from Tel-Aviv University. Since 2000 Neumark has been a TV and radio reporter covering news on culture and anchoring weeknight broadcasts on IPBS (Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation). Speaking Hebrew as the mother tongue, she also uses English for intercultural communication in the professional sphere.

In order to analyse the phonemic peculiarities of the informants’ speech, the comparative table of both languages (Hebrew and English) has been designed. The tables presented in the Appendices section show the system of consonants and vowels where English phonemes are given below the line and Hebrew phonemes are placed above the line. 

It follows from the charts in the Appendices section that the phonemic systems of these two languages have both similarities and differences. As regards consonants, Hebrew has the alveolar affricate [ts] and velar, uvular and pharyngeal fricative sounds which are absent in English. It is notable that Hebrew uses a glottal stop which is absent in Standard English, however, some varieties, like Cockney and other regional accents, use glottal stops extensively [4]. Moreover, the quality of some particular sounds differs in both languages: English sonorous [r] in English is postalveolar and Hebrew [ʁ] is guttural meaning that it is produced in the back  of the vocal tract. Also, in Hebrew such phonemes as fricative interdentals [θ] and [ð] and sonorants [ŋ] and [w] are virtually non-existent. Considering the vowel system, it is rather obvious that in Hebrew there are no diphthongs and triphthongs which are common in English. What is more, the overall system of Hebrew vowels contains fewer monophthongs than the English one: high and mid central and low front and back vowels are absent. The quality of some vowels is different, too. For instance, [ɒ] is a near-open central vowel, while Hebrew [o] is a mid back rounded vowel. Also, Hebrew [a] is an open central unrounded vowel, whereas [ʌ] is a near-open central vowel. Overall, English phonological vowel system shows more diversity especially in terms of the diphthongs and triphthongs [5], on the contrary, Hebrew and English consonants coincide only partially with some of the phonemes being characteristic only for English or Hebrew systems.


As a result of comparative auditory analysis, some specific phonetic characteristics have been revealed. The findings are presented below:

Palatalization. Harari and Neumark have a strong tendency to palatalise both vowels and consonants which is characteristic for Hebrew. Most evidently, palatalisation occurs primarily in the sonorant [l] and the sounds surrounding it e.g. will, long run, unsustainable, political, fall, leaders, technological, scholar, look, message election.

Yod-dropping. The omission of [j] sound, especially in the combination with the vowel sound [u] is connected with the absence of such combinations in Hebrew which is present only in loan words, e.g. opportunity, students, huge.

H-dropping. The English consonant sound [h] does not exist in Hebrew with the same quality as it is in Hebrew where the corresponding sounds are pronounced in a more backlingual manner which is almost glottal. Interestingly, English [h] is substituted by a voiced glottal fricative referring to the letter ה and is hardly ever pronounced with only air stream to be heard, e.g. huge, human, hack.

TH-fronting. Interdental sounds characteristic for English are not represented anyhow in Hebrew, therefore, Hebrew speakers struggle pronouncing them. Regardless of the effort, occasionally the slips into alveolar and labiodental sounds may be observed, e.g. think the way, thought.

Monophthongization of diphthongs. As far as vowel structure of the Hebrew language consists of monophthongs only, English diphthongs and triphthongs do not come naturally to Hebrew speakers, e.g. airport, airplanes.
 [r] > [ʁ]. One of the prominent features is the specific pronunciation of the sonorous post alveolar [r] sound in English which is frequently but not always substituted by the typical for Hebrew uvular fricative [ʁ] sound, e.g university, other, year, are, recorded, important, course, current, foreigners.
 [k] > [х]. The excessive aspiration of [k] sound in Hebrew speech may be associated with its substitution to the uvular (therefore, pronounced deeper in the throat) sound [х] used for the letter כ, e.g. click, class, technology. 


Another important feature to be mentioned is stress placement. In most Hebrew words, lexical stress is placed on one of the two last syllables, which is reflected in the natives’s English speech. Therefore, the lexical stress of English words will often be shifted to the terminal syllables which may not coincide with the English stress. 

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning intonational features of the informats’ oral speech.

Upspeak. The speakers tend to use rising tones instead of Falls in the declarative sentences in terminal positions. The feature is common for younger generations of English users and also for some of the geographical varieties such as Australian English [6]. In this case, the use of Rises is stipulated by the Hebrew prosody which has the tendency for such tones due to its rhythmical structure [7]. 

Harari: The semester was sup/posed, the term was supposed to begin /in… I was teaching three /courses, supposed to begin /March /2020 and within a week or/ two, like,  everything moves on/line and yeah I had to reinvent /everything, really.

Rise-Fall-Rise instead of Low Rise. The use of such a complex nuclear tone as Rise-Fall-Rise (or The Highdive) is justified in the Standard English pronunciation when the speaker conveys a very emotive attitude appealing to the interlocutor’s response [8]. When such intonation occurs in the speech of Hebrew natives, this phenomenon may be regarded as the feature of Hebrew intonation and the desire of the speaker to get a response and grab the listener’s attention.

Neumark: This is your academic /\/home in Jerusalem /\/ actually and I /\/ wonder in this time of the /pandemic the covid /19 global pandemic… did your /work is /changing right now?

Strong Rises. Question-final utterances in Hebrew are marked with strong prominent Rises in intonation [9] which, as seen in the example below, is transferred into English as well.

Neumark: You’re talking about the US and the way it… the ideas that the US might /collapse?
Hesitation pauses. Both in Hebrew and English colloquial speech hesitation pauses are widely used. However, the sounds used as fillers in English are often referred to as ah or uh [ʌ] and um [ʌm], while Hebrew speakers tend to fill in the pauses with the front mid sound eh [e] or em [em] [10].

Interestingly, there is strong interference of Hebrew fillers and English fillers as Harari tends to use both of them:

Harari: At present, the main challenger to the current prime minister is somebody who is an education minister thought to install the so-called ethical code which is really meant to curb academic freedom of expression and to police and monitor even what uh… eh… eh scholars are saying in the classrooms, in the university.


In the present article we compared the phonetic systems of modern Hebrew and English and applied the results of such comparison to the analysis of the oral speech of two native Hebrew speakers (Y.N. Harari and R. Neumark) having a conversation in English as a second language. The conducted analysis showed features of phonetic interference of the modern Hebrew phonology with the Standard English phonetic system. Furthermore, in the talk of the two speakers mentioned above we determined phonetic features peculiar to their mother tongue represented in the English oral speech thus representing the phonetic interference of the two. Further investigation may be connected with the research of the communication between two native Hebrew speakers in ESL in contrast with similar interaction taking place between one native Hebrew speaker and a native English speaker in English. The results of the present research may be used in the university courses of cross-cultural communication, theoretical phonetics and sociolinguistics to illustrate phonetic variation in English used as a lingua franca. The material may also be beneficial for Hebrew speakers aiming to avoid pronunciation inaccuracies caused by the interference of their mother tongue and having a goal to master their colloquial English.

  1. Jenkuns, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Crystal, B., Crystal, D. (2014). You Say Potato. A Book about Accents. London: Macmillan.
  3. Wells, J.C. (1982). Accents of English. Three volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Crystal, D. (1987). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Cruttenden, A. (1994). Gimson's Pronunciation of English. Fifth edition of A.C. Gimson, Introduction to the pronunciation of English. London: Edward Arnold.
  6. Paradis, J. Genesee, F., (1996). "SYNTACTIC ACQUISITION IN BILINGUAL CHILDREN: Autonomous or Interdependent?". Studies in Second Language Acquisition. pp. 1-25.
  7. Laufer, Asher. (1987). Intonation (in Hebrew). Jerusalem: Publications of the Institute of Jewish Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
  8. O'Connor J. D. & Arnold G. F. (1973) Intonation of Colloquial English. Second Edition. London: Longman
  9. Mixdorff, Hansjörg and Noam Amir. (2002). “The prosody of Modern Hebrew: A quantitative study”. Proceedings of SP2002, 511–514.
  10. Intonation of Israeli Hebrew. Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics. (2013). Leiden/Boston: Brill.
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