Mizrahi Hebrew or Eastern Hebrew refers to any of the pronunciation systems for Biblical Hebrew used liturgically by Mizrahi Jews, that is, Jews originating in Arab countries or further east, and with a background of Arabic, Persian, or other languages of the Middle East and Asia. As such, Mizrahi Hebrew is actually a blanket term for many dialects.
Sephardi Hebrew is not considered one of these, although it has been spoken in the Middle East and North Africa. The Sephardim were expellees from Spain, and settled among the Mizrahim, but in countries such as Syria and Morocco there was a fairly high degree of convergence between the Sephardi and the local pronunciations of Hebrew. Yemenite Hebrew is also considered quite separate, as it has a wholly different system for the pronunciation of the vowels.
The same terms are sometimes used for the pronunciation of modern Israeli Hebrew by Jews of Arab or other Mizrahi origins. This is generally a compromise between standard Israeli Hebrew and the traditional liturgical pronunciation as described in this article.
The following features are generally found in the pronunciation of Jews from Arabic-speaking countries, and the variations tend to follow the Arabic dialect of the country in question.
The pronunciation of Mizrahi Jews from non-Arab countries differs in some respects. For example, among Persian Jews distinctively Arabic sounds such as ح [ħ] and ط [tˤ] do not occur, and Kamatz gadol is backed to [ɒ] like the long a in Persian.
In Talmudic times it was noted that the Galilean (and maybe Syrian) pronunciation of Hebrew and Aramaic differed from those of both Judaea and Babylonia, principally by the loss of distinct sounds for the guttural letters he, ḥet and 'ayin. This feature is still found in Samaritan Hebrew.
Following the Arab conquest of Palestine and Mesopotamia, much work was done by the Masoretes in standardizing and refining the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, under the influence of the Arabic grammarians of the time: this included establishing the pronunciation of the guttural letters by reference to their Arabic equivalents. Three distinct notations for the vowels were devised: the Palestinian, the Babylonian and the Tiberian, of which the Tiberian eventually superseded the other two.
The process of assimilation to Arabic went furthest with the Babylonian Jews. For example, in Classical Arabic, and in some spoken dialects including Iraqi Arabic, there is no phonemic distinction between "a" and "e", though a phonetic difference is made by the presence of an adjacent emphatic or guttural consonant. Accordingly the Babylonian notation does not distinguish between patach (in other pronunciations [a]), segol (in other pronunciations [e] or [ɛ]) and sheva na', and these three vowels are still pronounced alike (as [æ]) among Yemenite Jews. In Levantine Arabic, by contrast, there are distinct "a" and "e" sounds, and these two vowels are distinguished in both the Palestinian and the Tiberian notations.
After the expulsion of the Sephardi Jews from Spain in 1492, the exiles took the leading position in most Arab and Ottoman countries, and the local pronunciation of Hebrew assimilated to Sephardi Hebrew in many respects, in particular the pronunciation of the vowels. For this reason, today's Iraqi Jews distinguish between patach (/a/) and segol (/e/) in the same way as most other Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. However, distinct sounds for the guttural and emphatic letters, and the [b] sound for bet raphe, were retained in many Arab countries, probably under the influence of Arabic.
Iraqi Jews, like the Yemenites, retain the Classical Arabic sounds of waw ([w]) and tav raphe ([θ]). In other Arab countries tav raphe is pronounced [t]: this is equally consistent with the pronunciation of Sephardi Hebrew and with that of colloquial Arabic. The pronunciation of waw as [v] is more clearly Sephardic in origin.
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