A guide to monosyllabic Hebrew

It occurs to me that Hebrew ulpan and university Hebrew classes lack a major component of speaking Hebrew like an Israeli: grunts, "ehhhhs," and other monosyllabic Hebrew.

So here's a guide for the perplexed. In the comments, please add any monosyllables I missed!

"Nu" is basically a verbal nudge-- best translation into English might be "come on!" or "well?" As my husband says, it means "well?" in both the "how are you?" and the "what's your excuse for living" contexts. Gains extra power when combined with "cvar," which means "already." Expresses impatience.
  • Example: Nu cvar, are you going to call Dudu about the falofel?

"Um" in Hebrew is "Eh." They might not tell you that in Hebrew/English dictionaries, but I've found that a key to sounding like a foreigner is to fill your pauses with their version of "um"... In France, for example, say "euh" and you'll stop getting snooty looks.
  • Example: Dudu said... ehhhh... the falofel will be ready after he makes delivery to... ehhhh.... Caesarea.

(Alternative: "yoo")
This monosyllable is not actually the same as "yo" in the US. This isn't a greeting or an attention-getter. Rather, "yo" in Hebrew is what frechot (valley girls, basically) use to express shock or surprise. Kind of like the Israeli "Oh my gosh!" or "No way!" I learned this phrase from watching the Israeli version of "Beauty and the Geek"-- the beauties used "yo" as every other word.
  • Example: Yo, 20 shekels for falofel? Is Dudu crazy?

Ooo-wah (alternative: "eh-oh")
Ok, so this is really bi-syllabic. But you say "ooo-wah" when somebody does something surprising or extreme, like state a ridiculous price in the shuk or threaten a person carrying an Uzi. In contrast to "yo," which just expresses surprise, "ooo-wah" conveys gentle censure of the person engaging in the extreme action.
  • Example: Ooo-wah! You're calling Dudu crazy? You know he carries an Uzi, no?

Hmm, this one is hard for me to define. "Ooof" is the sound you make when something lands heavily on your stomach, so it's also the sound you make when something lands heavily in your lap in a metaphorical sense.
  • Example: Ooof, all these people complaining about the falofel.

While this one is mostly used by the elder generation, "oy" is alive and well as a complaint on Israeli streets. Gains extra power when combined with "gevalt," "vey," or "kashe kashe kashe" (hard hard hard).
  • Example: Oy, when will these young folks stop complaining? When I was in the Russian army...
Closely related to "oy," this is the Israeli "ouch." When something really hurts (either in a literal or figurative sense), can be extended to "aiyaiyai."
  • Example: Aie, Dudu! You just ran over my foot with your delivery scooter!

Oh-pah (Alternative: ooh-pah) **Update: BJ observes in the comments that "oh-pah" is probably borrowed from the Greeks... which fits perfectly with how it's used.**
This is the Israeli "oops"... or "be careful," usually spoken after the fact. You might say "oh-pah" to the woman who trips in front of you, spilling all her groceries on the ground. (Then, being Israeli, you would help her pick everything up while explaining in detail how she was carrying the groceries all wrong.)
  • Example: Oh-pah! Next time, don't walk out in front of Dudu's scooter!
This is really a word, so it's actually in the dictionary and will show up in Hebrew courses (and seder texts as "dayeinu"). However, this word-- which means "enough"-- definitely deserves a spot on this list, if nothing else for the way it garners Israeli parents dirty looks when they shout it at their children in American supermarkets.
  • Example: Nu, die cvar! Stop asking me about Dudu and his falofel!
Which monosyllables did I miss? I know I'm forgetting something!


  1. I was doing a crossword puzzle the other day, and I came across a clue, something along the lines of "Come on!" The first thing that came to mind was "Nuu."

  2. This is *marvelous*-- and I seriously think this all SHOULD indeed be included in Hebrew courses!!!!! You know, you might want to forward this blog pice to the marvelous www.learnhebrewpod.com folks-- I think they'd really like it, and work these into a lesson :-) (with your permission :-) ).

    I'm going to try these with Ilana and Aharon next week :-).

    Lots of love,
    Ima in America

  3. This is great. A freind sent me a link and I love what you wrote here, It is soooo funny. How about "Ichs" or "Ichsa" , meaning grose or yucky. Mostly kids use it, but I have heard adults too.

  4. ooh, "ichsa" is a great one!! Absolutely... it's the Israeli "yuck," but you hear it a lot.

  5. I wonder if the oh-pah one is derived from the Greek. If you go to a Greek restaurant in the States, they will say oh-pah when they light the saganaki (a flaming cheese appetizer) and also, if you hear a crash, like someone dropped something, oh pah! (at least this is what I recall from the days before I started keeping kosher, when I actually went to some great Chicago Greek restaurants on Halsted street.:-)

  6. blj, great theory! It definitely does sound Greek.

  7. I just found your blog - this is a fantastic post! Do you mind if I link to it?

  8. Great blog-- by the way, "Yo" is actually sometimes used in America to express the same sentiment of shock/awe that you describe above for Israel.

  9. Less of a word and more of a sound is the Israeli 'tzutz', that clicking of tongue to the roof of your mouth which generally means "Are you freaking nuts", "leave me the heck alone already" or "are you out of your mind".

  10. Great list!

    I think maybe I'd add "wy". It sounds like the English "why", but really means oy (and the Hebrew spelling ווי probably reflects its Hebrew origin.) It's like the "Aie" you mentioned, but usually comes in threes (wy, wy, wy).

    To my immigrant's ear it always sounds like they're asking a question - so I often respond "Kacha!"

    -Dave (Balashon)

  11. enjoyed this list, i found through toby's link.

    how about "yesh", as in "YES!", used notably at a sporting event when a team scores or when a kid gets what he wants.


  12. I think I need to write an updated version of this post with all of these great suggestions-- "yesh," "ichs," "wy,wy,wy," the tongue click, and one I thought of the other day: "moo, mee, mah"-- which I'm pretty sure is the Israeli "blah blah blah."

  13. There's also "walla" which is used in many ways:

    - I think I might go and travel to India next year
    - Walla? What for?
    - I need a break, and I've always wanted to go there.
    - Walla.
    - I might stay there for a year
    - Wallllaaaa...

    haha sounds like a soap opera, doesn't it :P

  14. The origin of walla, by the way, is Arabic - literally means "and g-d," of course. It is an oath of sorts, a little like "by g-d" in English. When used in Hebrew, it really just means "really" - with or without a question mark - which fits into all of dlpn01's examples.

  15. Another via Toby visitor.

    I would give a second definition for walla: impressive.

    And what about Yalla, which means both "come on" (yalla, move, we're late) and "go on" (yalla, stop pulling my leg)

    I just thought of "o-to-to" too (that is, "oh-toh-toh") which means in a moment (o-to-to and she will give birth)

    Wait a second! What about staaaaaam? (just kidding)

    And while it actually has three syllables, this might be the place to list "ke-i-lu" which is used and means imho the exact same as the valley girls' "like".

    Enough for now!

  16. funny! i was shocked when i heard 'die' for the first time from Guy's little sister when the were visiting us in Florida about 13 years ago... great list!

  17. How about "weeee...!" - usually used when something unpleasant happens surprisingly e.g.

    You just bought falafel from Dudu, you trip and all the nice food is on the floor...Weee!

    Or when told surprising,unpleasant news.

  18. Okay, this is in part a shameless plug for one of my own blog posts... But you can't leave out "Naaaaag!" (Can be made bi-syllabic, as "NaHAAAAG!") The only authentically-Israeli way to get the busdriver to open the back door. As in "Naaaag! Open the door! You're about to pass my stop in front of Dudu's!"

  19. How about a little piece on the Israeli ANIMAL SOUNDS - In America a dog says arf but in Israel Hav Hav - and what about the duck?

    Also the word "Dafka" which I still cannot translate should possibly be on the above list (even though it is two syllables.

  20. Great list! How about Psheee, to say:

    Psheeee, look at the Kusit that just passed in front of Dudu's falafel!

  21. I'm late to this party but don't forget the ubiquitous tongue click to say "no!"

  22. I've just discovered your blog, it's great, I learn a lot, it's fun and practical. Todah rabah!

  23. My kids friends just found out what it mean about a year ago - my kids are 12 & 8 some of there friend they know since pre-school...

  24. Oh, this is excellent.
    I was born here, but thanks to my Anglo parents I still say "Ummmm..." instead of "Ehhhhh". I've had people spot me as an english speaker based on that.

  25. Hello there,
    I will be moving to Jerusalem in July for 12 months. We have no Hebrew at all ( we are Irish )
    How difficult do you think it will be for us to live there???

  26. Hey Maya, I am Leo, the guy from Greece that commented on some of your other introductory-to-Israel posts. Since you wanted to know: 1) We don't use Nu (we say Lipon[nnn] instead), 2) We use Eeeeeh in the same context, 3) We don't use 'Yo'. In the same context we would say 'Eeelaaaa'. 4) We use Ooo-wah in the same context. 5) We use 'Ouf' in the same context. 6)Oy is rarely used, and is mostly idiomatic, but we do use it in the same context. (example Oy manoula mou-Oy my mother). 7) We use both 'Aiie' and 'Aooou" in the same context. 8) We use Opa in the same context. 9) We don't use Die.-I am not sure who took these from whom, but Hebrews have been living with Greeks for thousands of years. You forgot "yalla" which I know you use in Israel and you think it's Arabic. We say "Ela" instead, which is the Imperative Form of the verb "Come". Example: (You try to park your car and I am giving directions): Ela, ela ela, opa. I am sure you get it. I never say "yallah", I say "ela" and the Israelis all get it.

  27. I am only grasshopper learning Hebrew, I thank you for your humorous insights. I am frequently overwhelmed by trying to learn as fast as I am capable of and this site is entertaining as well as instructive.


    Stephen C Menhennett

  28. how about sababa ,meaning great.


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