Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu

On Language

By Philologos

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
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Back at Passover time, I published a column about a facsimile edition of an early 19th-century French Haggadah from Bordeaux, one of whose interesting features was its use of “ngh” to represent the Hebrew letter ayin. This was once widespread in the Sephardic communities of Southern Europe, whose Hebrew pronunciation nasalized the pharyngeal glottal stop of the Semitic ayin that disappeared in the Ashkenazic world entirely. The Italian-Jewish origins of the practice are evidenced by the “h” after the “g” — which, in Italian orthography, indicates that “g” before a front vowel is to be pronounced “hard” as in “gold” rather than “soft” as in “gem.”

Outside Italy, this “h” was generally dropped, leaving “ng” alone, in which form it spread to Sephardim in the Americas, as well. Thus, novelist Dara Horn writes from Boston: “While researching my new novel ‘All Other Nights’ (about Jewish spies during the Civil War), I came across several names of early American synagogues that used this spelling, such as the very first synagogue in New Orleans, Congregation Shangarei Chesed…. This sounded so strange to my American Jewish ears that I couldn’t help but wonder whether names likes these were ever pronounced as written.”

Although the Sephardic members of this synagogue certainly would not have pronounced “Shangarei” to rhyme with “bang away,” neither, in my opinion, would they have said “Sha’arei” or “Sharei,” as American Jews do today. Rather, they would have preceded the second “a” with a phoneme known to linguists as a velar nasal — a sound made by slightly contracting the throat so that the back of the tongue touches the velum or soft palate, while expelling air from the nose. Although this may seem exotic, it is actually the same sound that, minus the air, English speakers produce all the time in words like “ring” or “sing.”

The problem is that in English, this “ng” can occur only at the end of a syllable. When we see it at the beginning of one, we have no idea what to do with it. A short sentence like the Zulu proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, “a person is a person through other persons,” leaves us staring at it blankly, or else wrongly breaking the “ng” into its components and saying “negumuntu negabantu.” And yet, to pronounce this “ng” correctly, we only have to set our mouths in the same position we set them in for the “ng” of “sing,” and breathe out. It’s not as hard as all that, as can be seen from the fact that many of the world’s languages, from Zulu to Vietnamese (think of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, whose assassination in 1963 marked a turning point in the Vietnam War), have such a sound. So did many Sephardim.

Which set me to thinking: Languages like Zulu and Vietnamese are today written in the Latin alphabet, which was borrowed from Europe. Might their use of “ng” for the syllable-initial velar nasal have something to do with the nasalized Sephardic ayin? Did the representation of this ayin by Sephardic Jews as “ng” influence its adoption by the writing systems of other languages?

I don’t know anyone who speaks Zulu, but my friend Sabine Huynh not only speaks Vietnamese, but is a linguist to boot. I addressed the question to her, and here is part of her answer:

“The Vietnamese ‘ng’ is most probably a legacy from 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit missionary-philologists who undertook to devise a phonetic alphabet for Vietnamese, called quoc ngu. (Until the 17th century, Vietnamese was written with Chinese ideograms.) These were headed by Father Alexander de Rhodes, a French priest who had studied Vietnamese under the Portuguese priest Francisco de Pina before compiling his groundbreaking dictionary, in which initial ‘ng’ has its own section. As Pina was a common Jewish-Portuguese family name at the time of the Inquisition, Francisco de Pina may have descended from a family of Portuguese crypto-Jews, in which case Vietnamese ‘ng’ could really have a Sephardic origin.”

Sabine speculates that the Sephardim originally may have taken the “ng” from German or Dutch, in which it is a syllable-final nasal velar as in English, via Jews who settled in such cities as Amsterdam and Hamburg following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. How well this fits with “ng(h)” first having been used for ayin by Jews in Italy, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out; Jewish communities all over Europe were in close contact with each other and passed many things back and forth. In any case, the nasal velar realization of the ayin eventually vanished from the Sephardic world, although remnants of it lingered on in parts of Italy into the 20th century. Its influence also may still be felt in a few Yiddish names or words, such as Yankel or Yankev for Ya’akov (the apostrophe indicates an ayin), or manse instead of mayse (Hebrew ma’aseh) in some regional dialects. The syllable-initial “ng,” however, no longer exists among Jews anywhere, and you will have to travel to Africa or East Asia to hear it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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