When a Blessing Is an Error

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 26, 2008, issue of December 05, 2008.
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Four readers — Martin Flax, Gerald Weiss, Steve Oren and Gil Kulick — have written to scold me for mistakenly equating the biblical name Barak, meaning “lightning,” with the presidential name Barack in my column of October 31, which dealt with Hebrew campaign buttons in America’s recent elections. They all made the same point — namely, that whereas biblical Barak is spelled with the Hebrew letter quf (ק) as its final consonant, Barack derives from Swahili baraka, from Arabic baraka, meaning “blessing.” Since baraka is spelled with the Arabic letter kaf, which is the equivalent of Hebrew kaf (כּ), and since it is a cognate not of Hebrew barak but of b’rakhah, which also means “blessing,” Messrs. Flax, Weiss, Oren and Kulick think they have caught me in an error.

But although I cheerfully admit my capacity for error, I plead not guilty in this case. My column never meant to suggest that Barak and Barack were absolute orthographic equivalents. It sought only to make the point that since the Hebrew name Barak (which you are familiar with as the last name of Israeli’s former Israeli prime minister and current minister of defense, Ehud Barak) is pronounced similarly to the Barack of Obama, it makes sense to spell the president elect’s name in Hebrew as ברק, like that of the warrior in the book of Judges. This is indeed how the Hebrew media spell Obama’s name, and, as we shall see, there is no other practical way of spelling it.

Let’s begin with the distinction between Hebrew quf and kaf and between Arabic qaf and kaf. In Arabic, these are two different phonemes that are never pronounced the same way. In both classical and modern colloquial Arabic, kaf is pronounced like an English “k.” Qaf, on the other hand, has no precise English equivalent. It is a guttural “k,” and the best way to try duplicating it is to begin by saying “cat,” whose initial consonant is known to linguists as a fronted dorso-velar stop; then say “count” while noticing how the point of articulation has moved farther back in your mouth to a central dorso-velar stop; then say “coat,” which calls for a back dorso-velar stop, and then keep moving the sound as far down into your throat as you can. When you can’t get any farther, you’ve arrived at an Arabic qaf.

Difficult? Well, not terribly, but just enough so that in parts of the Arabic-speaking world, the qaf has changed in the course of time to easier sounds. Among most Bedouin and in Iraq, for example, it has become a hard “g,” which turns the Arabic name of Jerusalem, Al-Quds, into Al-Guds. In most dialects of Palestinian Arabic, it has disappeared entirely and been replaced by a glottal stop, giving us Al-’Uds. Human mouths and throats, like human arms and legs, are inherently lazy. Offer them less work to do, and they will tend to accept.

We see the same thing in Hebrew, only more so. In biblical times, the distinction between Hebrew quf and kaf was the same as in Arabic, so that Barak was pronounced with a guttural “k.” Over the centuries, however, the quf turned into a kaf in almost all varieties of Hebrew — Ashkenazic, Sephardic and that of Jews in most Arabic-speaking lands. Quf and kaf, to the confusion of many a Hebrew speller, now sound exactly the same, which is why the former is often written in English as kuf. Both represent, like English “k,” an ordinary dorso-velar stop.

“All right,” you may say. “I understand this. Nevertheless, if the “k” of Arabic and Swahili baraka once resembled Hebrew kaf more than quf, why not spell the Barack of Obama with a kaf? Why isn’t it ברכּ instead of ברק?”

Many of you already know the answer — or at least a part of it. ברכּ would be orthographically irregular. When appearing at the end of a Hebrew word or name, kaf is written not as כּ but as ך and is pronounced “kh,” like the “ch” in Bach. This letter is known in Hebrew as a khaf sofit or “final khaf,” and we owe it to the fact that, in post-biblical Hebrew, certain stops turned into fricatives at the end of all syllables and words: the “b”-sound of the letter bet into a “v”-sound, the “p”-sound of peh into an “f”-sound, etc. This is why the biblical Hebrew verb berek, “bless,” became berekh, giving us b’rakhah for “blessing” rather than b’rakah. (And also giving us the woman’s name Brakhah — Eastern European Brokheh — which, gender apart, is the true Jewish equivalent of Barack.) If we wrote Obama’s first name with a khaf sofit, as we must in Hebrew, it would be spelled ברך and pronounced Barakh.

I hope Messrs. Flax, Weiss, Oren and Kulick are now convinced of my innocence. But as I would never have written this column without them, my thanks go to them nonetheless.

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


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