Hanukah Gift to My Editors

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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Should the holiday we are celebrating this week be spelled “Hanukah,” “Chanukah,” “Hanukkah” or “Chanukkah?” You’ll find all four versions in the dictionaries, with “Hanukkah” being the preferred form nowadays.

I myself prefer “Hanukah” with a single “k,” but I certainly think that either “Hanukah” or “Hanukkah” is a lot better than “Chanukah.” True, neither English “h” nor “ch” represents the guttural consonant, the sound like the “ch” of “Bach,” with which “Hanukah” is pronounced both in Eastern-European and Israeli Hebrew and by most American Jews. Between the two of them, though, “h” comes considerably closer. The combination “ch” in English is pronounced “tsh” as in “church” and sometimes “k” as in “chorus,” but never as in “Bach” — and whereas “Hanukah” strikes the Jewish ear as the acceptable default pronunciation of the gutturally challenged, “Tshanukah” or “Kanukah,” as it would be uttered if encountered in writing by English speakers who don’t know any better, is downright blood-curdling.

In this both I and general American usage are at variance with the editors of the Forward, who not only prefer “Chanukah” to “Hanukah,” but also “Chasidism” to “Hasidism,” charedi to haredi, and so on. I find this “ch” difficult to justify. The one thing that can be said for it, perhaps, is that it is the older and more “traditional” form, since “Chanukah” and “Chasidism” are spellings that go back to the 19th century, while “Hanukah” and “Hasidism” are 20th-century ones. But the main reason one finds “Chanukah” and “Chasidism” in the 19th century is the strong influence in those years of Jewish immigrants from Germany, who took the German “ch” — pronounced as a guttural by many Germans in front-voweled words like ich and mich, and by all Germans in back-voweled ones like lachen or machen — and transposed it to English. (A second reason may have been the example of Scots English, which sometimes treats the English “ch” — think of “loch,” the Scots word for “lake” — as a guttural.) The fact that this Germanized spelling of Hebrew words was once the norm in English, however, hardly seems a reason to cleave to it in the 21st century.

Representing the guttural consonant in “Hanukah,” known to linguists as a “velar fricative” because it is produced with the help of the velum or soft palate at the back of the mouth, is a problem in many European languages that lack this sound. Of those that have it, only one other, Polish, follows German in representing it by “ch.” Dutch uses “g,” Spanish uses “j” and sometimes “g” or “x,” and Greek and Russian, though not written in the Latin alphabet, use the character “x,” too. “X” is indeed the accepted international linguistic symbol for the velar fricative, so that linguists spell Hanukah “Xanukah” for professional purposes. Yet I would not urge “Xanukah” on the Forward, and while it makes perfect sense for the Spanish and the Dutch to write Janukah and Ganukah, I would not recommend these in English either, just as I would not recommend “Chanukah.”

There is, I must admit, one significant exception to the trend expressed by spellings like “Hanukah” and “Hasidism,” namely, the common spelling of “chutzpah,” which seems to be preferred to “hutzpah” by most writers, publications and dictionaries. I find this odd and have no explanation for it, especially since “chutzpah” is a word that only began to appear widely in non-Jewish English a decade or two ago, so that its “ch” can hardly be called “traditional.” Now that it is an often-seen word, however, I would not be surprised if many readers out in the American heartland, in Utah, say, or Oklahoma, are saying “tshutzpah,” which may well become its common fate, just as the last name of the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky is regularly pronounced “Tshomsky” even though some Jews (myself included) find this funny.

We don’t want to end up lighting Tshanukah candles. And there is another reason why, particularly in a Jewish publication like the Forward, “Hanukah” is to be preferred to “Chanukah.” This has to do with the fact that in biblical Hebrew, as in the traditional Hebrew pronunciation of Jews from Arab lands and of some of their descendants in Israel today, there are two different guttural consonants, the velar fricative, represented by the letter khaf (k), and a laryngeal constriction, produced farther down in the throat, represented by h.et (g)— and while khaf indeed sounds like the German or Polish “ch,” biblical h.et, which is the initial consonant of Hanukah, is more like a raspy “h.” In this column I regularly represent khaf by “kh,” which is how the Russian velar fricative is transliterated into English (as in the “kh” of Khrushchev), and h.et by “h” with a dot beneath it. It is important to distinguish them, and even if one were to represent khaf by “ch,” as in the word for Jewish law “halachah” (which I prefer to spell “halakhah”), the h.et should always be an “h.”

Better a happy Hanukah than a choppy Chanukah!

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






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