Forward reader George Steinberg writes:
“My supervisor, born and raised in Israel, had his young son visiting the office. When the boy noticed an insect crawling on the wall, he said to his father in Hebrew, ‘Abba [“Daddy”], jook!’ ‘Jook?’ I asked. My boss explained that that’s an Arabic word used in Hebrew for ‘bug.’ ‘But there’s no “j” sound in Hebrew,’ I said. ‘How do they write it?’ He then drew me the Hebrew letter Gimmel with an apostrophe after it: ’b.
Mr. Steinberg’s letter continues:
“But why? There is no phonetic relationship between the hard ‘g’ and soft ‘g’ sounds. It’s only an accident of orthography that the ‘G’ in English represents both. Is this Hebrew representation influenced by English? Did Hebrew once have a soft ‘g’ sound as Arabic still does? If so, what letter stood for it?”
Juk, with the initial consonant pronounced “soft” like the “g” of “gem” and the vowel like the “oo” of “food,” is indeed colloquial Hebrew for a bug or cockroach. The word does not come, however, from Arabic. Rather, it derives from Russian and Yiddish, in which zhuk, its initial consonant like the “z” in “azure,” denotes a beetle. Since Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet, and classical Hebrew never had a soft “g” or a character representing it, zhuk is spelled in Yiddish yf, using the Hebrew letters Zayin and Shin. To represent the soft “g” of “gem,” Yiddish customarily uses the combination Dalet-Zayin-Shin, yfc.
Modern Israeli Hebrew, as Mr. Steinberg again points out correctly, does not follow Yiddish in this, preferring instead to represent the soft “g” by means of the Gimmel-apostrophe. And yet Mr. Steinberg is mistaken in claiming that there is “no phonetic relationship’ between the soft “g” of “gem” and the hard “g” of “go,” and that it is “only an accident of orthography” that both are spelled with the same letter. On the contrary: The soft and hard “g” are closely related phonetically, as can be seen in numerous languages.
Take Arabic, for example. Classical Arabic, as well as the Arabic spoken in most places today, has the soft “g” of “gem” or “azure,” as in a word like jihad, and no hard “g.” But in Egyptian Arabic it is just the other way around: The soft “g” turns into a hard “g,” and jihad is pronounced gihad with the “g” of “go.” The reason for this is that before Arabic arrived in Egypt with the seventh-century C.E. Muslim conquest, Egyptians spoke Coptic, a late form of ancient Egyptian. This had no soft “g,” so they were unable to pronounce the sound. The closest approximation to it that they could make was the hard “g,” which they substituted for it regularly It’s true that, to our ears, soft and hard “g” do not sound particularly close, which is what misled Mr. Steinberg. Most English speakers probably would say that the closest sound in their phonetic repertoire to a hard “g” is a “k,” and the closest to a soft “g,” a “sh” or “ch.” But in fact, just as an original “k” has gradually turned into “ch” in many languages by a process called palatalization — so that, for example, Old English kirke became “church” — so a hard “g” often turns into a soft “g” by the same process. Let’s go back to English “gem,” which ultimately derives, via Old French, from Latin gemma, in which the “g” is pronounced hard as in all Latin words. In the course of time, gemma was palatalized into gyemma and then into gjemma, and finally the hard “g” disappeared entirely. This happened with “g” in English before front consonants such as “e” and “i.” Before back consonants such as “a” and “o,” on the other hand, the “g” was never palatalized and remained hard.
In other languages, the palatalization of hard “g” has worked differently. In such Scandinavian languages as Swedish and Danish, the hard “g” dropped out after the first shift to “gy,’ leaving only the “y” sound; thus, for example, the Swedish word for “give,” spelled ge, is pronounced “yey.” In Italian, the hard “g” was usually softened before front consonants, but some were not; to indicate the latter, Italian uses the combination “gh,” as in the word for “ice,” ghiàccio, from Latin glacies. (Historically, the “l” in glacies, though eventually palatalized itself, blocked the palatalization of the “g.”) And in Spanish, as in Egyptian Arabic, we find the process reversed. Here, in the late Middle Ages, the soft “g” in a Spanish word like mujer, “woman,” was de-palatalized so far back into the throat that it turned into a hard “g,” then into a “kh” and then in some places even into an “h.”
The apostrophization of the Gimmel to represent a soft “g” in modern Hebrew has nothing specifically, therefore, to do with English. The change of hard “g” into soft “g” and — although more rarely — vice versa is a worldwide phenomenon that has repeated itself many times. For this reason, it’s not illogical that the same letter, sometimes with the addition of a diacritical mark like an apostrophe, should serve for both of these sounds.
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