A Reader Revolt: Part 1

A Reader Revolt: Part 1

Don’t blame me if this week’s column is a bit technical. It’s by popular demand.

No fewer than five readers have written to question the statement in my column of November 10 that “classical Hebrew never had a soft ‘g’ or a character representing it.” All five of you cite the same two facts: 1) that the Hebrew letter Gimmel, though it represents a hard “g” exclusively in nearly all known varieties of Hebrew, is nevertheless one of six consonants in the Hebrew alphabet that are frequently written with a small dot in them, known as a dagesh, to indicate that they can be pronounced in two different ways, either as a plosive or a fricative; and 2) that in the traditional Hebrew pronunciation of Yemenite Jews, as opposed to that of other Jews, there is both a hard “g” and a soft “g.”

Four of you have written in a spirit of friendly criticism to suggest that the Yemenite pronunciation may, therefore, reflect a distinction that was made in ancient Hebrew and subsequently lost elsewhere. The fifth reader, Stephen Tobias, adds: “I’ve long stopped reading ‘On Language’ because your scholarship leaves me disappointed…. It’s a fair question as to whether these alternate forms of Gimmel with and without a dagesh [in the Yemenite pronunciation] are Arabic influences or survivals from a more ancient Hebrew. I’d depend on more careful scholars than yourself for a learned answer.”

Them’s fighting words, Mr. Tobias. And it’s a fight you’re going to lose, because it’s not really a “fair question” at all. It’s obvious that the soft Yemenite “g” is not a survival from ancient Hebrew at all, and I’ll tell you why.

The six Hebrew letters we are talking about are Bet, Gimmel, Daled, Kaf, Peh and Taf, and they are known in Hebrew grammar as the beged-kefet letters. When they have a dagesh in them, they appear as .z, .t, .k, .c, .b, .a, and they are all articulated as plosives, that is, as “b,” hard “g,” “d,” “k,” “p” and “t.” When they do not have a dagesh, the Bet becomes in modern Israeli Hebrew the fricative “v,” the Kaf the fricative “kh” and the Peh the fricative “f”— three sound shifts that characterized ancient Hebrew, as well — while the articulation of the Gimmel, Daled and Taf remains unchanged. In addition, in Ashkenazic Hebrew the Taf without a dagesh changes to a fricative “s,” and in ancient Hebrew it clearly was realized like the fricative “th” in “thin.” We also know that in ancient Hebrew, the Daled without a dagesh was like the fricative “th” in “them.”

This leaves the dagesh-less Gimmel. It must have been a fricative, too — as is the soft “g” represented in English by “j.” What makes me so sure, then, that it wasn’t a soft “g”?

Before I answer this question, let’s dwell for a moment on the difference between a plosive and a fricative. A plosive, also known as a stop, is a sound created by first bringing two parts of the mouth or throat into contact — our two lips when we articulate a “b,” our tongue and front palate when we articulate a “d,” our tongue and the back of our teeth when we articulate a “t” — and then breaking this contact with a release of air. In a fricative, on the other hand, also known as a spirant, air is released while the contact is maintained. Think of the sound “v,” for example: We produce it with our lips in nearly the same position as they are in for a “b,” just not as tightly compressed, and while breathing out we keep the lips together instead of parting them. Hence, we can prolong such a sound almost indefinitely — or at least until we run out of breath. This cannot be done with a plosive. We can say vvvvvvvvvvvv or ffffffffffff, but we cannot say bbbbbbbbbbb or dddddddddd, because once we release the “b” or “d,” it’s gone.

Let’s go on. In the historical development of certain languages, we find a phenomenon known as spirantization, whereby plosives turn into fricatives. This is what happened in ancient Hebrew, with the beged-kefet consonants. When the Hebrew alphabet was first developed some time before 1000 BCE, these consonants had only one articulation, the plosive one. The Hebrew word for “good,” tov, was pronounced tob; the Hebrew word for “soft,” rakh (with the “kh” like the “ch” in Bach), was pronounced rak. Probably no later than 700 BCE, however, these consonants were spirantized in the middle of some words and at the ends of all: Tob became tov, rak became rakh and so on. And yet though the pronunciation of these words changed, their spelling did not. No additional letters were introduced to represent the new spirantized consonants, so the same letter now had double duty for both a plosive and a fricative articulation.

But here we are, only halfway into our story, with all the space of this week’s column already used up. We’ll have to continue next week.

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