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The Gist of The Gimmel

I ended last week’s column, which had to do with the pronunciation of the letter Gimmel in ancient Hebrew, with an explanation of how the dual nature of the beged-kefet consonants as both plosives and fricatives came into being, and of how the presence in them of a dagesh, a small dot, indicates that they are to be articulated as plosives.

And now let us return to the Gimmel and, specifically, to how its no longer existent dagesh-less or fricative articulation was realized in ancient, biblical times. Since, as several of you noted in e-mails to me, the Gimmel — which everywhere else in the Jewish world is always a plosive or hard “g” — is sometimes a soft or fricative “g” (frequently represented in English by the letter “j”) in the traditional Hebrew of the Jews of Yemen, why not assume that these Jews preserved its ancient form?

But there is a compelling reason not to assume this, which is that the Yemenite Jews who sometimes pronounce the “g” as “j” do so not when it comes without a dagesh but on the contrary, when it comes with one! One of my e-mail correspondents, Judy Heicklen, gave a good example of this when she pointed out that when the Yemenite Jews recite Kiddush, the blessing over wine, there are some who say not borei p’ri ha-gafen, “who createth the fruit of the vine,” but rather borei p’ri ha-jafen. Yet the Gimmel of gafen/jafen definitely has a dagesh, as can be seen by a glance at the prayer book. This means that its ancient articulation was as a hard “g” and not as a soft one.

Actually, not all Yemenite Jews traditionally pronounced the Gimmel with dagesh as “j,” a sound retained today only in prayers and religious rituals. Some pronounced it as a hard “g” the way other Jews do, the difference being regional. Indeed, a Yemenite friend of mine tells me, half the Jews in his synagogue in Israel say gafen when making Kiddush and half say jafen. And those who say jafen regularly turn the hard or plosive “g” into a soft or fricative one at the beginning of all words — that is, whenever it has a dagesh and only when it has a dagesh. They say jadol, “big,” when the dagesh in the Gimmel indicates that it should be pronounced gadol, jibor; “brave,” instead of gibor, etc. Clearly, this is something that they picked up from the Arabs in whose midst they lived for thousands of years, since in most dialects of Arabic, Yemenite included, there is only a fricative “g” and no plosive “g” at all.

And how do these same Jews pronounce the Gimmel when it does not have a dagesh, which is at the end of all words and in the middle of many? They pronounce it as all Yemenite Jews do — that is, as neither a hard nor a soft “g,” but as a throaty, fricative “r,” a sound that is the same as the French “r.” The Hebrew word gag, “roof,” is uttered by Yemenite Jews reading the Bible as either gagh or jagh; donag, “wax,” is pronounced donagh, and so on and so forth.

And here we do have a unique survival from biblical Hebrew that exists nowhere else, for if ancient Gimmel with a dagesh was a hard “g,” ancient Gimmel without a dagesh was clearly a “gh”! A moment’s reflection will make us realize why this must be so.

Let’s go back to the beged-kefet letters, each with its dual articulation: “b”/“v,” “d”/“th” (as in “that”), “k”/“kh,” “p”/“f” and “t”/“th” (as in “thin”). The second of each of these pairs, as we observed last week, is a spirantization of the first, by means of which a plosive is turned into a fricative. But it is not turned into just any fricative. It is turned into the fricative whose articulation is closest to it, so that the shift from one sound to the other involves a minimum of physical displacement. Make a “b” and then a “v,” a “k,” and then a “kh,” a “t” and then a “th.” Notice how small the adjustment is that the parts of the mouth involved in producing the sound have to make.

And now suppose that we wish to spirantize the plosive or hard “g,” which is produced by compressing the dorsum and the velum, the top and bottom of the back of the mouth, and then releasing them. What is the closest fricative to it? It is not a “j,” which calls for a totally different configuration of the mouth. It is a “gh,” in which we bring the back of the dorsum into contact with the uvula, the tissue of the upper throat situated right behind the velum, and breathe out with no release. This is without a doubt how the dagesh-less Gimmel was pronounced in biblical times, as is confirmed by various authorities on ancient Hebrew phonetics, such as Spanish linguist Angel Sáenz-Badillos in his “A History of the Hebrew Language.”

In short, when I wrote in my column of November 10 that stated “classical Hebrew never had a soft ‘g,’” I knew whereof I spoke. Q.E.D.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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