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Yes, Virginia, Hanukkah Has a Correct Spelling

“Jewish Tech” blogger Rabbi Jason Miller asks a useful and important question in his Jewish Week column this week, namely: How do you spell Hanukkah? Unfortunately, he starts off with an incorrect premise, then looks for an answer in the wrong place and leads his readers on a bit of a goose chase. He ends up, strangely enough, in the right place.

Let’s start by acknowledging that the question looks odd in print, since in the course of asking, we have to spell it. Having said that, Miller gamely leads in the wrong direction and makes up an answer by asserting that there’s no correct spelling. “Since it’s a Hebrew word that is transliterated into English, there are several acceptable spellings,” he writes, quoting his own column from last year. He’s writing about it again this year, it seems, because “people still want to know if there is a consensus.”

He goes on to note the myriad ways of spelling “Gaddafi” (“or is it Kadhafi or Qaddafi?”) and concludes that our December Spelling Dilemma is the same chartless jungle. His solution: Go to Google, and see which spelling gets the most hits. Answers: Number 1 is Hanukkah, with 8,470,000 hits, followed by Chanukah with 3,390,000.

Well, those are the right answers, but the way we got there does the reader a disservice. Spelling isn’t a popularity contest. It follows rules. It may evolve over time, but it will still reflect a language’s historical evolution. As for transliteration, it’s a system of spelling with defined rules. There are right and wrong ways to render words from one alphabet into another. The fact that many people don’t know them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The tough part about transliteration is that there are two different systems. Not three or four or many—just two. But that’s enough to make many people think there’s no system at all. So let’s look at the rules.

One system tries to capture the sound of the word as closely as possible in the new alphabet. The other is to use the new alphabet’s characters as symbols to represent the word’s correct spelling in the original alphabet. In our current case, “Chanukah” comes closest to representing the pronunciation of the Hebrew word, while “Hanukkah” accurately recreates the Hebrew spelling.

The only piece that’s really optional is the final H in “Chanukah,” which is silent (and is therefore unnecessary if you’re going by sound). Even though it’s unnecessary, its use follows a familiar pattern for transliterated Hebrew words ending in a final heh, such as aliyah, Mishnah and mitzvah. One could just as easily write (as many do) aliya, Mishna, mitzva and Chanuka.

As for “Hanukkah,” it starts with an H to represent the Hebrew letter chet, which is linguistically different from the chaf sound in, say, Baruch. Its original sound in ancient times was closer to the English H than to the German-Scottish-Yiddish Ch. Purists render it as an H with a dot under it. Some folks have lately started using an X, which is just confusing to my mind.

Now, why single N and double K? Because the doubling of a consonant represents the dagesh, the little dot that appears right in the middle of some Hebrew letters. Hanukkah has a dot in the kaf (K) but none in the nun (N). In modern Hebrew, the dagesh changes the letter’s sound (Ch to K, V to B), but in classical Hebrew, consonants with a dagesh were doubled in sound. This has no precise English equivalent, but you can get the idea by listening for the K sound in “slick couple” or the T in “flat tax.” By the way, both of these lost Hebrew sounds – the classical chet and the doubled consonant – are still pronounced in modern spoken Arabic and in the traditional Yemenite Hebrew accent.

As for that final H, it represents the final heh in the Hebrew spelling. While it’s optional in Chanuka(h), therefore, it’s not optional in Hanukkah.

All the other spellings—Hanuka, Hannukah, Chanukkah and so on—are simply guesswork or jazz improvisation.

As for “Gaddafi,” the transliteration problems are compounded by the vagaries of regional Arabic dialects. The name begins with the Arabic letter Qof (the same letter as the Hebrew qof that shows up in Israeli road signs such Qiryat Shmonah or Petah Tiqwa). It’s sounded in the back of the throat in a way that’s unpronounceable in English (don’t try it at home unless there’s someone nearby who knows Heimlich). However, it sounds something like K, which is why you frequently see “Kaddafi,” “Kadafy” or—in an attempt to improvise that Qof sound—“Khadafy.” The letter G is frequently used as a replacement because the Libyan variant of Qof actually sounds pretty close to our G, though further back in the throat. Most purist Arabic linguists (and there’s really no other kind) frown on transliterations that reproduce regional accents; they prefer that foreigners stick to the revered Classical Arabic, but go explain that to the Associated Press, the leading advocate of “Gadhafi.”

As for the double-D versus DH in the middle, the doubling obviously represents that dagesh we talked about earlier. The trouble is that the consonant being doubled is not a simple D. It is a Dh, which is to D as Th is to T. That is, it sounds like the Th in “this” (as opposed to the Th in “thin,” which is a different Arabic letter). It would be very awkward to write Gadhdhafi, so you have to choose: Gaddafi or Gadhafi. Or Qaddafi. Or Qadhafi. Or Khadafy. If you’re confused, be thankful that it doesn’t come up much anymore.

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