Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How Do You Spell Chanukkah?

As I was driving home on Friday afternoon, I heard on the radio a Chanukkah song I had not heard before: "How Do You Spell Channukkahh" by The LeeVees. It was a catchy tune, and at first it was refreshing to hear something other than the perennial Adam Sandler songs.

But as the song went on, I was increasingly bothered by the fact that the song had nothing to say about the holiday other than the fact that it was hard to spell! And it's not that hard to spell; it's simply hard to represent any Hebrew word in the Roman alphabet. By the last verse, my brain was screaming CHEIT-NUN-VAV-KAF-HEI!!! THAT'S HOW YOU SPELL IT! But if the topic is confusing enough to justify a song, maybe it's worth a blog entry.

The name of the Jewish winter holiday is not hard to spell in Hebrew. The preferred spelling is Cheit-Nun-Vav-Kaf-Hei, shown at right below. An alternate but equally legitmate Hebrew spelling is shown at right. The letter Vav in the middle of the version at right (a hook with a dot in it) makes the "u" sound, and can be represented as a consonant, as at right, or as the diagonal three-dot vowel, as at left.

The problem comes in trying to represent these Hebrew letters in the Roman alphabet, which doesn't correspond well to the Hebrew. The process of writing Hebrew in Roman letters is referred to as "transliteration," and it is more an art than a science.

Let's start with the first letter, the Cheit on the right side of the word (Hebrew is written right-to-left). It makes a throat-clearing noise that does not exist in the English language. In German, a similar sound would be written as "ch," so many people write that first letter as a "ch." Orthographers would write that sound as an H with a dot under it, so you may see it that way. Some people represent the throat-clearing sound as a "kh", but you rarely see the holiday name spelled that way. Many people write the first letter as an "h," which isn't really correct, but gets you a pronunciation that is closer to the correct one than if you were to mistakenly pronounce that "ch" as in "chair"! I prefer the "ch."

Underneath the Cheit is a dash and two dots, a vowel that makes a short "a" sound as in "father." This is always transliterated as an "a."

The next letter (second from the right) is Nun, which makes an "n" sound. Some people transliterate this as "nn," but there is really no reason to do that. The better way to transliterate it is a single "n".

The next letter is either the Vav with a dot or the diagonal three-dot vowel, both of which make the same sound: the "oo" in "boot" or the "u" in "rule." This is most commonly transliterated as "u," but it would not be incorrect to transliterate it as "oo."

The next letter, which looks like a backwards "c" with a dot in it, is Kaf. It makes a "k" sound. Now, the dot inside a letter in Hebrew commonly doubles the sound, which explains why many (including myself) spell the holiday name with a double-k. But actually, in the letter Kaf, the dot is not used to double the sound, but only to distinguish between the hard "k" sound and the soft "kh" sound of the letter. Accordingly, it would probably be more correct to spell it with a single "k." My preferred spelling may not be right, but at least I'm consistent.

Next is the "T" shaped vowel under the Kaf. This one is tricky even to pronounce! In Sephardic pronunciation (historically the pronunciation of the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East, which has become the preferred pronunciation because it is the one used in Israel), it is pronounced like the "a" in father, just like the dash with dots discussed above, and is transliterated as an "a." But in Ashkenazic pronunciation (the pronunciation that was used by Jews of Eastern Europe, which continues to be preferred by older Jews and by the Orthodox), that vowel is pronounced like the "aw" in "saw" or the "o" on "or"! That pronunciation is commonly transliterated as "o," so you might see the holiday name transliterated with an "o" at the end!

Finally, we have the letter Hei on the left side of the word. It makes an "h" sound, but at the end of the word it is silent, as in "Sarah." Some people write the "h," to more accurately reflect the Hebrew spelling, while others leave it off because it is not pronounced.

So here's what we're left with:

The most popular spellings are apparently Hannukkah and Chanukah, but you may see any variation of these. And this discussion reflects only the way it is written in America; in other countries, you may see other variations. For example, the LeeVees' song seems to indicate that in Spanish-speaking countries, it starts with a "J", as in Julio or jalapeno!

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