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Monday, November 06, 2006

The "right" pronunciation

hebrew pronunciation of hebrew
In a comment thread on Mar Gavriel's blog the question of reclaiming ancestral traditions came up. I'd like to mention some issues and take as an example the question of pronunciation.

Maybe a reasonable compromise might be to go back to the most recent stage that makes sense and is legitimate, either as a whole or deciding each detail. What exactly your criteria are for "legitimacy" isn't easy. For example: If you accept the palestino-tiberian system (which, I think, all communities do today) and you're Ashkenazzi in your pronunciation, you distinguish pasech, chôlem and kometz.

Now, say if you're Dutch, that would be roughly [a] vs. [au] vs. [o]: hatTauro. The [au] clearly developed from an earlier [ou]. Do you consider this a legitimate change or development in minnek? After all, from the POV of phonology, it doesn't play a rôle if you say [au] or [ou] - you won't confuse words because of that. In fact, maybe it's even better from the POV of haloche, because [ou] is closer to [o], and if you slur it a bit or you don't hear well, [au] is more distinct.

But - [ou] is the older one: hatTouro. And it doesn't stop there. Probably it used to be [a] vs. closed [o] like in French or German vs. open [o] like in shawl. Should you go back to that? That's what the massoretes had in mind: hatToraw.

But - there were other massoretes, and I'm not sure the palestino-tiberian system we use today is compulsory. Sefardis and others use it in theory, but that they don't make a difference between pasech and kometz is a heritage of an earlier parallel system: hatTora.

Was the Redak's novel systemisation legitimate?

Up to some time between the 13th and 16th centuries ChE, we Ashkenazzim didn't distinguish between pasech and kometz either (hatTora)! Should we go back to that stage? Does this depend at all on the question if the change to a system that does distinguish came about through the "Babylonian renaissance", i. e. teachers from Mesopotamia where the system had been accepted at the time, like some scholars suggests, or because of inner-Yiddish, or even -German developments, as think others?

Not that it stops with the massoretes. It starts to get halochically and hashkofically precarious here: We have the normative massoretic tradition, but linguists tell us that at the time of the Tôre, it was all different. "She" and "he" in Hebrew would not be hi and hu, but hiwa and huwa, there wouldn't be a fricative pronunciation of the begad-kefas consonants, and these are only some harmless examples. All of this still doesn't scratch on the consonant letters of the Tôre. Should you go and accept that? Does the normative idea that there is an unbroken tradition since Sinai include the vowels?

Personally, going further "back" than the massoretes clearly doesn't seem right to me. Otherwise, I'm just not sure. Personal likes and dislikes, which I certainly have, must be secondary to the question what is right. Then again, if I say I can't adopt the pre-Ashkenazic pronunciation because it doesn't conform to the din, I'm actually saying my ancestors did it wrong for centuries - and they had a continuous tradition, as opposed to a conscious break like maybe the change from pre-A to A, and certainly the change from anything to Israeli Ivrit.

You bet before I go into publishing tefilles, I'll have a very close look at that and more than a casual talk with rabbonem.

(Update: Additional issues in the comment section.)



Blogger Dan Rabinowitz said...

Great post. The same question is applicable to Teffilah in general, should we be removing all from the Ari or the like or customs in general. I think the post highlights the point that even Orthodox Judaism is constantly evolving and the idea of a mesorah or history is rather fluid in nature.

Monday, November 06, 2006 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Regarding the Dutch example (ou to au), this mirrors the pronunciation shift in Gentile Dutch that has become more noticable in recent years, and was already prevalent in the dialects in the west of the country.

Regarding pronunciation of Ivrit in general, and as regards tefilles in particular, go with your minneg - custom gives a sanctitiy to language, and a taam wich cannot be replaced.

Monday, November 06, 2006 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger Phillip Minden said...

Dutch example (ou to au)

And I didn't even add the change from German and older Dutch [au], which is actually [ao] anyway, to today's Dutch and Swiss sound that is rather [äü].

pronunciation of Ivrit in general, and as regards tefilles in particular

The Israeli pronunciation is special in some regards:

- It's no community's traditional way, but made up. Then again, the same is true for the standard chareidi pronunciation, mixing Litvish k[o]metz and tz[ej]re with Ukrainer ch[oj]lem and [sh] vs. [s].

- An important motive in its design was anti-religious.

- The basis was taken from a "scholarly" pronunciation of German Christians, which was believed to be more correct, even among many Jews who were talked into believing their own pronunciations were "corrupted". Today we know more about linguistics (and anti-Semitism).

- Phonemically, it's the worst of all existing and extinct pronunciations, i. e. it makes the least distinctions between the sounds the massoretes' wanted us to distinguish.

+- It's used by people from many communities inside and outside of Israel. But the different pronunciations don't imply that one community is better than the other. And outside of Israel, some people associate talking Ivrit with being cool (here = contemptuous], which I often hear in their pronunciation in shul, too. Also, the more slurred, the cooler, 'ta mvin? (Hey, I'm not saying it isn't fun, just not appropriate in shul.) With an image: increasingly, the Polish fist shaken towards heaven turns into the Israeli upturned joined finger-tips gesture...

+- It connects many Israelis to their vernacular. But other pronunciations connect people to their respective vernaculars, and misunderstandings may happen because in Ivrit, many words have a meaning, or worse, nuance, that is different from traditional Hebrew.

+ All objections aside for a moment, it's been around for quite some time by now, and many people have even grown up with it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006 7:43:00 AM  
Blogger Joels W. said...

Check out my Jewish history blog at


Wednesday, November 08, 2006 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger Knitter of shiny things said...

This is probably going to sound like an incredibly ignorant question, but I'm going to ask it anyways: why does it matter whether or not you follow a certain minhag of Hebrew pronunciation? Is it a part of halacha? Is it just a really strong minhag?

I feel like if you're using some form of pronunciation that's understandable to others you're speaking Hebrew with then there shouldn't be a problem. I'm Ashkenazi, and yet I use modern Israeli pronunciations, or at least as close as I can get. I feel like in Israel that might be the better option if one normally speaks with a really heavy ashkenazi accent. (I conceptualize the pronunciation as an accent, even if it isn't really one.)

Monday, November 13, 2006 9:30:00 PM  
Blogger Phillip Minden said...


you're addressing some very valid questions here.

Is it just a really strong minhag?

Alright, so why does a particular pronunciation matter? There are at least two aspects in this, I think, and they might sometimes get into conflict with each other: first the explicit obligation to adhere to one's parents' customs, and in a larger sense, to one's ethnic community's. Minnek (custom) is not on the same level as haloche (law), but haloche demands to keep the minnek. This means you're supposed to use your parents' Polish, Yemenite etc. pronunciation, too.

Is it a part of halacha?

But then haloche itself gets in, too. For instance - the massoretes, grammarians a thousand years ago, are considered to be normative in matters of the Hebrew language of the Tôre.

Fine, now - since then the pronunciation changed. But you're interested and talented, and so you learned to pronounce the Arabic-style Ayin which the massoretes had in mind. Hmm.

I feel like if you're using some form of pronunciation that's understandable to others you're speaking Hebrew with then there shouldn't be a problem.

Absolutely: in real life, halachic phonology is much underrated, I think (one of my projects, heh). Basically, phonology is that part of pronunciation research that doesn't look at the beauty, origin, physics or whatever of sounds, but only at their function, their rôle in being understandable.

Ayin vs Alef is certainly a clear issue: they were different, and in Ashkenazic, words now sound the same that should be different - no good. But if you pronounce a Polish-Jewish R like the French, or a Russian-Jewish R like the Scots, or that funny hot-potato-in-mouth thing we produce when we speak English, that doesn't play a rôle concerning the difference between words. (For picked nits, drop me a mail.)

So, the general consensus behind this keeping to one's family's pronunciation is that they're all valid in principle. Some people see that differently, and so R' Ovadya Yosef shlit"e say it's OK to change from Ashkenazic to Sefardic (don't know if he includes Israeli in that), but not vice versa. This is hard to understand from the facts - the two traditions have a similar distance from the norm.

There are many additional questions, such as: should you use your parent's pronunciation if they "illegaly" broke up with their own parent's pronunciation, for instance when they stopped to use their childhood's Yemenite and changed to Ashkenazic? And what if their parents wanted that, or assented at least, by putting your parents in a school that taught Ashkenazic?

Then the big question is if non-traditional pronunciations have any right to exist at all, because they're not the original, and don't have the excuse of tradition and custom. As I wrote above in the post, this refers mainly to Israeli and Chareidi (which funnily is identical to the anti-Orthodox YIVO standard, made up some decades earlier), also to Artscrollese.

Israeli pronunciations […] in Israel that might be the better option

No question. People mightn't understand you otherwise, and they'd probably laugh at you, with or without an American accent on top. But this is an entirely different matter: In one case you're supposed to read the Tôre the way the tradition was noted down - you can't just change it to your likes. In the other case we're talking about a modern vernacular, one that some people suggested should be written in Roman letters, when the language was developed a hundred years ago.

A reason to allow saying the prayers etc. in the Israeli pronunciation might be less by virtue of its being a legitimate pronunciation, but through the licence to say prayers in the vernacular if somebody doesn't know the holy tongue. That's still difficult, because even pronunciation aside, the language of the sidder isn't the same as vernacular Ivrit.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 7:29:00 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

What's the problem with modifying our street Ashkenazzis for ritual purposes? Isn't that exactly what "Full Ashkenazzis" is?

Yausef Schmau, 1823 leminyonem: "Well, I typically say /yom/, but it's written here with a chaulem, not a kometz, so I'll say /yaum/."
Joe Schmoe, 2006 leminyonem: "Well, I typically say /khavakkuk/, but it's written here with a Hes, not a khof, so I'll say /Havakkuk/."

Thus, there is a mesoure for doing so!

Thursday, November 16, 2006 9:49:00 PM  
Blogger Phillip Minden said...

Yes, the parallelity is there! There's a difference that was historically decisive, and might still be relevant for haloche today: Herr Schmau had the /au/ already in his sound inventory both in Hebrew and in Western Yiddish or later German - it was just not his tradition to use it for וֹ chôlem in most Hebrew words unless the syllable was open.

The Arabic-style ח Hes on the other hand is not in your average Ashkenazzi's box of sounds unless (s)he's being strangled. That difference might be purely academic in case Joe can pronounce it after all, but there are other aspects such as conformity inside a shul or community, or that people are chv"sh estranged from the texts. I think these arguments are not strong enough to foreclose a decent Semitic Hes, and the estrangement might in fact get people out of their routine and make them see the words in a fresh way. (But then again, I'm not your, I mean, Mr Shmoe's rav.)

For the ת /th/, even this argument doesn't apply at least for most English speaking people.

Oh, and two other issues:

First, maybe the Full Ashkenazzis pronunciation was always there, and Herr Schmau's ancestors always said /yom/ in everyday speech, but /youm/ in shul, so it was not his invention to say /au/ in shul. My suspicion, as you know, is that this was not so and it was /yom/ all the way since before the emergence of the Ashkenazic pronunciation, but I
could be wrong there.

Secondly, maybe Herr Schmau was wrong in doing that in the first place, and should have continued to say /yom/ in a closed syllable, but /yaumau/ in an open one, like old Opa Schmau did. Hard to imagine if we look at it from today, but possible. Still, I don't think so and you're probably right.

For you and me, this obviously means we should pronounce ח Hes, ע Oyen, ט Tes etc., but not bother people who have difficulties with them when we teach or use practical transcriptions.

Friday, November 17, 2006 2:11:00 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

76For you and me, this obviously means we should pronounce ח Hes, ע Oyen, ט Tes etc., but not bother people who have difficulties with them when we teach or use practical transcriptions.

Should we teach tov refuye = /s/ to Europeophones, and /th/ to Anglophones?

Friday, November 17, 2006 9:36:00 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

relevant for haloche

Why do you write "haloche", rather than "heloche" (or "din")?

Friday, November 17, 2006 9:40:00 AM  
Blogger Phillip Minden said...

Zat voult mehk zenss, or?

Friday, November 17, 2006 9:40:00 AM  
Blogger Phillip Minden said...

Why do you write "haloche", rather than "heloche" (or "din")?

Inconsistency, and also because I can't do the green-word trick in the comment section, so I try not to confuse innocent readers too much.

Friday, November 17, 2006 9:42:00 AM  
Blogger Joels W. said...

Interesting post.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006 3:19:00 PM  

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