Reason for the Season

The Angry Grammarian was wrong. Let's have a holiday!

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 17, 2008

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I'm giving you a present this year. It's monumental, momentous and magnanimous. It's never happened before.

It's an admission. I was wrong.

A few weeks ago I referred to Hanukkah, the preferred spelling over "Chanukah," or the even more treyf "Chanuka," "Hanukah" or "Chanukkah." I blamed the goyim who'd mistakenly pronounce the "Ch-" like "chocolate," since Americans are hopelessly unable to summon the guttural, phlegmy "ch-" sound in Hebrew. For their sake, I said, we should sacrifice correct pronunciation of the Festival of Lights and soften the H.

A couple readers wrote in and changed my mind. Eight crazy nights, indeed.

"Look at the Hebrew!" says Dea Adria Mallin. "The word begins with a chet--the closed-H letter, not the open-H letter (heh). The word in Hebrew ends with an open-H, so it's 'Chanukah' with an H at the end." She also backs up the one K using the Hebrew.

And I stand corrected.

Of course there'll be confusion. Unfortunately, when most Americans see the word "chet," they think of Country Music Hall-of-Famer Chet Atkins before they think of latkes and dreidels. But there's even a linguistic basis for "Chanukah."

"It's voiceless velar fricative, or perhaps voiceless uvular fricative," says Penn linguist Aaron Dinkin. Say what?

"'Voiceless' means it's pronounced without the vocal cords vibrating. 'Velar' means it's pronounced with the back of the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. 'Uvular' means the back of the tongue is against the uvula. (The 'Ch-' in 'Chanukah' can be said either way.) 'Fricative' means the sound consists of a lot of noisy friction as the airstream flows around an obstacle.

"In Ancient Hebrew it wasn't pronounced with a velar fricative, but with a fricative further back in the throat, a lot closer to H," he adds. "So the spelling 'Hanukkah' represents the Ancient Hebrew pronunciation (complete with double K), and 'Chanukah' represents the Modern Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciation."

Logic like that? Solid as my grandmother's matzo balls. Happy Chanukah to you too.

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