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Transliteration: The X factor

December 8, 2012 21:43

The conventional spelling for the winter festival used to be “Chanukah,” but that has been abandoned.

Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia

Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia. (photo credit:Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

Last year at Hanukka, the Hebrew Department of University College London had much fun with the various spellings of Hanukka – Hannuka, Chanukah and so on, in the Jewish press. They listed 20 different transliterations, but failed to list the best ones, starting with the letter X, like Xanukah or Xanukka. This is because the use of the letter X for the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is not yet widespread, even though it is the answer to a transliterator’s prayer.

The conventional spelling for the winter festival used to be “Chanukah,” but that has been abandoned and today The Jerusalem Post and many other papers use the transliteration “Hanukka.” But both usages pose problems. The CH is open to mispronunciation. It can be hard as in “loch,” or it can be soft as in “cheese” and “chopsticks,” so it has been abandoned and replaced by the plain H. It should really be an H with a dot under it, as used in academic circles for the eighth Hebrew letter, Het. But journalists, printers and the ordinary folk cannot be bothered to do this, so it is omitted.

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And that, too, leads to a lot of mispronunciations.

When they see Hamas and Hezbollah, the BBC and others do not know it is meant to be a guttural H and so use the nice plain H, which gives those alarming terrorist organizations pleasantly soft and endearing names that sound like “ham” or “his bollah,” whereas they are really hard, murderous-sounding names with a rasping first letter.

So what’s the solution? The Greeks had it, and we should follow their example and use the letter X, thus Xamas and Xezbollah, and Xanukka, and no Xometz on Pessax. The Greeks transliterated the name of Persian emperor Chashavarasha, whom we call Ahashverosh, into Xerxes. It looks a little foreign, but it is a good transliteration of the Persian name, and there is no mistaking the harsh beginning as there is in Ahashverosh (if we forget the dot under the first H).

The X for the transliteration of the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet has been recommended to its members by the Israel Translators’ Association and it is surely time it was adopted more widely, and especially by the printed media.

Xappy Xanukka!

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is a Senior Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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