Transliteration: The X factor
The conventional spelling for the winter festival used to be “Chanukah,” but that has been abandoned.
Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia Photo: 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
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.
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
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
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.
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is a Senior
Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.