Orthography as a Political Phenomenon: How do you spell Hanukkah?


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I know that we’ve just passed Purim and are nowhere near the season of Hanukkah, but trust me, this is a perfectly good time to talk about this topic. That’s because this article isn’t actually Hanukkah-themed at all. Today, we’re going to talk about what I call orthographic domestication: the process by which an orthographic system converts lexical items from another system by making them fit cleanly within its own norms. In my freshman year at Lawrence, I had a few interactions with former Jewish Studies professor Elliot Ratzman. One time we were eating lunch and talking about Jewish mysticism, and he told me something along the lines of “Yeah, usually the books that spell Kabbalah with a Q are less reliable [or more kooky, or something like that].” After he told me this, I just sort of laughed. I didn’t feel like I had any reason to ask him why the q could have this kind of signification, but it was obvious: Jews are more likely to convert the Hebrew letter ק to k, and not q. But how did I know this, and why did this notion seem so much like common sense to me? What I’m hoping you walk away with after reading this article is the idea that, even though you might not always be thinking about orthographic domestication, your brain probably has an internal understanding of it. This allows you to evaluate some very fine pieces of meaning, particularly in political ways.  

So, how is Hanukkah spelled in Hebrew? If you caught my last piece, you’ll know that modern Jewish Hebrew is written using the square Aramaic alphabet. In this writing system, Hanukkah appears most commonly as חנוכה, with the /u/ vowel as long, and the /k/ consonant doubled. Spelled like this, we can conservatively reconstruct its original pronunciation as /ħanuukkáah/. But I encourage you to take a poll from all the Jews you can and see how many of them would want the English version of this word to be printed as Ħanuukkáah. My guess is that you won’t find much support from non-linguistically-inclined bread-and-butter Jewry. If you are of the idea that an orthography’s primary function is to accurately express the phonotactic qualities of spoken language, you might then wonder why the more accurate rendering of the word is not the most preferred. You might think that this is because the phonetic spelling contains characters that are not a part of the standard English orthography. But the Latin-based Somali writing system (which, if you know me, you know I am quite the fan of) completely conforms with standard English orthography and has the capacity to represent the original sounds of the Hebrew word — still, among Jews you would probably find the same opposition, if not more, to the spelling Xanuukkaah

I think that, as Jewish English speakers, we don’t tend to like the way that Hanukkah and other Hebrew words look when written in these ways because that’s not what we think those words look like in our head. We have a highly socially-influenced idea of what this specific Hebrew word (and of what English words in general) should look like; these highly accurate phonetic spellings do not conform with this. We are not alone in this regard. I think that most, if not all, English speakers would object to highly phoneticized renderings of foreign words, even ones which don’t look anything like their originals after we Anglicize them. There is an important system of schematization going on which regulates how we, as English readers, can navigate English text with the necessary presence of foreign lexical items, one which relies on a process that can best be called orthographic domestication. It is what it sounds like; I use this term to refer to when we take a “wild” lexical item from a different writing system which is incompatible with our own, and we orthographically tame it to make it into a word that can be represented in the English alphabet. To do this, we need to start with what we think the original lexical item is, and then we tweak it until it reaches the goldilocks zone of Anglicization. Once we have a version that fits nicely into our orthographical comfort zone, we can start to get used to it being represented this way, and over a long period of time, the way that word looks can become an image that our brain forms strong attachments to.  

So, why are there so many variations of /ħanuukkáah/ in English, like: Hanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukah and Chanukkah? You can probably see that it comes down to just two Hebrew consonants: /k/ and /ħ/. The choice between k and kk has to do with the specificities of Jewish Hebrew and Aramaic phonology. In this position, between two long vowels, it is impossible for /k/ to appear on its own without being realized as /χ/. So, unless it is confused with the “Kabbalah” consonant ק which was likely (originally) realized as either /k’/, or /q/, but which, today, is most often realized as /k/ (or in some dialects as /q/ or /g/), a reader can pretty confidently infer that a single k in this position in an Anglicized Hebrew word is representative of a doubled /k/ sound.  As for the /ħ/, there is no letter to represent it in English, so an orthographer who wants to create a visual representation of this word in written English must make a choice regarding its approximation. Because Ashkenazi Jews, as well as modern Israelis, tend to pronounce this letter as /χ/ instead of /ħ/, it makes sense to represent this sound with ch because this is how it would be written in most, if not all, of the languages in close proximity to English that have this sound, like German and Scotts. But does this represent how this letter is pronounced in other dialects of Jewish Hebrew, where it is pronounced as /ħ/? Or how English speakers will pronounce it, which is likely as /h/? If not, then maybe a simple h will do the job better — after all, that’s what we use for the English rendering of the word hummus, which in Arabic also has a /ħ/ sound. Hopefully you can see that, although it may seem like there are a confusing amount of variations of Hanukkah compared to other English words, from all the dozens of ways we could theoretically write the name of this holiday with varying levels of phonetic accuracy, only four really fit in the goldilocks zone, and there are solid reasons to consider each of these spellings acceptable.  

Obviously, when it comes to Hanukkah, the differences in spelling don’t have strong political implications, but this is not always the case when orthographic domestication occurs. Consider the differences in the thoughts or feelings that arise from reading the words Qur’an and Muslim vs. the words Koran and Moslem, Kaqchikel vs. Cakchiquel or Aleksandr vs. Alexander. Perhaps you will agree with me that looking at certain spellings of things can evoke different political feelings. 

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