Monday, January 25, 2010
The Tongue of G-d: I
I've been chatting with a few folks over at Chana's blog recently (at times it can be a great place for random discussions, since she's not very engaged in comment moderation). I made a quick comment about how I disapproved of Chana using the Ashkenazi pronunciation in writing (since she's part Sefaradi), and it spurred some reader interaction (actually kind of proud about that). I do still want to write a post glorifying speaking ("Modern") Hebrew as a language, but it might be wise to say a few words about proper Hebrew pronunciation first anyway. The historical aspect of this subject has actually recently had exhaustive coverage in the blog of my newfound online friend, Joel Davidi. The only problem is that his blog offers no opinion, only a record of the opinions of others.
It should be remembered, first of all, that it makes a great difference how Hebrew is pronounced, for we use Hebrew in our prayers to G-d, and certainly we wouldn't want to be speaking to him blasphemously in some non-language jargon, but rather in a clear precise Hebrew, as He intended. Also, in Israel today, the way one pronounces the language has strong socio-political connotations, and in some places the way you pronounce the consonants is definitive of who you are and what you stand for.
My opinion has always been pretty straightforward on this matter: while there are Ashkenazim who'll tell you that there is a certain antiquity to their pronunciation, and that there have always been different Hebrew pronunciations, especially with regards to the different schools of nikkud that flourished in Israel a millenia ago, I still feel their words are misleading. The "authenticity" in this pronunciation is the dried skeleton of authenticity. Hebrew, friends, is a Middle Eastern, Semitic language, and it cannot be separated from those roots. Most of what constitutes the Ashkenazi pronunciation is purely a European and even a Germanic influence on this Middle Eastern language (which, linguistically, can lend itself to absurdities). Forget the pronunciation; the very way children of the lands of the uncircumcised move their mouths and lips is alien to any Semitic tongue. The most beneficial thing for them would be to study the native usages of other Semitic languages so they themselves can see what a perversion their speech was.
Vowels: They'll also say that they differentiate between the kamatz and the patah', and long vowels and short vowels more than Sefaradim. The truth is that it's mostly Israeli and a small group of Sefaradim who did not make any distinction at all between these vowels, especially considering that Arabic does differentiate between them. From Morocco to Iran different forms of the kamatz were in use, that were present in words, but were very discreet about their presence, unlike the clumsy European kamatz.
Syllables: Then of course is the מלרע/מלעיל (mil'el/mil'ra) issue. For anyone who doesn't know; in words with more than one sylable, mil'el is stressing the first syllable and mil'ra is stressing the last. German Yiddish and English obviously are mil'el languages. Hebrew is a mil'ra language. Anglicizing Hebrew words to be mil'ra is obviously just laziness and a corruption of our language. Nothing else to say about that.
Consonants: In the aforementioned blog comment, I said I got the impression that Chana wasn't the biggest scholar of biblical Hebrew in the world because "when someone is "still" using "suf"s instead of "tav"s you get the impression it would be impossible for them to grasp the beauty in the tongue of G-d". The consonants have always been a point of contention among us, the "ת רפויה" especially. But I'm concerned only with what seems most correct, not bickering. I see the words of the outspoken Meir Mazuz (today's leading Sefaradi grammarian) on this subject as being correct: theoretically it should be similar to the Arabic ث ("th") sound (which, unlike popular belief, is not much like the English "th", but is more like an "airy" hard t sound), but if you have a hard time pronouncing that all the time, you're better off saying "t" instead of "s" since it's much closer to the "t" sound.
Other than that, it's obviously right and correct to differentiate the א's from ע's, ח's from כ's, ט's from ת's, ק's from כ's and ס's from צ's (as in the other Semitic languages).