Hebrew's True Pronunciation
To the Editor:
As an avid reader of Dr. Cecil Roth’s writings I have noted with special interest his article “Were the Sephardim Hidalgos?” in your August issue. I should like to offer a few observations of my own on the highly controversial matter of Hebrew pronunciation, which Dr. Roth discusses.
I am in disagreement when he maintains that “the general impression that the Sephardi pronunciation is more faithful is apparently erroneous . . . .” No one can categorically state which Jewish group today speaks Hebrew as it was spoken in the homeland more than two millennia ago. In the United States, where the Ashkenazi pronunciation is still maintained by the vast segment of the Jewish population—whose parents arrived mostly from the countries of Eastern Europe—Dr. Roth’s statement would be wholeheartedly subscribed to. A group dominant in numbers will not easily concede that the pronunciation of the Sephardi minority in their midst is more faithful than theirs. . . .
This divergence of pronunciation is one of the unhappy by-products of Jewish dispersion; almost nineteen hundred years of exile made it inevitable that their Hebrew pronunciation would be influenced by other languages which Jews spoke. In time, the ability to make certain typically Semitic sounds was lost.
For the following specific reasons, Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew cannot be “nearer the ancient Palestinian pronunciation,” as Dr. Roth claims: (a) Ashkenazim find it difficult to sound a Heth and a Caph differently; (b) they pronounce both the Qof (Q sound) and the Kaph as K; (c) and the three letters Samekh, Seen, and Tau, are all pronounced by the Ashkenazim as having the S sound. Can all this add up to a “faithful” pronunciation, with basic sounds fallen into desuetude? It goes counter to all the logic and discipline of any language to have several letters pronounced alike. Were they not distinctly different sounds originally? Has not Ashkenazi Hebrew indeed changed from the original?
Further, among Jewry to whom we apply the broad appellation Ashkenazi, we find that there exist variations in Hebrew pronunciation, as in the German, Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, etc. I submit that only those Jews who have lived in countries where they have spoken a sister Semitic language in their day-to-day conversation have been able to adhere to a more faithful pronunciation—as among the Babylonians, Yemenites, and Arabic-speaking Spanish Jews.
The father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer ben Yehudah, felt that the Hebrew spoken by the North African Jews approximated the Hebrew of ancient Judea. He preferred the Sephardi pronunciation, and by his ceaseless efforts was instrumental in influencing his generation to adopt it. Why does Dr. Roth consider this “partly an accident, partly a mistake”? Today almost half the population of Israel are Sephardi, and their pronunciation will further influence the emerging pattern of Hebrew pronunciation everywhere in the future. Already many tourists returning from a visit to Israel have changed to the Sephardi way of pronouncing (which I am glad to hear from Dr. Roth is “euphonious”). It may be two generations yet before Sephardi Hebrew prevails wherever Jews reside, but let us hope that the day will come when a uniform Hebrew will help to draw even closer the bonds of spiritual fellowship that unite all sections of the Jewish people.
Incidentally, by sheer coincidence, we have two Sephardi families in Indianapolis, Indiana, who have the family names of Eskenazi and Sarfaty—the very names cited by Dr. Roth as having been appropriated by Sephardim as “typically” their own, in their “annexatory tendency” in whatever land they found themselves.
(Rabbi) Elias Levi