Pageviews last month

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


This past week, in a class dealing with Jewish weddings, one of my students at Boston College was reading an English text that included the Hebrew word huppah (pronounced as “hoopah” meaning, “[wedding] canopy”). He innocently pronounced it as “tchoopah” because the transliteration in front of him had “chuppah.” I smiled and corrected him. He is not alone. Most Americans, upon seeing the letters “ch”, pronounce it as “tch” like “Churchill” or “charity.” That is why I find the rendition of the Hebrew letter het (ח) as “ch” absolutely silly!

Hebrew is a west-Semitic language, which contains a number of letters that cannot easily be transliterated for lack of equivalencies. To resolve this problem, many systems have been devised to reproduce as close as possible the sound of Hebrew letters into English or other European languages. Among them the one created by the Society of Biblical Literature or the Academy of the Hebrew Language is well known to scholars and popular writers; none of them, however, is adequate or totally correct. They are often cumbersome and not always user-friendly.

Today, most Jews, unless they are of Arabic speaking countries, do not pronounce the letter het, a strong guttural coming from the back of the throat, differently from any another hard “h” like the English “hot” or “Humphrey.” Its sound would be close to the German “ch” as in “buch” [pronounced as “booh, meaning “book”] or “Achtung” [pronounced as “ahtoong, meaning “attention”), and in Spanish, like the “j” in Juan.”

Many American publications follow the German method, and transliterate het as “ch.” But this method often ends up being funny for a western reader. For example, the Hebrew/Yiddish word for “friends/company” is hevre, and is often romanized as “chèvre;” but that means “goat” in French. The Hebrew word for “festival” is hag, but it is usually transliterated as “Chag;” this sounds like the song my granddaughter, almost three, sings, “Toot toot chugga chugga big red car.” The Hebrew hai means “life” but when rendered as “chai” it reminds me of “Çay”[pronounced as "tchai"], a Turkish word meaning “tea.” Recently, in a discussion about Jewish circumcision, one of my students kept saying “tchi-toosch,” until I realized that he meant hittukh (meaning, “cutting”), because the text he had in his hand read “chituch.” I don’t think you can say with a straight face “chidush” for the Hebrew word hiddush (“novelty”). This is absurd.

So, I am, once again, starting a campaign to drop the silly “ch” from the system of transliteration. I tried before but was not able to get the attention of key people in the publishing industry. Using “h” for the letter het may not be the best solution but at least an American reader will be able to read it closer to the way in which it is pronounced by a Hebrew speaking person today. In my work, I render the letter "het" as "h" and the latter "kaf'/khaf" as "kh." Hence, for instance, I prefer Hanukah to “Chanukah” (it is not ‘tcha-nukah); hayyim (“life”) to "chayyim,” "barukh" to "baruch,"or hasid (“pious”) to “chasid.”

Hopefully, I made my point. Please drop the silly “ch!”

Rifat Sonsino


  1. I still remember the "holiday" concert at my son's school where the teacher referred to a particular Hanukkah song as a "tchasidik" melody.

  2. dear Rabbi Soncino,
    Full of respect, I do not agree with you. It's not difficult at all to learn that ch represents the Hebrew letters Chet or Chaf - only tell them that it's like the Spanish J or the German Ch, (that are part of the Western world too) and the best of all, to encourage them to study Hebrew.
    In Portuguese (I'm Brazilian), to translate those letters by H is just wrong and far worse than by ch, because in Portuguese the H doesn't have sound - something like the Alef, completely different from chet or Chaf. People also can see at the first pages how is the pronounciation, and most of them are familiar to this kind of translation.
    As you said, no translation is perfect, so we can choose for anyone that is more confortable for his or her mother language - if it is English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Japanese, etc etc. In all levels of life we have codes that need to be explained, and this one is far from the most difficult of them.
    As a matter in fact, if someone would read Baruh in Portuguese it would sound as Baru, and we only recognize that this guy doesn't know hebrew, that's all. I think that independently of the translation, the wrong pronounciation is an excellent opportunity to teach something about Hebrew and about Judaism.
    Have a nice week!
    Uri Lam

  3. Dear Uri,
    I agree with you about Portugese. The same applies to Spanish. For example, when I transliterate the Hebrew word "hesed"in Spanish I put "jesed." My argument is with regard to English. I think transliteration has to go with the language in which the text is translated. I prefer "h" for "het" and "kh" for Kaf.
    Best wishes.

  4. Dear Rabbi Soncino, I agree with you.

  5. As Rabbi Sonsino's editor, I am the keeper of a transliteration system that has provoked his ire for using "ch" for chet and chaf. (I take full responsibility for every "ch" in his books.) The transliteration system we use at URJ Press aims not to render pronunciation so much as spelling. For this reason, the vowel tzerei is rendered "ei" and the vowel segol is rendered "e" even though they are pronounced the same in modern Hebrew. At the same time, we also take into account popular spellings, which is one of the reasons we use "ch." "Chanukah" is in my dictionary, and the "ch" has become familiar to most American Jews and many non-Jews. I would argue that using "h" instead only leads to a different mispronunciation, and that "kh" is an unfamiliar letter combination to most readers and potentially jarring. For me, "ch" is a viable if imperfect solution.

  6. For me, the purpose of transliteration is to enable non-Hebrew speaking folks to be able to read transliterated Hebrew texts. "Ch" simply does not work in America. How would you read the title of a famous Hebrew song (well, originally it was a Ladino song "Sheharhoret?" meaning, "brunette." "Shecharchoret" is funny!

  7. my name is hiya how should i write it in english