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!”