Saturday, December 27, 2008

Under Chanukah's Spell

A few folks have asked me why there are so many different spellings of Chanukah, to wit:


Okay, I'm exaggerating just a tiny bit here. And technically, when it's spelled with an H instead of a Ch, there's supposed to be a dot under the H, which indicates that it's pronounced as the guttural "ch" sound that is not found in English, but is present in some other languages, such as German (ach du lieber!).

For some, it's quite the conundrum, and the subject of a lighthearted song by the LeeVees:

Of course, there is one standardized way to spell the name of this holiday, and that's as follows:

See, it's spelled cheit, nun, vav (which represents the "oo" sound in this context), kaf, hei. Simple! That's going right to left, of course, because that's the direction you read and write in in Hebrew, and there are no vowels represented (aside from the vav indicating "oo"), which is typcially the case in Hebrew, although it is possible to fill in vowels using diacritical marks.

The process of translating from one writing system to another is called transliteration, and is a separate issue from the process of translation itself, which has to do with the meanings of the spoken language. As Eric Havelock has noted, learning another writing system is a separate and distinct task from learning another language, and of course it's much easier to just learn another language that uses the same writing system, for example learning French when you know English (although you do have to learn about the extra accent marks), or learning Hebrew when you already know Yiddish (a German dialect which is written in Hebrew, but uses the Hebrew alphabet in a slighty different way to accomodate itself to the different sounds of Yiddish, just as French uses the Roman alphabet in a slightly different manner than English).

So, not to belabor the point, but I just wanted to note here that I think that the fact that I went to Hebrew school as a child, and learned to read and write in another alphabet, helped to make me aware of the distinctions between orality and literacy at an early age, and set me on the course to becoming a media ecologist.

So, with one more night of Chanukah coming up, here's a very nice original song about Chanukah from the rock group Barenaked Ladies--the video is not much to look at, but it's the sounds that count.

1 comment:

tracy said...

hey lance
very informative
was going to wish you
a happy....chanukah..but
was worried about the spelling
next time i'm sure i could hit
one of the many ways you to you...glad to have found you upon twitter....