April 1st, 2014

(relatively) recent

Biblical pronunciation

I discovered this morning from ewx's blog that Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog hath ycalled, *ahem* has called for a celebration of ancient languages today, which ties in very nicely with what I was going to post this week anyway.

As some of my readership here will be aware, I use the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew, but most people nowadays use the Israeli pronunciation, which is to say the Sephardi pronunciation watered down to remove sounds Ashkenazim find it difficult to pronounce. Since most Jews today are Ashkenazim, this means they or their ancestors switched pronunciations in the course of the last century.*

* Or, in a few cases, the last two centuries: see my notes on Ismar Schorsch's talk on the European roots of Masorti Judaism the other day, if and when I get around to blogging them.

I grew up in one of the few non-Chareidi communities still to use the Ashkenazi pronunciation; everyone else in the synagogue I now attend, however, uses the Israeli. Over the course of the last ten years, I've had a few people tell me to change my pronunciation. "Why should I?" I said. "We did!" they replied.

Now, there is a tradition in Judaism of fitting in with one's community, but in today's individualistic world, few outside the Chareidi community take this very seriously. There's also a tradition, however, of adhering to the custom of one's ancestors; and if my parents and grandparents used the Ashkenazi pronunciation, and indeed their ancestors for the previous half millennium (though they mostly a different dialect of it*), who am I to change this custom unnecessarily.

* Newcastle uses the Yekkish pronunciation; I have a few Yekkes among my ancestors, but most of them are Litvaks or from what has historically been Poland (or in a few cases Sephardi); which differ mostly in how the vowel חוֹלָם is pronounced.

As it happens, though, I have been subtly changing my pronunciation of Hebrew over the last few years, in the direction of greater historical accuracy: I now pronounce מַפִּיק (the dot in a ה at the end of words), and I pronounce שְוָא נָע where, and only where, it is indicated in good siddurim.*

* My justification for this change, in the light of what I said above, is based on the precedent of Ashkenazi rabbis persuading their communities during the Middle Ages to place the stress when leyning where the trop is indicated on the words, rather than in the historically incorrect position used in the Ashkenazi pronunciation. I had never noticed before I learned this how when I am speaking, I pronounce, for instance, יִשְׂרָאֵל as /jɪs'rɒeɪl/, but when leyning as /jɪsrɒ'eɪl/.

Consequently, if I were to change my overall pronunciation, it would not be to the newfangled Israeli pronunciation at all, but to Biblical pronunciation (or as close as I can get to it). And if you'd like to hear what this sounds like, come along to Assif this Shabbos, where I shall be delivering a redacted version of the above rant prior to reading the הַפְטָרָה in Biblical pronunciation. (PS: This is not an April Fools!)

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