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On the Chutzpah of Serving Kneidel at a Spelling Bee

June 25th, 2013by Gershom Gorenberg · 1 Comment · Culture and Ideas

As you may remember, the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States stirred up  a storm in a soup pot when it asked contestants for the one correct English spelling of the Yiddish word for matzah balls. The Scripps spelling czars, working from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, said the word must be spelled knaidel and only knaidel. The YIVO Institute For Jewish Research said that the proper spelling, as per YIVO’s transliteration method, is kneydl.

The New York Times, misreporting on the fuss, said that “historically,” YIVO’s spelling was the “preferred” one. The Times didn’t say who preferred it, besides the mavens at YIVO. Asserting that there’s just one right way to write a Yiddish word in English, as I tweeted at the time, requires chutzpah, or hutzpa, or maybe ħutzpah, or perhaps hutzpah.

My 140 characters eventually reached my son, somewhere in the Himalayas. He wrote back (with a laptop on which he needed to make some small substitutions in the international phonetic alphabet):

Yehonatan Avraham Gorenberg

Besides the absurdity of putting this word in the spelling bee, there are a few points that YIVO seems to have missed:

The general point: Precise transliteration is impossible because languages are different phonetically and alphabets vary in their use of the letters. The international phonetic sign for Hebrew’s fricative kaf is the Greek letter chei, almost identical to x. If we used x to transliterate the Hebrew sound, native English readers would read it as ks. But x is useful for transliterating the latter consonant combination, which is common in Greek and Nepali (Sanskrit ksh). In old Spanish and Malti (and sometimes in Portuguese), x is used for sh. If we use ch for the fricative kaf, we cause the reader to confuse it with an existing English sound. Yet this is the most common transliteration. If we use kh, we create confusion with transliterations of Tibetan and Indian languages, in which the sound k+h is common. In fact, that was apparently the classical Greek value of chei in the first place.

The obvious Jewish point: Hebrew words are a large component of high-register Yiddish, and of Yiddish in general. Yiddish has indeed affected the pronunciation of these words in American English. However, transliteration is often based on the original Hebrew, especially with religious terms. So even if Americans Jews say xa:nikə (or some, ha:nikə),  they will still write “Hanukkah” because the Masoretic Hebrew is ħənukka:. This makes sense not only because Hebrew is the source language for this term, but also because Hebrew is a more commonly spoken language in the 21st century.

Similarly,  Persian and Hindustani contain many Arabic words, which we transliterate according to the Arabic, not the Persian or Hindustani, pronunciation. We will write of an Islamic judge as a “qadi” because the source words in Arabic are qa:Din, alqa:Di:, rather than writing “kaazi,” based on Hindustani – even though Hindustani can compete with Arabic for the number of speakers.

The subtle point: There are unstated conventions for writing sounds in English that seem natural to experienced readers of English. A few examples: y is rarely used medially; the k sound is represented by c except in the combinations ck, nk, kn, qu and before e, i, and y; v will usually be followed by a vowel and be proceded by a vowel medially; j is only natural at the beginning of a word; final e is ssumed to be silent.

These conventions are not always employed in present-day transliteration, but they affect words as they become part of common parlance. So if we followed Yiddish but treated the name of the holiday as English, we would probably write Chanikka or Hanikka. If the spelling were based on Hebrew but followed English conventions, it should be Hanuccah.

Sometimes when we transliterate a word, we deliberately do not naturalize it all the way, so as not to lead to specifically English pronunciation. In English, before the ck combination vowels are asumed to have their Saxonate English value (back, speck, wick, dock, duck) so we write Hanukkah for a more latin u. On th other hand, ch looks more natural than  kh so that is how people prefer to transliterate fricative kaf, even though that can lead to people pronouncing the name Noam Chomsky as if it were Noam Tshomsky.

I think before the 20th century the unwritten rules of English had a greater effect on  transliteration. So the King James Bible calls hyenas zeboim. The Arabic words xa:ru:b and xali:fa became carob and caliph. Today we would not write the Georgian name Dzhinzhakhshvili as Gingiaxuilli even though that is most natural spelling according to English conventions; at most we write Jinjakhshvili.

(The digital universe has it own transliteration methods, in which numbers are used for similarly shaped Arabic letters. A Palestinian may be named M7emmad on Skpe. But he will propably apply to an international university as Mohammad.)

To get back to the spelling bee: For the genuine Yiddish word, we may transliterate kneydl.  Once it enters English, kneidle, kneidel, knadel, knaidel and knaidle may all be preferred. None of these spellings indicates the proper pronunciation precisely. But that’s usually true of English spelling.

Got that? YIVO is right, and Webster’s is right – but Scripps is wrong to say that there’s just one spelling. Really, that’s sheer 7u9pah.

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