Sunday, March 26, 2006

How to let "chametz" pass your lips

Considering the season and the recent launch of Balashon, I thought I'd finally bite the bullet and address a Frequently Asked Question I've long been evading (unlike the Frequently Unasked Questions I addressed a while back). Judging from the search referrals to this site, a lot of people out there are wondering:

Q: How is the word "chametz" pronounced?

A: If only I knew....

Seriously, though, it depends on one's dialect of Hebrew. Like all languages, and especially 4000-year-old languages, Hebrew has many dialects and accents. This goes back at least to biblical times, and is the origin of the English word shibboleth.

To tell you how to pronounce "chametz" I'd have to know what Hebrew dialect you're speaking. Actually, there are even multiple ways to spell "chametz" using English letters, depending on what aspects of the original Hebrew (חמץ) you're trying to capture best. (See another way to spell "biur chametz" here.)

In fact, among common Hebrew dialects today, the only sound in the word "chametz" that everyone pronounces the same is the "m". The two syllables are even accented differently.

Without further ado, I'll try to describe how to pronounce the word in three different contemporary Hebrew dialects, including two of the most common. Since I'm not a linguist (and, chances are, neither are you), I won't bother with phonemes and pronunciation symbols and other technical jargon. Anyway, I couldn't do it if I tried.

1. Israeli Hebrew
The most common Hebrew dialect today is the one spoken by most Israelis.

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: cha-METZ. Taking it one sound at a time:

ch - as in "Bach" - a rough guttural sound like when you clear your throat (but briefly)
a - as in "father", but briefer
m - as usual... how else can you pronounce m?
e - as in set, though perhaps with a bit of "ay as in say" mixed in
tz - like the "ts" in "pets"

Except for the first sound, it's similar to how a baseball fan says "the Mets".

2. American Ashkenazi Hebrew
This is the way most American Jews pronounce Hebrew (at least those who haven't adopted the Israeli accent).

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: CHA-metz. This is actually a violation of the rules of Hebrew grammar, but it is common for Ashkenazim to change the accenting of Hebrew syllables.

Most of the sounds in the word are the same as for Israeli Hebrew.

ch - as above
a - like the "u" in "hug", or sometimes with more "o" in it, like the "o" in "more"
m - as above
e - a very short, indistinct vowel sound (shewa), like the "e" in "wallets"
tz - as above

Except for the first sound, it's similar to how an American says "summits".

3. Yemenite Hebrew
This is probably the closest contemporary dialect to the way Hebrew was spoken in ancient times. Other Sephardic dialects are similar to the Yemenite dialect in many ways. Even Yemenite Jews who have adopted Modern Israeli Hebrew for everyday speech usually maintain Yemenite pronunciation for prayer.

It's hard to describe some of these sounds to English speakers. I'm also less familiar with it, and I may be wrong on some of the subtleties.

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: cha-METZ.

ch - as above, but much softer. Instead of a harsh, grating sound like clearing the throat, it's a gentle rush of air through the back of the throat. Like an "h" with a bit of sandpaper. I can't explain it better than that!
a - as in "father", but briefer
m - as above
e - as in set, more or less
tz - like an emphasized "s", with a bit of a hiss. No "t" sound or "z" sound in it at all.

No matter what you do, it isn't similar to the way an American pronounces anything. (An Arab, on the other hand...)

Now, don't get me started on the word "biur"!


David Boxenhorn said...

You forgot the Israeli Mizrahi accent!

BTW Thanks for the link! I didn't even notice since my blog is near-dead at the moment.

Zman Biur said...

Mizrahi is sort of a blend between Modern Israeli and Yemenite, I guess.

My blog's pretty comatose too lately. Good luck with Domicel!