A Word About Transliteration

Transliteration from Hebrew to English is a thorny problem. The two languages are far from being phonetically congruent. Some Hebrew sounds have no equivalent in English and can only be represented by some contrived combination of letters that bear some resemblance to the sound to be reproduced. Furthermore, although the English language uses only 26 letters, these letters represent 117 different sounds. Consequently, the reader of a transliterated word who is unfamiliar with the original Hebrew will often have difficulty determining which of the several possible sounds of a given letter is indicated. Finally, there is the issue of dialect.

I try to adopt an Ashkenazic dialect since most members of KSY are of Ashkenazic descent and we daven nusach Ashkenaz. I wish to encourage proper Ashkenazic usage instead of the Sefaradic pronunciation used by some Ashkenazim. I prefer that the ba’alei kerioh use havoroh Ashkenazis rather than havarah Sefaradit. To a lesser degree this is also a preference for the ba’alei tefilloh and olim laTorah.

In my transliterations, the komatz is generally represented by the letter o. Sometimes I add an h if the o is liable to be sounded as in the word go or no. I will also generally add an h at the end of a word that ends in a komatz heh. For example, I might write mitzvoh instead ofthe commonly used mitzva to emphasize the komatz, so that it will not be read as a patach. When words have become standard in English (e.g., Torah), I ignore these rules and use the common spelling instead. Furthermore, in the word Torah, the first vowel is a cholam and the juxtaposition of two o’s that sound different is confusing. The word yeshiva is common and is usually read correctly, so there is no need to write yeshivoh.

The patach is represented by the letter a.

Both the ches and the chof are represented by ch, as in mechanchim. This appears to be the most practical. Havoroh Ashkenazis does not differentiate between the two. Since the English ch sound does not exist in Hebrew, there should be no confusion.

The shevo noh is indicated by an e. The e is also used for a segol. Although this creates confusion and it might be more practical to use an apostrophe, I try to avoid apostrophes. I tend to use a lot of transliteration when writing for our kehilla, and to my eye letters look nicer than apostrophes. Besides, the apostrophe does not add as much emphasis as does an e. I encourage the tzibbur to pronounce a proper shevo noh, and an e seems to drive the point home very clearly.

An apostrophe is used to indicate a break in a word. For example, in the word ra’anan, the apostrophe separates the patach under the reish from the patach under the ayin.

The combination ei is used for a tzeirei. (The sound is the same as the ay in the words play, clay and say,but it is also spelled ei in freight. To use ay for a tzeirei seems too cumbersome and presents other problems.)

A chirik is indicated by an i. Where readers are liable to read the e of a shevo noh as a segol, and are unlikely to read an i as a chirik, I will use an i for the shevo noh. Hence I would write bireishis rather than bereishis.

The long I sound, as in shy, high and try, is sometimes difficult to reproduce. I heard a lot of resistance to my spelling of parshas Vyechi. I rejected the standard spelling of Vayechi because the shevo under the yud is a shevo nach, not a shevo noh. There are two syllables to be sounded: Vye (as in rye or vie) and chi (as in see or knee). I opted for Vyechi, but I am open to suggestions, since my choice is not perfect and allows for mistaken pronunciation.

Instead of trying to follow rules consistently, I try to consider how a person who does not know Hebrew would read the word. The most important criterion is the spelling that would result in the best reproduction of the correct sound.

I try to avoid using capital letters for transliterated Hebrew words (unless they are proper nouns) since Hebrew has no capital letters.

There is a major lack of uniformity on the issue of transliteration. Since beginning to write with a lot of transliteration, I have come to use the system described in order to maintain some structure and consistency. I do not claim that my system is superior to others. I offer this essay in the way of explanation for all those who have questioned my spellings and to bring greater consistency to the newsletters, which generally have my writings and the writings of other people on the same page.