Being religious about spelling is not the point

December 19, 1997|By Fred B. Shoken

THE HOLIDAY season has arrived and once again we are faced with a question that has perplexed the English-speaking world for decades: What is the correct spelling of the Jewish holiday that will be celebrated next week?

The most common spellings are: Hanukkah, Chanukah and Hanukah, but other variations abound. They include: Hanuka, Hanukka, Chanuka, Chanukka and Chanukkah.

Last year, the U.S. Postal Service weighed in with a ''Hanukkah'' stamp. This may have settled the matter once and for all by having a single spelling officially sanctioned by an agency of the U.S. government. After all, in the movie ''Miracle on 34th Street,'' the judge rendered Kris Kringle sane based upon the practices of the U.S. Postal Service.

There is, however, a problem with this solution. There are in fact ++ two correct ways to spell this holiday. The correct spellings are (from right to left):


This Hebrew word means dedication and is only correctly written with the Hebrew letters ches, nun, kaph and hey (sometimes with a silent vuv in the middle). Other spellings are English versions of Hebrew, a language which is not only written from right to left, but has an alphabet that doesn't readily translate to English. When converted into English, Hebrew words and names often get mangled. That's how the Biblical patriarch whose name is Yitzchak became Isaac.

The first letter in the name of the holiday, ''ches,'' has no English equivalent. It is pronounced with the sound found in the composer's name, Bach, and is most commonly used today in the German language.

The 'h' sound

''Chanukah'' is the chosen spelling for some who want to encourage people to pronounce the name with the Bach sound instead of the ''h'' sound. But this spelling may only add to the confusion because it encourages some people to pronounce the ''ch'' as in chair, and turn the holiday into something that sounds like Chinook, a Native American tribe.

Linguists prefer to use ''kh'' to indicate this sound, since it is made by positioning the mouth to say the letter ''k'' and then making a hard ''h'' sound. Yet, if we spelled the holiday, ''Khanukah,'' it would undoubtedly come out of many mouths souding like Konica, an Asian camera company.

The basic problem with spelling this holiday in English is that Hebrew is a very different language with unique sounds. There is no one correct English way to spell the holiday, and, therefore, any version which encourages the correct Hebrew pronounciation is entirely acceptable and welcome.

Although some will not be satisfied with this answer, I believe there should be no single English equivalent for this Hebrew word. Hebrew, a language of a small minority, cannot be easily converted into English, the language of hundreds of millions.

Just as the Hebrew language is different from English, this holiday should not be thought of as a Jewish equivalent of Christmas, a holiday celebrated by the majority of Americans.

Hanukkah, Chanukah or Hanukah is a separate and distinct holiday which predates Christmas. It celebrates an entirely different historical and religious event. It is spelled in a different language. Its date is set by a different calendar. It is celebrated with different symbols, traditions, foods, songs, prayers and ceremonies.

A minor holiday

Since this minor holiday takes place roughly the same time of year as the most celebrated holiday in the Christian calendar, it has been embellished and enhanced beyond its true significance. Those who respect religious diversity should allow it to remain separate and distinct from Christmas.

There is no single way to spell this holiday, just as there is no single way to celebrate our various religious and cultural traditions during this season of holidays. Let us celebrate them within the same season, but in our own manner and according to our own traditions.

In this spirit, I conclude with a Merry Christmas to my Christian neighbors; a joyous Kwanzaa to my African-American friends and a Happy Chanukah (spelled according to my own preference) to my Jewish brothers and sisters.

Fred B. Shoken is a historian.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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