This the second time that I am coming to the linguistic defense of a right-wing politician for whom I have no regard. The first time was in 2004, when George W. Bush was ridiculed for referring to the people of Greece as Grecians. As I elaborated in a later essay, Grecian, as distinct from Greek, is a good way to differentiate between the people of Greece and the Greek ethnicity, since some of the Slavs, Vlachs and Arvanites (ethnic Albanians) in Greece may choose not to identify themselves as Greeks, while the Greeks of Cyprus are Cypriots but not Grecians. This distinction is similar to that between Serbian and Serb, Somalian and Somali, Laotian and Lao, and there are many other instances where a country is named for its dominant (but not only) ethnic group, which in turn may be represented in other countries.

This time the matter is not terminology but pronunciation: Michele Bachmann’s saying the word commonly spelled chutzpah with the sound /ʧ/. This, of course, is the usual English way of pronouncing ch, as in church, except for some Greek-derived words, like character and architect, in which the sound is /k/.  (The words of the chemic family, originally Arabic, have also come to us by way of Byzantine Greek.)

Of course, one would think that someone with two instances of ch in her name, each pronounced differently, would be sensitive to such nuances. But one would be mistaken.

(C)hutzpa(h) is supposed to be pronounced with a /χ/ or /x/ sound, as ch is pronounced in German or Scottish words like Bach or loch. But neither in German nor in Scots does ch represent this sound at the beginning of a word; the only languages in which it does so, to my knowledge, are the West Slavic ones (Czech, Slovak, Polish), and why should that fact influence English? Especially since there is an old English tradition of representing the voiceless velar or uvular (commonly called guttural) fricative, in words taken from languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, with kh.

I already commented in an essay on the letter H that Orthodox Jews have a special predilection for using ch to represent the /χ/ sound of Yiddish, especially in words that are originally Hebrew where the sound is represented by ח (ḥet) (as in names like Chaim and Chana). While in modern Israeli Hebrew this letter is in fact read as /χ/, this has not always been the case; the older pronunciation (still practiced by some Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews) is more like /h/, as reflected in the English forms of Biblical names like  Hezekiah and Hannah.

Besides, most English-speaking people don’t bother pronouncing the “foreign” sound /x/ or /χ/. With the Murdoch name all over the media these days, I have yet to hear it spoken in the Scottish way, like this; everyone pronounces the final ch as /k/. And most people, except a few bubble-dwellers like Michele Bachmann (pronounced like Bockman), pronounce chutzpah with an /h/ sound. Why, then, not spell it hutzpah?


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