Image: A chanukiah, or menorah, on Night #4 of Chanukah. Art by Rabbi Adar.
If you are worried about spelling Chanukah properly, don’t. All the transliterations in the title of this post are fine – in fact, anything that will communicate the Hebrew word for “Dedication” works fine.
Here’s the proper spelling of the word:
I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on MyJewishLearning.com. So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:
Image: A row of candles, aflame. Photo by Gil-Dekel/Pixabay.
What’s with all the crazy spelling?
Why isn’t there one right way to spell the name of that holiday that usually falls in December?
Here’s the problem: the right way to spell it is
That’s right. It’s a Hebrew word.
All the spellings you see are attempts to make the word easier for English speakers, and some of those sounds are tricky. The first letter (on the far right) makes a sound a bit like a cat spitting. I like to transliterate it as “Kh” because no one is tempted to pronounce that like the CH in “choo-choo.” However, I’ve never seen the holiday spelled Khanukah, so I don’t spell it that way either.
The rest of it is pretty straightforward, except that the one that looks like a backwards “C” has a hard K sound. For a Hebrew grammarian, that means the letter is invisibly doubled. That’s why some transliterations have one K, and some have KK.
The bottom line is that none of the English transliterations are really correct, nor can they be, because Hebrew and English are quite different. So we are stuck with approximations like Chanukah and Hanukkah.
The real answer, of course, is to learn a little Hebrew. Then you can skip the transliterations and go straight to the source!
OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.
Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.
For instance, consider these words:
If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.
If I transliterate:
Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.
That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:
Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”
If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.
That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.