Friday, June 06, 2008


At some point I was translating online between English and German (which are very similar languages linguistically), and I noticed the following curious phenomenon.

English - German
street - strassen
hot - heiss
nut - nuss

Each of these words, and many others, is essentially the same in English and German. The only difference is that the "t" sound in English is replaced with a "ss" sound in German.

This is, of course, the exact difference between the "normal" and Ashkenazi pronunciations of Hebrew!

My theory is that, about a thousand years ago, everyone in Germany forgot how to say the letter "t" and started pronouncing it as "s" instead. So words in German that had a "t" in them were now pronounced differently, and eventually this was recognized through the use of a new "ss" letter. For the Jews in Germany at the time, this affected their pronunciation of Hebrew as well as German. Based on the common German pronunciation, the letter "taf" became a "saf".

These Jews and their descendants moved east and became the Ashkenazi population of Europe. Despite their migration and dispersion, they remained remarkably faithful to their customs of speech. Their day-to-day language remained a variation of German (Yiddish), and their pronunciation of Hebrew retained the oddities of the non-Jewish population their ancestors had lived among in Germany.

Today Yiddish has virtually died out, but if you want proof that Ashkenazim indeed have ancestry in Ashkenaz, look no further than the "Ashkenaziss" pronunciation which remains alive and well to this day.


Tzvi Feifel said...

very interesting, but how could everyone suddenly forget how to pronounce the 't' sound?

Chag Sameach!

Beisrunner said...

Perhaps both "t" and "s" were pronounced somewhat differently from how they are today, so that it was more natural to confuse one for the other.

D.C. said...

Why, then, wouldn't they have started pronouncing taf degushah and tet as "s" as well?

We know that in the Tiberian pronunciation, a taf rafah was pronounced as "th." I can see how that could have easily morphed into "s," since they're pretty close sounds (both voiceless fricatives, one alveolar and one dental).

Beisrunner said...

You're right, I certainly should have alluded to the fact that the taf degushah remains a taf. Clearly there was a distinction in pronunciation with/without a dagesh before the Ashkenazi accent developed. I would assume that the taf without dagesh was pronounced much like the German "t"; both were unlike the modern "t", so both could make the transformation from "th" (or whatever) to "s".

It should also be noted that the German "s" I am talking about is not the regular "s", but rather the "sharp s", which has its its own character resembling the letter B (though recently "ss" has largely replaced it). Among the peculiar features of this letter is that it usually appears at the end of words and never at the beginning - exactly like the "saf" in Hebrew.

So basically, while I am not sure of the exact linguistic processes that occurred, I can't avoid concluding that they were the same in German and Hebrew. The evidence is just "too good not to be true".