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Switched at Birth: Letters of Old

The word is spelled “comfort-able.” Why, then, do many people pronounce it as if it were spelled “kumf-ter-bl,” moving the “t” in between the “f” and the “o”? Why is “iron” pronounced “eye-urn” by a majority of Americans? And why is Brett Favre’s last name pronounced by most Americans as “Farf”?

The examples above illustrate a concept known as “metathesis.” Metathesis takes place when letters change their positions within a word, to form a new pronunciation and, if given enough centuries, a new spelling. Generally, a word undergoes metathesis as a means to ease pronunciation, but this is not always the case.

This phenomenon is not especially common in Biblical Hebrew, but two words where it does take place should be familiar: כֶּבֶשׂ, sheep, and שִׂמְלָה, garment. Quite frequently, the בּ and שׂ of כֶּבֶשׂ interchange, resulting in כֶּשֶׂב.[i] The result applies to the plural as well (both כְּבָשִׂים and כְּשָׂבִים[ii] are attested). Similarly, with שִׂמְלָה, the שׂ and the ל interchange, forming שַׂלְמָה.[iii]

Historically, the sounds “r”, “s”, and “t” have been particularly susceptible to the process of metathesis. It can be seen above with כֶּבֶשׂ and שִׂמְלָה; the “שׂ” moves around within each word. It is also quite noticeable when roots whose first letter is an “S” sound (or similar)[iv] are conjugated inבניין התפעל .[v]

The aforementioned letters are also metathetical culprits in other languages. The letter “s” followed by a plosive[vi] letter such as “k,” “p,” or “t” is often involved. For example, the word “asterisk” is quite often pronounced “asterisk,” as the letter combination “ks” after a vowel is slightly less awkward than “sk” after a vowel for most people. Sometimes the “s” before the plosive is dropped completely by some speakers, i.e., “specifically” being pronounced “pacifically,” eliminating the “sp” consonant cluster in the beginning of the word.

Somewhat surprisingly, metathesis can also work the other way. You may have heard people saying, “I want to aks [sic] you a question” one time or another. Many people treat this word as a corruption of the word “ask”. However, “aks” actually predates “ask”; the latter became a more standard pronunciation of the word over the centuries, but the two forms have coexisted since the around the 14th century.[vii] There are still communities across the English-speaking world where saying “aks” is the norm, particularly in the South. Another example of this type of metathesis is the word “wasp,” originally spelled and pronounced “wæps.”

As mentioned above, the presence of the letter “r” is also a very common cause for metathesis. Words like “bird” and “third” were originally “bridd”[viii] and “thridd”; the word “leprechaun” was originally, in Old Irish, “luchorpan”, and; “nos-tril” was first spelled and pronounced “nos-tirl.”[ix] Often the newly-metathesized words are not that old: only relatively recently has “prescription” become pronounced “per-scription” in some dialects; “iron” may not have always been pronounced “eye-urn”;[x] “pretty” can turn into “purty” pretty quickly; and, of course, let’s not forget Brett Favre: in most English dialects, the “r” moves once again, producing the word “farv”, at which point the “v” becomes unvoiced and turns into an “f”, yielding “farf”.[xi]

What about the first word mentioned in the article, “comfortable”? It also undergoes metathesis, but there is another step which aids the metathetical cause: a phenomenon called “schwa deletion.” Schwa[xii] deletion occurs in numerous languages and refers to the deletion of a vowel usually tucked deep within a word. For example, the word “separately” is ordinarily pronounced “sep-rit-lee”; the first “a” is a vowel which tends to get slurred and therefore deleted in the pronunciation of the word as a whole. The same with the word “chocolate,” which is pronounced “chauk-lit,” deleting the second, slurred “o”. A similar phenomenon may have happened to “comfortable.” First, the “a” was swallowed or slurred in everyday speech resulting in something along the lines of “kum-fer-tbl”, creating an awkward consonant cluster “tbl.” The “t” then moved before the vowel to ease pronunciation, resulting in the familiar “Kumf-ter-bl.” Of course, this whole process can be avoided if you do not slur the “a” in “comfortable,” which erases the scenario of a “tbl” cluster and results in a more pronunciation-friendly “Kum-fer-ta-bl.”

Incidentally, letters jumping within a word can also jump across words[xiii] (this phenomenon is called “juncture loss”). Several centuries ago, when someone worked in dirty conditions, he or she wore a napron. If they had an alternative name, it was said that they had an eke name. “A napron” and “an eke[xiv] name” evolved into “an apron” and “a nekename” (the latter of which became spelled and pronounced “a nickname”).

Perhaps the most common error involving Hebrew metathesis is the name of the Hebrew month that just passed. Most people tend to assume that the month’s actual name is Ḥeshvan,[xv] and the “Mar” addition evokes bitterness (i.e., מַר) at its being deprived of holidays.[xvi] Another interpretation offered is that “Mar” refers to the Hebrew word “Mr.,” and “Marḥeshvan” simply means “Mr. Ḥeshvan.”[xvii] What, then, is the original name?

To answer, we first need to speak a little about Hebrew consonants, and how they are classified. A fairly common way to do so is to use the origin of pronunciation in order to create different groups of consonants. For instance, there are the guttural letters, whose pronunciation originates in the throat, namely, א, ה, ח, ע;[xviii] there are the palatal letters, whose pronunciation originates in the palate, namely, ג, י, כ, ק; there are the alveolar consonants,[xix] namely, ד,ט, ת, ל, נ; there are the dental letters, whose pronunciation is aided and actualized by the teeth – ז, צ, שׁ, שׂ ; finally, there are the labial consonants, whose pronunciation is realized by the lips, and these are בּ, ו, מ, פּ.[xx]

Now, consonants within one group of letters frequently switch with each other. Take the three Hebrew roots צעק, זעק, and שׁאג. The first means “to yell” or “to scream,” the second is a very close synonym of the first,[xxi] and the third means “to roar”. The basic undertone to all three roots is “raising one’s voice.” If you look closely, you will notice that the first letter of each root is a dental consonant (ז, צ, שׁ), the middle is a guttural consonant (א, ע), and the last is a palatal consonant (ג,ק ). This phenomenon depicts the tendency of similarly-pronounced consonants to switch with each other and yet retain shades (or more) of the original meaning of the root.

With all this in mind, let’s go back to the question at hand, about the previous month’s name. The true name of the month is, indeed, Marḥeshvan. We know this from Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language that was the lingua franca of the Middle East from before 2500 BCE until about the 8th century BCE, when Aramaic came to dominate.[xxii] In Akkadian, the aforementioned month was known as “waraḥ šamnu”[xxiii], cognate[xxiv] with Hebrew “יֶרַח שְׁמִינִי”,[xxv] or “eighth month”. The consonants from wara šamnu are in bold; if we were to rewrite them in Hebrew they would spell out “ורחשמן”, combining into one word.[xxvi] Keeping in mind what we said above regarding consonants’ ability to switch (especially within the same pronunciation group), it is easy to see that “וַרְחֶשְׁמַן” became מַרְחֶשְׁוָן”; the מ and ו, both labial letters, switched places with each other—or in other words, underwent metathesis.

The mysteries of metathesis and schwa deletion also extend to artificial languages. For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Quenya,[xxvii] the word for “tongue” is “lamba.” This begins with the original root LABA, which, when becoming a noun representing an object, becomes “labama.” The middle, slurred vowel then undergoes deletion, resulting in “labma,” and finally, a labial metathesis (b > m) takes place, yielding “lamba.” In Tolkien’s Sindarin,[xxviii] as well, the word for “or” is “egor.” This word is most probably derived from Quendian “herca” (meaning “or”), which then drops the h (resulting in “erca”) undergoes metathesis (r > c) resulting in “ekor” and finally, ndergoes a palatal switch (k > g), yielding the final word “egor.”

From English to Japanese, from Sindarin to Hebrew, metathesis and consonant-switches can affect virtually every languge. Speaking of which, a happy belated Waraḥ-šamnu to all, and best wishes for a pleasant Kislimu[xxix] ahead.


Recommended Reading:

An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, Hayim Tawil (Ktav 2009)

The Oxford English Dictionary

[i] Leviticus 3:7, 22:27, and others.

[ii] Multiple times in Genesis 30, Leviticus 1:10, Leviticus 22:19, and Deuteronomy 14:4.

[iii] Exodus 22:8, Deuteronomy 24:13, Psalms 104:2, and others.

[iv] z, sh, ts.

[v] See the Commentator article titled “To Voice or not to Voice” for more details.

[vi] A consonant whose sound is over once uttered. See note 5.

[vii] Cf. "I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?” (Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue, 1386)

[viii] Or “brydde.”

[ix] From nos-thirl (lit., “nose-hole”).

[x] As opposed to “eye-rin.”

[xi] See note 5.

[xii] From the Hebrew semi-vowel “שווא”.

[xiii] This linguistic phenomenon is referred to as “juncture loss” or “false splitting.”

[xiv] “Eke” means “alternative” or “other.”

[xv] Ḥ and ḥ = ח.

[xvi] Although, to be honest, I have never really heard anyone complaining that were there no holidays during this month, particularly after the intense holiday experience of the previous month.

[xvii] Perhaps the two interpretations can work together: the month is bitter, year after year, because it has yet to find a Mrs. Ḥeshvan.

[xviii] i.e., the lips, teeth, and other key anatomical parts used for pronunciation are not needed to pronounce the sounds of א, ה, ח, ע. You can see this for yourself by spreading your teeth and lips apart and pronouncing the sounds of these four letters in front of a mirror; all that is needed is a working larynx.

[xix] Sometimes their name is simplified to “lingual” consonants, referring to the tongue’s task in pronunciation of these consonants.

[xx] Careful readers will note that ר has not been mentioned. The reason for this is that ר has different classifications depending on dialectical pronunciation and context; it can function as a member of any of the above groups.

[xxi] Perhaps with a more specialized meaning of “to wail” or “to cry out.”

[xxii] The Akkadian language and its necessity for understanding Biblical Hebrew will feature heavily in an article to come.

[xxiii] š = שׁ (= “sh”)

[xxiv] Of the same etymological origin.

[xxv] Vav and Yud are highly interchangeable, both within and in between Semitic languages. Cf. Hebrew ילד And Arabic ولد (pronounced “walad”).

[xxvi] Note that the letter “Vav” represents “w.” This is, in all likelihood, the original pronunciation of the letter (i.e., not the same as a ב, or similar to “v”). Many Jews from Yemen, Iraq, and other parts of the Muslim world (as well as most dialects of Modern Standard Arabic and other spoken Semitic languages) still pronounce it that way. Note also the many instances in Modern Hebrew in which the letter Vav stands for the “w” sound, i.e., “וואו” to represent “Wow” or “Petah Tiqwa” on roadsigns leading to פתח תקוה.

[xxvii] Also known as High Elvish.

[xxviii] Also known as Middle Elvish.

[xxix] Kislev. Akkadian. You guessed it.