Why Do Hebrew Speakers Pronounce the Same Word Multiple Ways?

The deultimization of the Hebrew language proceeds apace.

Two men talking at the Butke Cafe in Jerusalem in 2014. Dan Porges/Getty Images.
Two men talking at the Butke Cafe in Jerusalem in 2014. Dan Porges/Getty Images.
July 20 2022
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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Avi Rockoff writes from Jerusalem:

“My wife and I have just made Aliyah and signed up for Kupat Ḥolim Maccabi [i.e., the Maccabi Health Plan—all Israelis are required to join one of four competing health plans that provide a full range of medical services]. We’ve noticed that it’s pronounced MahKAHbee, as opposed to Judah Maccabee, who is YehuDAH ha-MahkahBEE in Hebrew. I believe that the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer and basketball teams are also MahKAHbee, and that there is a shift of stress in the names of other teams, too, such as HaPO’el Tel Aviv instead of Hapo’EL. This seems to happen as well with many personal names. Is it the influence on Hebrew of Yiddish?”

Mr. Rockoff is right in his observation. Whereas the formal rules of Hebrew syllabic stress, as indicated by the placement of the cantillation marks in the Masoretic text of the Bible, call for most (though by no means all) nouns and proper names to be emphasized on their final or ultimate syllable, the informal Israeli practice is sometimes to move the stress up to the previous or penultimate syllable. The two pronunciations frequently exist side-by-side, depending on the occasion. MaKAHbi and HaPO’el, for example, might become MakahBEE and Hapo’EL in a  ceremony awarding them the Premier League Cup, or even go from one form to the other in the same sentence.

All languages have similar quirks. The American who regularly drops the final “g” in verbs like “going” and “running” will restore it unthinkingly in a job interview. Israeli Hebrew, however, is the only language I know in which the formal/informal marker can be stress. To take another example: the city of Natanya just north of Tel Aviv is called Ne-TAHN-ya by all Israelis except radio and television announcers, who will often say Ne-tahn-YA, and this also holds true of dozens of other place names in Israel. And getting back to the hero of Hanukkah, who is YehuDAH ha-MakaBEE even in the mouths of Israeli first-graders, he has a Tel Aviv street named after him that is known to the city’s residents as YeHUda ha-MaKAbi.

Indeed, any Israeli named Yehudah is more likely to be called YeHUdah by his friends than YehuDAH, as is the case with other names, too. A girl with the biblical name of Sarah will be addressed as SAH-rah rather than by the Masoretically correct Sah-RAH, while Riv-KAH, Rebecca, becomes RIV-kah, AhaRON, Aaron, becomes AH-haron, Gid’ON, Gideon, becomes GID’on, and Prime Minister Ya’ir Lapid’s first name is commonly pronounced YA’ir instead of Ya’IR.

It’s not just names, either. Many words, particularly those borrowed from foreign languages, exhibit the same characteristic, even when given Hebrew forms. Biology in modern Hebrew is biologya, yet the stress falls on log, not on ya as per the classical rules; by the same token, one finds KIM-ya, geyoGRAfya, hisTORya, tekhnoLOGya, and so on. Israelis say TE-lefon and not teleFON, radYAtor and not radyaTOR, BROkoli and not brokoLI. “Objective” is obyekTIvi, “aggressive” is agreSIvi, and “comic” is KOmi, and let the Masoretes turn over in their graves.

Israeli don’t experience this as a problem—unless, as I have said, they are broadcasters or public announcers. In 1985, a group of such persons wrote a letter to Israel’s Academy of Hebrew Language with a plea for guidance. “The main problem,” the letter stated, “is with foreign words having Hebrew grammatical endings, such as normali [normal], simpati [likable], temperaturot [temperatures], humani [human], relevanti [relevant], vilot [private houses] , kottayim [semi-attached houses], etc. . . . Hebrew grammar calls for the ultimate syllable to be stressed in such words. Yet the public goes it own way, and we appear bizarre and absurd, especially when interviewing people who speak with penultimate stress while we are required to pronounce the same words with ultimate stress.”

The Academy gave a squirmy answer. On the one hand, it told the letter writers, “it makes little sense to take an extreme position on syllabic stress”; on the other hand, “there is no need to change the rules of Hebrew.” In a word: “Don’t bother us, it’s your problem.” And indeed, in the years that have gone by since, the ultimization over the airwaves of colloquially penultimized words has decreased significantly.

Avi Rockoff is correct, too, in surmising that the influence of Yiddish is behind much of this, particularly when it comes to first names. Zionist immigration to Palestine in the pre-state era was heavily East European and Ashkenazi, and while Ashkenazi Jews (most native Yiddish speakers) learned to adopt the Sephardi pronunciation of Palestinian Hebrew, so that the vowels of Soreh, for instance, changed to those of Sahrah, and those of Ah-ren to those of Aharon, the penultimate or antepenultimate stressing of SAH-rah and AH-haron remained. This is not surprising. We tend to feel that proper names are more intrinsic to their possessors than are ordinary nouns to the things they denote. East is East whether it’s MIZrikh or mizRAḤ, and West is still West when ma’aRAV and not MAYriv, but a Sarah who has gone from being SOreh to SaRAH  does not seem to us quite the same person.

It’s not just the influence of Yiddish, of course. Most European languages—German, Russian, Polish, English—favor penultimate or antepenultimate stress, and all of these have had an effect on Hebrew, too. Yet ultimately (or is it penultimately?), Hebrew has managed to hold its own. Take the Maccabiah Games, Israel’s so-called “Jewish Olympics” whose opening ceremony last week was attended by U.S. president Joe Biden. Named for the very same Maccabees of Mr. Rockoff’s query, they were called the “Mac-CAB-iah Games” by the various English-speaking spokesmen, announcers, and broadcasters who had occasion to refer to them, but misḥakey ha-makkabiYAH by the Israeli street no less than by the evening Hebrew news. This time, the Masoretes would have been proud.

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