'Ayin, a Hebrew letter, is one of the strangest letters known to man. It is pronounced in the back of the throat as a guttaral stop. It is shaped like a two-tailed loop. But more importantly, it is a unique social-linguistic phenomenon: it is the only letter which should not be pronounced correctly in order to prove that one is of a higher social class. (sort of the opposite of the BBC English "R".)

'Ayin is actually an ugly, jarring sound to the Latin or English trained ear - it sounds like a gulp in the middle of the letter. The double aa in Baalzebub, which is a Hebrew word, is actually an 'Ayin. (Imagine a little gulp between the B and the L). The main reason it should NOT be pronounced properly has to do with the linguistic history of Hebrew.

Essentially, Hebrew was a dead language, recreated by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in the 19th century, as way of furthering the Zionist program. The first people to learn Hebrew were mainly educated European intelligentsia, mainly Germans and Austrians. They did not, of course, know how to pronounce a proper 'Ayin. When Hebrew was transplanted, back to Israel, its ancient country of origin, the local Arabs who learned it, as well as the Sefaradi Jews, mainly Arabic in origin, did know how to pronounce it, as 'Ayin is one of the most important letters in the Arabic alphabet. (There is even a throaty 'Ayin in Arabic, 'Ghayin, which is the true sound of the GH in Baghdad, which is really pronounced ba-throatygulp-DAD) It is the Sefardi Jews, who were mainly lower class, since the level of Jews in Arab countries generally was lower in terms of education and income, who gave a well pronounced 'Ayin it's bad reputation as lower class.

Today, most well educated Jews elide over the 'Ayin. They either stop the word for a second and go one, or just lengthen the vowel before it. People speaking Hebrew with an Arabic accent pronounce the 'Ayin, as well as the lower and working class, regardless of the country of origin, who speak the 'Ayin with a clarity that would make any ancient Biblical speaker of Hebrew proud.

I am unsure whether or not this is the only case in history of a letter whose correct pronounciation is almost certainly a guarantee of a lower than normal education or income level.

'Ayin is an epiglottal or pharyngeal consonant, part of a group of which only two survived into modern Hebrew (the other one is 'chet, which is pronounced deeper in the throat than the flatter ch sound of Germanic languages). Many more survive in Arabic, and were still pronounced by Jews from Middle Eastern extraction well into the modern era. The fact that they have atrophied from modern speech helps to explain a baffling and infuriating phenomenon for the student of Hebrew: the fact that it has so many seemingly redundant consonants, while other consonants do double duty as two different sounds, depending on the word and context:

  • The aforementioned 'ayin is interchangeable in speech with aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the equivalent of the Latin a. ‘Chet is usually pronounced the same way as chaf, which is sometimes a flat non-epiglottal ch and sometime a hard k. The other k sound in the alphabet, the kuf, used to be an epiglottal k, still extant in Arabic and usually transliterated as q, as in Qadi or Iraq.

  • Tsadik is now pronounced by Hebrew speakers like the zz sound in "pizza", but was originally an epiglottal sound and still survives today in Arabic words like Basra. It's the only one of these epiglottals that doesn't have a confusing doppelganger in the alphabet, and for that we thank it. As far as I am ware, the epiglottal g in words like Gaza and Bagdad didn't really have a Hebrew equivalent, although I could be wrong about that one.

  • Another group of sounds that are confusing to the newcomer are the t phonemes. The Hebrew letter tet was originally a voiced, semi-epiglottal th, a little deeper in the throat than the th in the English word "the". Taf was usually pronounced like the unvoiced th sound in "theatre", and a full stop version of the t phoneme didn't really exist in Hebrew; however that is the way both are pronounced these days.

  • There is also vav, which used to be a glide like w, but is no more - which helps to explain why bet is sometimes pronounced as a b and sometimes as an unstressed v. And lastly, gimel, which today is the equivalent of the first sound in "guile", used to have an unstressed version as in "gel" or "jury".

  • I think that's it; there is also shin, which as a stressed and unstressed version for s and sh sounds, but that is historically consistent since Biblical language times as far as we know.

The changes in the pronunciation of these letters is contingent on their extremely long history, and are no more sinister than the Great Vowel Shift in English, the elided consonants in French, or why so many European languages have k, ck, c & q, all of which sound the same. While it is true that the Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, Jewish communities retained more of the epiglottal sounds because of their close association with Arabic-speaking populations, other sounds (such as the voiced th) survived better in European communities.

Furthermore, there were other differences in accent and pronunciation between the two groups; while Sephardic populations had a mixed stress system such as English has, the Eastern European ones spoke almost entirely in words that had a stress on the final syllable, like French has. They also had a different vowel array which included diphthongs such as ey and ay, which are entirely absent from Arabic and from modern spoken Hebrew.

The point is, when these two large groups of Yiddish, Ladino, Moroccan, Russian and whatever else speakers all tried to speak the same language, they found that there were bits of it they simply couldn't pronounce correctly. And so modern Hebrew was gradually flattened to a middle ground that was relatively easy for everyone to get their tongue around; the epiglottals had to go, as did the diphthongs and the funny stresses of Yiddish. Broadly speaking, modern Hebrew is a mix of Ashkenazi consonants and Sephardic vowels.

Now this is a touchy subject in Israel, but the fact is that most if not all of the early immigration to Palestine was from Europe, especially Russia. Only in the fifties did significant numbers of people from Sephardic populations start immigrating to the new state if Israel, and they came to a country which was smack in the middle of the Middle East (boy, is it!), but had decidedly European values, culture, self-image etc., which dominated the elite. This, to put it very diplomatically, caused some friction. And yes, up until relatively recently pronouncing your 'ayins and 'chets was as likely as not to mark you out as working class and poorly educated, as well as summoning other broad stereotypes, such as being right-wing and anti-socialist.

But, and this is an important but, times move on. The fifties are a long time ago, Ehud Barak stupidly apologised to the Moroccan diaspora at large during his time as Prime Minister, and, most importantly of all, Israel has seen several large influxes of immigrants to look down upon. These days, not being able to pronounce your eiches properly - a phonemic signature of native Russian speakers - is just as evocative of a low social status, especially for women (single mother, prostitute, easy woman, peroxide blonde...). And then you have the Ethiopian Jews, whose skin colour broadcasts their "inferiority", to people who want to think in those kinds of terms, long before they ever open their mouths to speak.

In short, while it is true that an accent redolent of epiglottal consonants used to be seen as a lower class characteristic in Israeli society, this has little to do with the resurrection of the language and more to do with the contingency of immigration to the new state of Israel; and in any case, these stigmas are gradually sinking out of significance, and the "correct" pronunciation of these consonants is actually enjoying a renaissance in many quarters.

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