Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Machlis’s: Round 2, and the letter “J.”

I was at the Machlis’s again this week, (see my first post) and as with every week, people were invited to speak and relate Divrei Torah. One woman got up and related this heart-warming story, which while not quite Torah, is certainly worth repeating here.

The lady in question had been listening to the news before Shabbat came in, and heard that in Argentina a 14 year old girl had given birth to a baby. Quite unable to provide for the baby, she abandoned it in a field. That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. A dog found the child, and dragged it by it’s jaw through the field and to the home where the dog was being looked after, and put the baby with the young puppies she had recently given birth to. Not longer after, the owner of the dog came to feed the puppies and saw the baby. After calming down, she checked the baby to find that it was fairly bruised, but incredibly, had no punctured skin from the dog’s biting. Without doubt, the dog saved that baby’s life. Upon hearing this story, Rav Machlis added that we know the Hebrew name for a dog to be “כלב - Kelev.” This may be read as a contraction of, “כולו לב – all heart.” A dog is an animal, an impulsive creature, that follows it’s heart. A dog doesn’t have a sense of rationale, like we do. Humans have hearts and desires, but also brains, which can tell us when t listen to them. A dog on the other hand, has a one-track mind. But this is the other side of כלב. Man can use his brain and wisdom for bad things, whereas, with an animal, what you see is what you get. So now we can turn that statement, “כולו לב – all heart,” around and understand why dogs are frequently referred to as “Man’s best friend.”

Rav Machlis also gave a number of small Divrei Torah. In the last one, he explained how the word Ekev is related to what we call “Ikvot Hamashiach, – The footsteps of the Moshiach.” He explained that the Gemara describes what will happen in the world in the time preceding Moshiach’s arrival. One of the things was “Chutzpa.”* – a certain type of audacity. He said that as we are seeing now, Jews will become more “chutzpadik” about being themselves, about doing Mitzvot that they would have not had the confidence to do publicly in the Diaspora, and how it seems to him how this is very much true of today’s Israeli society. So next time you encounter a rude and chutzpadik Israeli, maybe you want to turn things around and say, “Hmmm, Moshiach’s coming!”

*Chutzpa. Rav Machlis, upon saying this word, asked “How do you spell that? ‘C-h’ or just ‘H?’ ” I think most of the people present answered “Ch,” which was unsurprising, given that they were mostly from America and Ashkenazi. Personally I would argue that H is better by itself, as it is more of a guttural sound.

The problem with transliteration is that it is limited. As a tool, it is powerful in that it enables people to speak a language they are not fluent in to a degree that is unattainable without it. But this accessibility comes at the cost of precision and accuracy. Words will inevitably be pronounced with the stress pattern of the user’s mother tongue, thus butchering the original word. Also, localised sounds that cannot be articulated in the framework of the user’s language end up being pronounced with the most similar letter/sound, which may be some way off the original pronunciation.

Despite that my opinion that “Ch” is not the best way to transliterate a “ח”, I sided with the consensus. I think that as “ח” is a sound all of it’s own and quite unlike anything English has to offer, and therefore cannot be truly rendered with an H. Attempting to equate it with an “H,” will end up with the ח being pronounced as an English “H” sound. “Ch” on the other hand, indicates that the sound is unique to Hebrew, unless you are like my hapless friend who once said “Chassid” pronounced with the same “Ch” sound and the same stress pattern as the word “Chapstick,” cue peals of laughter from our classmates.

Maybe we should all realise that the Spanish have a much closer sound then we have at our disposal, and use the Spanish “J.” (As in Juãn.)

Or am I taking this issue much too far, and being Jutzpadik?

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