Thursday, February 28, 2013

On the Hebrew pronunciation of Chinese Jews

Here's some interesting information about the way the Jews of Kaifeng, China pronounced Hebrew. Note the careful (?) transcription of how they named the five books of the Torah in the footnote: 

Pe-lesh-itze (Bereshit)
Shemeot-ze (Shemot)
Va-yi-ke-lo (Vayikra)
Pe-me-ze-paul (Bamidbar)
Te-ve-liim (Devarim)

























The same book also mentions that they divided the Torah in 53 portions, not 54, uniting Nitzavim and Veyelech. Which is interesting, because I think that was the original custom; they were combined. It is also claimed that when asked why their Torahs do not have nekkudot, the answer they gave was that God recited the Torah too fast for Moses to transcribe with vowels, but the wise men of the West supplied them later.

15 comments:

  1. I gather that this is an excerpt from "The Jews of China," by James Finn (London, 1843). At some later time, things had deteriorated to such a point that the local community posted a truly heartrending sign appealing to any visitors who might know Hebrew to help them read their holy books.

    The odd pronunciations remind me, lehavdil, of the Hawaiian version of "Merry Christmas," resulting from the restricted range of consonants in that language: "Mele Kalikimaka."

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  2. For more about these Jews see

    "The Jews of China" The Hamodia February 10, 2010, pages C4 & C5 at

    http://personal.stevens.edu/~llevine/jews_china_hamodia.pdf

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  3. I have seen a facsimile of a Sefer Torah (or Sefel Tolah) from Kaifeng in which "Cherev" (sword) in Haazinu is spelled with a Lamed

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  4. Brings to mind the way China used to be pronounced in Yiddish: "Khine" and Chinese: "Khineyzish".
    I don't think anyone uses those words anymore.

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    1. Why do you think nobody uses those words anymore? Those are the words I use whenever I speak about China and Chinese. And since I am studying Chinese and the Chinese economy, I certainly use them a lot. Also look at http://shanghaiist.com/2010/12/20/watch_what_chinese_people_think_of.php for a report on China in Yiddish.
      Meylekh

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  5. Why are u getting so much spam? Is there no way you can block them?

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    1. For me this seems to be a relatively new problem with Blogger comments The only way I can think of to prevent it is to put in a captcha, but I think that is an impediment to commenting and I don't want to do that. Instead I am trying to switch to Disqus, which I think receives much less spam.

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  6. "Brings to mind the way China used to be pronounced in Yiddish: "Khine" and Chinese: "Khineyzish".
    I don't think anyone uses those words anymore."

    It is used. In Toronto, which has a huge Asian community, the word "Chineizer" (pronouncing the Ch like challah or chosson) is used as a synonym for Asians. It is used in exactly the same way shvartze is used for Blacks. An outsider may think of it as derogatory, but those who use the word dont think of it that way.

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  7. The article by Dr. Levine does not quite capture a complete picture of the community's narrative. For the definitive story, please read the book by Bishop William Charles White. For some scholarly views on their pronunciation based on nequddot, please consult The Haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews of China by Fook-Kong Wong and Dalia Yasharpour.

    Interestingly enough, the Jesuit account said that they pronounced Lamed and Resh as both "R"...

    The choice to transliterate their holam as "eo" baffles me. It does not give any indication of exact sound. Perhaps if they gave some accompanying Chinese characters... or the period that these transliterations were made.

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  8. It wonder if there may be an issue with the reporting rather than the pronunciation. Bereishis in particular. I remember when Peking becare Beijing Could the the leading P be a result of of the same.
    From http://www.logoi.com/notes/peking-beijing.html

    Both the old and new spelling are approximations of the Chinese sound, pronounced something like "pay-cheeng." The same pseudo-change is seen in the name of Nanking which is now written as Nanjing. Or remember the movie Chunking Express? Chunking in mainland China (where it is located anyway) is written as Chongqing -- it is the same thing under different spellings.

    Midwest

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    1. Oh, I think without a doubt we can't really get a picture of how it sounded or would sound to our ears from this. Even much closer to home you find something similar in Yiddish transliteration, so a name like Zelig (from "Selig") may be written with a kuf or a gimmel at the end, and no matter how it is written it isn't completely clear how the people who used such a name pronounced either of those letters.

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  9. I saw the same thing. In the book Mandarins, Jews, and missionaries: the Jewish experience in the Chinese Empire by Michael Pollak.

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  10. That report is hilarious, what kind of Yiddish is this fellow trying to speak?

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  11. Chinese sounds are notoriously difficult for Western ears to pick up. Consonants all sound the same; vowels all sound the same; and tones are a whole nother can of shrimp.

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  12. "...they divided the Torah in 53 portions, not 54, uniting Nitzavim and Veyelech. Which is interesting, because I think that was the original custom; they were combined." -- Yes indeed: Siddur Rav Saadia Gaon states that Nitzavim is the only parasha that is sometimes split; and Rambam lists a haftara for Nitzavim, but makes no mention of Veyelech.

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