Popular discourse on language in Israel says that the letters heit, reish and ayin are disappearing, or even gone. Are they? No, they’re here. Every Hebrew text you open will reveal that these letters are still there; spelling reforms have not touched them. But if we use popular figurative speech, for convenience, we may justifiably ask whether the pronunciation of reish as a front consonant ‏(an apical [tip of the tongue] “r” sound, either flap or trill, like in Spanish‏) is still with us. Likewise, what is the level of vitality of the pharyngeal sounds ‏(guttural consonants, like the “weird” sounds that Sacha Baron Cohen articulates in his film “The Dictator”‏) corresponding to the letters heit and ayin? Israeli Hebrew presents us with a fascinating case of social dynamics.

Every human community is, by definition, a speech community. But in various literate societies, including Jewish society, along with a spoken language there is also an art of reading aloud by rules that assign speech sounds to letters − namely a traditional pronunciation, also known as orthoepic tradition. In every such community, speech is considered natural, and orthoepy − the art of reading aloud correctly − is considered artificial.

Traditional pronunciation is an important component in religious ritual − for example, reading the Torah in the synagogue − but it is also important in the modern reality of what is known as stage pronunciation, and later as the pronunciation practiced on the radio and television.

This dichotomy between spontaneous speech and reading aloud, or calculated oration based on orthoepy, is not limited to traditional societies. In fact, in modern societies, too, orthoepy often affects speech, and vice versa. The sound system of spoken Israeli Hebrew stems from a fusion of several communitarian pronunciations of liturgical Hebrew.

With the decision, a little over a century ago, to make Hebrew a spoken language, the language planners had at their disposal several traditions of pronunciation, each displaying unique characteristics drawing on the foreign vernacular at hand. In the realm of consonants, Yiddish-speaking Jews pronounced the reish of liturgical Hebrew read aloud as either a front r-sound ‏(like in Russian or Spanish‏) or as a back r-sound ‏(like in a typical old Yinglish accent‏), according to the Yiddish dialect in use. But their heit and ayin did not differ from the soft-kaf ‏(i.e., khaf, like in the first sound of chutzpah) and aleph, just as it was with all Sephardic Jews who did not speak Arabic ‏(namely, those from Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, among other places‏).

Since the consonant inventory of Arabic has a pharyngeal heit sound ‏(alongside one that sounds like khaf‏) and a pharyngeal ayin, Arabic-speaking Jews read Hebrew aloud using these Arabic speech sounds. In the first phase of a newcomers’ transition to Hebrew speech, the effect of the linguistic melting pot had not yet been felt ‏(at the consonant level‏), so the members of each community continued to use the consonants that were common in its own Hebrew orthoepy.

The linguistic melting pot operated on two levels: one official-institutional, relating to the establishment; the other, strictly popular. At the institutional level, the Teachers Union − convened for the first time in Zichron Yaakov in 1903, ruled in favor of a front reish pronunciation, which was the natural pronunciation of all Sephardim ‏(both Arabic-speaking and others‏) and of many Ashkenazim, depending on their specific Yiddish dialect. For the letters heit and ayin, they decided on the pharyngeal pronunciation − a salient feature of the Hebrew of Jews with a linguistic background in Arabic.

Model for public speaking

The decision to select a front-reish and pharyngeal heit and ayin was officially approved by the Hebrew Language Committee in 1913, and it was this pronunciation that was presented as the model for reading aloud and public speaking ‏(q.v. Ilan Eldar, “Language Planning in Israel,” 2010, in Hebrew‏). In Hebrew radio broadcasts since their beginnings, in 1936 ‏(initially on Palestine Broadcasting Service’s “Kol Yerushalayim”‏), there was strict adherence to this standard diction. Indeed, it was Geula Cohen’s Yemenite origins that made her a good radio announcer. Likewise, the brother and sister Moshe Hovav and Reuma Eldar, born Mahboob, became professional radio announcers and went on to become two of Israel’s most recognizable voices.

Yet, the distribution of the front-reish, on the one hand, and the pharyngeal heit and ayin sounds on the other, was not even among different Jewish communities. And since the pharyngeal heit and ayin were perceived as a salient feature of those with a linguistic background in Arabic, a group that lacked social prestige, the pharyngeal pronunciation remained limited to official broadcasting. It has never been generalized among the general public.

Except for those with the appropriate linguistic background − such as Shoshana Damari from Yemen − all singers who sang in Hebrew did so with the exemplary front-reish, but without the pharyngeal articulation of heit and ayin. It is important to note that voice and singing teachers have always insisted − and still do − on a front-reish, because of its relatively high sonorousness, compared to the back-reish. By so doing, they have helped maintain this linguistic norm in popular singing.

Later, the adherence to the pharyngeal heit and ayin decreased in the official channels. When Israeli TV began broadcasting, in 1968, care was taken only to assure use of the apical reish, whereas the pharyngeal heit and ayin were neglected. This reorganization is reflected in the 1974 “Language Guide for Radio and Television,” published by the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

At the popular level, the melting-pot effect has led to the dismissal of consonants that were not common to most communities. Thus, the status of the back-reish has become socially unmarked to such an extent that speakers who articulate a front-reish are considered to be different. The salience of the pharyngeal heit and ayin as a marker of an Mizrahi or Arab accent did not give them a chance to compete for the prestige in sabras’ Hebrew − both because those who use them are in the minority, and because of the correlation between that minority and a low socioeconomic status.

Research shows that even among speakers of Mizrahi Hebrew, a gradual rejection of pharyngeal consonants and the front-reish is motivated by the aspiration to emulate the higher classes in Jewish society. Thus, alongside general Israeli Hebrew − socially unmarked, with a back-reish and no pharyngeal heit and ayin − the marked social dialect − with pharyngeal heit and ayin − has been identified as Arabicized Hebrew ‏(a term coined by Haim Blanc, the late scholar of Arabic and Hebrew‏). As the socially marked dialect, its pronunciation is the daily bread of numerous humorous imitations in movies and sketches.

Is this the last word? No way! Thereafter, the stories of the reish, pharyngeal heit and ayin each develop along a different line.

The barriers have fallen

The front-reish is perceived as an outsider speech sound, compared to the reish of ‏(speakers of‏) sabra Hebrew, but it is not assumed to be characteristic of a particular origin, so it survived longer in Hebrew public speech and Israeli popular songs − even among Ashkenazi Jews with a back-reish in their natural speech. Hence, you will hear the front-reish in radio announcer Dan Kaner’s public speech, and in the voices of virtually the singers up until the 1970s. However, something happened in the ‘80s, when many singers who spoke using a back-reish abandoned the front-reish in their music − which for them was artificial − and started singing using their natural reish. And so, from being a sound property of the former exemplary pronunciation, the back-reish has become one of the characteristics of Hebrew of Sephardic singing, and remains so.

To witness this process, one need only listen to Israeli singers as they have performed over the years. In the ‘70s, Ariel Zilber − a notorious rebel − started singing and articulated only the back-reish; Gidi Gov and many other singers still sang with a front-reish then, and only later with a back-reish. By the end of the process, many singers who started their careers from the mid-’80s on − such as Si Himan − articulated only the back-reish.

In public broadcasts, too, the barriers have fallen. Other than dinosaurs like Yaron London, all speakers who pronounce back-reish in their natural speech also use it in broadcasts. This process is the linguistic manifestation of the removal of many barriers in society − for instance, dress code changes such as the social acceptance of jeans and a T-shirt as attire for events that previously required formal dress. ‏(Once, during her tenure as education minister, Limor Livnat was barred from her Paris hotel room, since her jeans made hotel staff think she was an impostor.‏)

The following episode will illustrate the process by which the pronunciation of a front-reish has changed from meticulous to ridiculous. An event marking 60 years of the Jerusalem International Convention Center, in March 2011, was being hosted by Rivka Michaeli and Daniel Pe’er − who both hosted the Eurovision Song Festival in the ‘70s. Michaeli made a joke by mimicking herself making a ‘70s-style Hebrew announcement with the typical front-reish, like a generation ago. The audience simply roared!

And for the readers who might be interested in learning more, this is the place to find out more about the history of the reish speech sound. According to the Book of Creation, Biblical Hebrew based on the Tiberian tradition displayed seven letters with double pronunciation: beit, gimel, dalet, khaf, peh, reish, tav. What were the two pronunciations of reish? Most probably, one sound was a front-reish and one was a back-reish. And since Hebrew changed its status from a natural language to a grapho-language, whose text pronunciation depended on the inventory of speech sounds of each linguistic community, every community read Hebrew aloud using its own spoken reish.

Since most Ashkenazim pronounced, and still pronounce, a back-reish, it remains so in General Israeli Hebrew. Since the spelling is indifferent to the difference between the two phonetic types of reish, it seems that the back-reish is here to stay. And although the Russian “r” sound is strictly anterior, the children of Russian Jews − whose first language was Yiddish until a generation or two ago and who learned Russian as the language of the country − also frequently suffered from a “Jewish R,” a problem that sometimes even required the professional help of a speech therapist.

Thus, the view that sees Eliezer Ben-Yehuda as preferring a front-reish in the standard Hebrew pronunciation because he was a Russian Jew conflates the 19th-century Jews of Russia with the Russian Jewry of the second half of the 20th century. The young Ben-Yehuda, who had received a Jewish education, wished to acquire a general education in Moscow, and to this end he studied Russian.

The story of the heit and ayin is different. Have you ever wondered why the heit of the name Rahel becomes ‘ch’ when rendered in English − “Rachel” − whereas the heit of Beit Lehem becomes ‘h’ in its English form, “Bethlehem”? Why did one Hebrew letter turn into two sounds in English? The only possible explanation for this is that the origin of the biblical Hebrew heit is phonetically twofold: one is pharyngeal, like in Arabicized Hebrew; the other is palatal, like khaf, i.e. the first sound of chutzpah ‏(in American English pronunciation‏). And in the Hebrew pronunciation of Jewish reading traditions, every heit is pronounced as a khaf except among Arabic-speaking Jews, whose heit is always pharyngeal.

Social-dynamics research shows that, in the linguistic adaptation process of speakers of Arabicized Hebrew to general Israeli Hebrew − namely the “Ashkenization” of the “Sephardic” accent − the pharyngeal articulation is being gradually abandoned.

These studies show that the process of adaptation follows a nonrandom hierarchy: when Jewish speakers of Hebrew with a linguistic background in Arabic adopt the general Israeli-Hebrew pronunciation, the pharyngeal heit sound disappears from their speech before the ayin sound does ‏(if it ever does‏). One can account for this hierarchy primarily based on structural criteria.

Sounding familiar

As every literate speaker of Hebrew may realize, the merger of ayin with aleph, and of heit with khaf, is responsible for the high number of homophones ‏(words having different spellings but an identical pronunciation‏) in general Israeli Hebrew, as compared to Arabicized Hebrew. Yet, the number of homophones arising from the fusion of heit with chaf is considerably smaller than the number of homophones arising from the fusion of ayin with aleph.

Pairs of words with an identical pronunciation involving ayin and aleph − such as osher, meaning “happiness,” when spelled with an aleph, versus osher with an ayin ‏(“wealth”‏) − considerably outnumber pairs of words involving heit and khaf, such as meshakh ‏(“pull, draw”‏) versus meshah ‏(“anoint”‏), and therefore meta-graphemic comments ‏(spoken comments relating to spelling‏) like “with an aleph” and “with an ayin” are much more common than their heit and khaf counterparts ‏(“with a heit” and “with a khaf”‏).

Accordingly, it is conceivable that speakers of Arabicized Hebrew tend to preserve the pharyngeal ayin − at least in a portion of its occurrences − as a communicational strategy aimed at keeping the distinction between words that are homophonous in general Israeli Hebrew. However, they can afford to easily give up the pharyngeal heit, because its distinctive function vis-a-vis khaf is relatively small. It is all a matter of the price which one is willing to pay, either at the communicational level ‏(number of homophones‏) or at the level of social integration.

Whether this structural consideration is valid or not, the pharyngeal heit survives only in the absence of any ‏(phonological‏) linguistic adaptation. This pronunciation is therefore perceived as having a higher social marking ‏(than the ayin‏). Since sociolinguistic tendencies are considered in terms of moving toward the socially stronger and away from the socially weaker, the fact that MK Ahmed Tibi − an educated Arab Israeli, thus a native speaker of Arabic − speaks Hebrew with a pharyngeal ayin but without a pharyngeal heit, raises the question of whether he is moving away from the Hebrew pronunciation associated with Israelis identified as Sephardic Jews.

And what about the pharyngeal ayin? The ayin sound seems to be making a kind of comeback. Like heit, ayin did not survive in the formal pronunciation of the media; nor did it as part of the sound system of general Israeli Hebrew. Among Jews with Arabic linguistic backgrounds, the level of the pharyngeal ayin, like that of heit, depends on social variables. Such variables may explain why MK Eli Yishai, the current head of Shas, articulates heit and ayin significantly more than the party’s former leader, Aryeh Deri. And such considerations remain valid when examining the large variation in the Hebrew pronunciation in popular Sephardic singing.

However, in recent years it seems that the pharyngeal ayin has been making an appearance in the speech of some speakers of general Israeli Hebrew − perhaps more than just a few. What is involved? Generally, we are witnessing a spelling-based pharyngeal ayin articulation aimed at drawing additional attention to the utterance − either to obtain a humoristic effect or to provide special emphasis.

Pharyngeal ayin articulation by speakers of general Israeli Hebrew has already become a trademark for an amused utterance or one trying to be funny. Moreover, there is a tendency to pronounce ayin as its spelling pronunciation to highlight the utterance, as speakers sometimes overarticulate the “he” sound ‏(usually reserving its right to remain silent‏) in expressive words such as nehedar ‏(great‏), madhim ‏(amazing‏), mehamem ‏(“stunning”‏) and, particularly puzzling − the emphatically pronounced tamuha, but whose pointing indicates a different stressing. Both amused or amusing speech and emphatic speech fill the function of drawing a listener’s attention to them.

Who talks like that? The radio and television figure Avri Gilad, and he is not alone. Back in the mid-’80s, during his “Wassup?” days on Army Radio, no one even dreamed of hearing him articulate a pharyngeal ayin, except as imitation. Yet on the first episode of his recent television program “The Avri Gilad Show,” he interviewed ‏(former Shas leader‏) Aryeh Deri, and the listener with honed ears would have realized that Gilad was pronouncing ayin more than Deri was. And in his radio program “The Last Word” on Army Radio, the incidence of the pharyngeal ayin goes up and down in accordance with the level of jocularity.

Jackie Levy, his partner on the radio show, joins the ayin articulation, though his language variant is general Hebrew Israeli. A few weeks ago, Levy and Gilad provoked the newsreel announcer, just for laughs, who then joined the broadcast and spoke with them articulating a pharyngeal ayin too!

Will time and use make speakers forget that it all started as a joke? And will the ayin sound integrate into normal Israeli Hebrew speech, to be passed on to future generations by natural parental or social transmission? Will the communicational need to differentiate between homophones throw its weight behind it, thus removing the social stigma and allowing integration of the ayin sound in the newly defined general Israeli Hebrew, regardless of a speaker’s origin, and independently of spelling? Probably not, but if it happens, you will have seen it coming.

Yishai Neuman has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the Sorbonne, Paris, and is a visiting scholar at the State University of New York, Geneseo.