So… How exactly is this holiday spelled? With an “H” or a “Ch”? Are we supposed to double the “k” or not?
Hanukkah? Hanukah? Chanukkah? Chanukah?
It is really confusing! And the basic problem is that the holiday is actually spelled… חנוכה.
Obviously, it is a Hebrew word and so it is composed of Hebrew letters. When we write it using the English alphabet, we are doing something called transliteration. That means we are matching the sound of the Hebrew letter with a corresponding English letter. Therein lies our first problem: the Hebrew letter ח ,“cheit” makes a sound that we do not actually have in English. It is closest to the guttural “ch” sound that you might know from German — the sound you hear at the end of the name Bach. Many English speakers cannot make the sound and so often a simple “h” sound is used. Hence alternative spellings with some beginning with “Ch” and some with “H”.
The double “k” is a bit trickier to explain. The “k” sound in the word is from the letter “kaf” and that letter, if it has the vowel indicators, is shown with a dot in the middle (dagesh) and that can indicate a doubling of the consonant sound. So it is not unusual to see it spelled with a double “k”. Now on the internet you may see it spelled with a double “n” but that is just plain ol’ misspelling. There is no basis for a double “n” in the Hebrew transliteration.
So what’s an English writer to do? Well, presently the most popular form is Hanukkah, with close to 50% of the mentions. It was not always that way though. Chanukah, which is now the second choice, used to be the most popular and it is still the choice of Hebrew language purists. So pronounce it with the guttural “ch” and choose your spelling… as long as you don’t double the “n”! And, if in doubt, remember… it’s actually spelled חנוכה!
Originally published on Nov 20, 2018