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What is the origin or basis of the Polish and Hungarian prevalence for pronouncing "oo" vowels as "ee"? The variants of other vowels are easier to understand in the context of phonological shifting, but this in particular seems especially different. I would be interested to hear of both linguistic explanations as well as any homiletic reasons given for the difference.

I feel like I have come across two bits of relevant data, although I can't remember the sources. On one hand I feel like I read somewhere that the different pronunciations are associated with Mishnaic pronunciation in Eretz Yisroel and Bavel, although I can't remember which is which. I also feel like the Gemara says that the sounds are interchangeable, but I could be wrong on that too.

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Don't you mean Keebeetz and sheereek? –  Seth J Sep 21 '11 at 19:02
    
Any truth to something I once heard?: since one of the major focuses of the Haskalah movement was grammar, the Chassidic sects when the other direction, and started deliberately mispronouncing certain vowels. –  Menachem Sep 22 '11 at 6:35
    
@Menachem I heard of that, but never understood it. One could still learn grammer with a Hungarian Havarah. –  Shmuel Brin Feb 9 '12 at 6:33
    
@ShmuelBrin: A two-pronged response perhaps. Stop teaching grammar to the youth while starting to deliberately mispronounce vowels as well. –  Menachem Aug 16 '12 at 22:50
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1 Answer

The following is adapted from Dovid Katz, "The Phonology of Ashkenazic," in Hebrew in Ashkenaz: A Language in Exile, ed. Lewis Glinert (Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 61-65.

Apparently, at least from the 16th century onwards, there was a distinction among (some) Ashkenazim between the sounds of kubbutz and shuruk, with the former being pronounced like German ü (IPA: /ʏ/) and the latter like German u (IPA: /ʊ/). This was controversial for some time: R. Shabsai Sofer (an important grammarian whose siddur was very influential) and R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (Kitzur Shaloh, laws of Shema) oppose this and say that kubbutz should be pronounced the same as shuruk (i.e., both as u), while Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel, ch. 66) and Levush (Levush HaOrah on Parshas Beshalach) say exactly the opposite - that they should indeed have distinct sounds.

In any case, apparently at some point after that, the sound of kubbutz itself began to diverge among different groups of Ashkenazim. Some followed R. Shabsai and R. Yechiel Michel and unfronted it (making it into u), while others unrounded it (making it like German i, IPA /ɪ/) - and then proceeded to turn shuruk into the same sound.

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Does Prof. Katz actually say that some "followed" R' Shabsai and the Arukh haShulchan? That word makes it sound like a deliberate enterprise, whereas phonological shifts in large populations occur much more organically than that. (+1 though, for the source) –  Shimon bM Oct 28 '13 at 23:58
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