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What is the relationship between the letters samekh and sin? Did they ever have distinct sounds? Why do they exist as separate letters?

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Not really an answer, but there is a story about someone who came to the Satmar Rebbe (R' Yoel Teitelbaum zt"l) and challenged the Ashkenazi pronunciation which does not differentiate between samach, sin, and tav-rafeh (ת). He shot back with the verse: וכסילים מתי תשכילו! (Read that with heavy chassidishe accent for best effect.) – Dave Nov 30 '10 at 5:50
I once saw a paper about this titled "Original Sin". I'll have to track it down again. – Double AA Mar 28 '12 at 12:41

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"A sin is just a samech with three branches."

-- A contemporary American ראש ישיבה

The idea here is that in modern usage they are both actually interchangeable with samech.

For an illustration of this interchangeability see the 15th line of the alphabetical acrostic א-ל אדון, in which a sin appears where we would expect a samech, or the common root א.ר.ס used by חז"ל in place of the Torah's synonymous root א.ר.ש.

The difference in sound between the samech, a voiceless alveolar fricative ([s]) and sin, a putative voiceless lateral fricative ([ɬ]), is hypothesized to have been lost as early as Biblical Hebrew, with its remnants still evident in transliterations like "Chaldean" for "כשדי" and "balsam" for "בושם". In each case, the sin that we would conventionally pronounce as [s] was ostensibly closer to [ɬ], which is, in a way, halfway between /s/ and /l/.

There is a complicated diachronic explanation of exactly how and why this shift took place, which is summarized very briefly on page 73 of this paper, by Biblical Hebraicist Gary Rendsburg.

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I'm not sure if I get what a "voiceless lateral fricative" sounds like. Is it like the common speech defect where the "sh" sound is produced through the sides of the tongue rather than at the apex? – Dave Nov 30 '10 at 5:36
Sort of, I think. It's also the sound represented by "tl" in words derived from the Aztec language, such as atlatl - and indeed it's somewhat like trying to pronounce a "t" and an "l" together. – Alex Nov 30 '10 at 5:57
@Dave, yes. Exactly. – WAF Nov 30 '10 at 13:03
@Alex No, Dave more acurrately describes what a lateral fricative (ɬ) sounds like. What you describe is actually a lateral affricate (tɬ). – Peter Olson May 16 '11 at 4:22
@Peter: thanks - I didn't realize that there was a difference. – Alex May 16 '11 at 21:29

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