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What is the difference in pronunciation between ח (khet) and the guttural כ (khaf)? And when do you know which one to use in a word?

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  • Hi Hadassah and welcome to Mi Yodeya. Thanks for the question. I'd like to clarify what you are asking: Firstly, what is your minhag, are you sefardi or ashkenazi? If you can be even more specific, like "syrian" "polish" etc that would be pertinent to your question. Secondly, what do you mean by "when do you know which one to use..."? The obvious answer is by looking at the spelling of the word, so I am wondering if I am misunderstanding what you are asking? Like, is there a way to figure it out without looking at the spelling?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Sep 20, 2023 at 16:39
  • Most Ashkenazim don't pronounce them differently, but in theory, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_velar_fricative or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_velar_fricative is a chaf, and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiceless_pharyngeal_fricative is a chet. The word for palette, חיך, literally spans your palette as you say it. (It starts at the back and ends in the front.) Does that answer your question?
    – Shalom
    Sep 20, 2023 at 16:46

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From my experience, in modern Ashkenazi non-Israeli pronunciation they are the same. In Sefardi pronunciation, the chet is produced lower in the throat, whereas the chaf is produced in the back of the mouth.

An interesting proof that the Sefardi pronunciation may be more true to the historical practice is the following phenomena. When a shoresh has a gutteral in the final position, such as פתח, "opening", we find the introduction of a second vowel sound before the gutteral in forms such as the participle, eg פּוֹתֵחַ, pote-ach, "opens". This is as opposed to the normal vowelization of the participle, eg כּוֹתֵב kotev, which just has a single "e"/"ei" sound. This switch however does not occur for shorushim that end in chaf, eg הולך, holech, "walking" (ie, it isn't hole-ach.)

One explanation of this is that the ches sound was produced so low in the throat that it isn't possible to go from a "sere", which has the mouth in a horizontal semi-smile, directly to a chet, which has the mouth and throat open vertically, in one step. Verb forms like פָּתַח which have a patach before the chet don't display this phenomena, perhaps because the patach "ah" sound has the mouth already open vertically making it easy to transition to a deep-gutteral.

One potential reason for the cultural difference is that Ashkenazim lived in countries without deep gutterals, making the pronunciation of the original forms uncomfortable, whereas Sefardim lived in Arabic-speaking countries where deep and varied gutterals are very common.

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    I suspect >50% of Ashkenazi yeshivas get the vowels wrongas they learn Gittin: befanai nixtav uvfanai neħtam." Same reason, the chet goes in the back of the throat, as does an aleph. *Ne'esaf vs. *Nitma."
    – Shalom
    Sep 20, 2023 at 16:54
  • @Shalom very interesting, I've heard that ayin/aleph have a similar relationship to chet/chaf
    – ak0000
    Sep 20, 2023 at 16:56
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    The disappearance of the gutterals started long before the formation of the Ashkenazi communities. There's plenty of evidence that it was already apparent in Amoraic times in Eretz Yisrael.
    – Harel13
    Sep 20, 2023 at 18:17
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    A few examples: בגלילא צוחין לחויא עויא (and some manuscripts/printings have אויא) - Beresheet Rabbah 26:7; ובני מנשה חפר וישעי (Bava Batra 123b, in Divrei Hayamim 1:5:24 his name is עפר);
    – Harel13
    Sep 20, 2023 at 20:43
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    usage of אדיין instead of עדיין in Eretz Yisrael sources: random example; Weakening of the gutterals by people who lived in the area of Beit She'an, Haifa and Tiv'on: Yerushalmi Brachot 2:4.
    – Harel13
    Sep 20, 2023 at 20:43
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I don't have the sefer I had on pronunciation any more (can anyone tell me the name for such a sefer?), but here's what I remember:

  1. The kadmonim refer to both ches and ayin as "גרוני", gutterals in the back of the throat. See Sefer Yetzirah for its list of where different letters are pronounced. See the Ramban on Parshas Devarim on the verse about the "עוים", where he explains how the ayin and ches often interchange (something I wrote on this btw). There were Jews in old times who had trouble pronouncing them differently, as comments here from @Harel13 mention.
  2. Unlike Arab countries, where Arabic has both these sounds (see Wikipedia for their pronunciation - ches is not voiced [hummed], ayin is), European countries generally could not pronounce these gutterals. Jews in those countries had trouble, and ayin drifted into not being pronounced at all.
  3. Ches was more complicated, because it is unvoiced like an H, countries around Russia can't say an H sound. Ask any Russian speaker about H: the closest they have is their "X", pronounced like a chaf: Cheh, cheh, cheh. So Russian and Polish Jews drifted into pronounced a ches more like a chaf.
  4. German Jews have a H sound, so ches wasn't such a problem. Up till recently that's how they pronounced it, so that the common spelling of חנוכה in English and German was always "Hanukkah" till recently. More recently they began to pronounce it more like Polish Jews, and pretty much all Ashkenazim now say an ches like a chaf.
  5. Note that Yemenites still use the original/Arab pronounciation, in the back of the throat - unlike most Sefardim who say the ches in the soft palate, farther back than the chaf in the hard palate, not as far back as the throat. I have been told that official Israeli protocol was to use Yemenite pronunciation on news stations and the like, till fairly recently; they held it was more accurate.
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    "I don't have the sefer I had on pronunciation any more (can anyone tell me the name for such a sefer?" Perhaps you are thinking of R. Bension Ha-Kohen's Sefath Emeth / Sifthe Kohen Apr 9 at 19:11
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Firstly, כ is not a guttural letter, but simply a soft letter. "Guttural" means pronounced in the throat.

In modern Hebrew, they are pronounced the same, like a harsh scratching noise at the back of the mouth.
In the original pronunciation (preserved by many Jews today), כ is pronounced in the same area of the mouth as hard kaf, with air hissed through a narrow opening. ח is pronounced by squeezing the throat muscles and exhaling, which is difficult for many English speakers to replicate.

When you read Hebrew texts often, you begin to develop a sense for when כ is used and ח is used. To help you begin to develop this sense, כ is used very often in prefixes and suffixes, while ח is only used as part of a shoresh (root word).

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