Inspired by comments on this question: Say a person travels from place to place where there are certain traditional havarot (pronunciations) such that what were likely originally distinct sounds, are instead merged as one (e.g. most Ashkenazi pronunciations of ת/שׂ/ס, or ב/ו, ; Sephardic kamatz/patach; Hungarian kamatz/shuruk/kubutz or shuruk/kubutz/chirik or cholem [ו]/cholem-yud [וי]; Hamburg/Dutch Sephardi ס/שׁ/שׂ/צ; Litvish tzeirei/tzeirei-yud/cholem/cholem-yud; some Yemenite dialects of cholem/tzeirei-waw etc.). (Please correct me if I'm wrong about any of these.) As he moves to a new place, he loses the distinct sounds of past places in favor of the merged pronunciations of the new places.

What is the minimum number of distinct sounds his phonetic Hebrew alphabet might contain once he's visited all Jewish communities in the world?

Would his Hebrew be valid halachically?

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    "minimum" do you mean maximum? the maximum is one sound for each letter and one sound for each vowel. no? cf judaism.stackexchange.com/q/45484/759 – Double AA Feb 1 '16 at 21:09
  • @DoubleAA re "'minimum' do you mean maximum?": I assume davka "minimum", since the followup is "Would his Hebrew be valid halachically?". Re "the maximum is one sound for each letter and one sound for each vowel": nah, there are two separate phones for kamatz in some pronunciations, two for shin/sin, etc. – msh210 Feb 1 '16 at 22:08
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    @DoubleAA I meant "minimum" in the sense that he could hypothetically use a route that would result in more sounds remaining distinct whereas I'm looking for the route where the least sounds remain distinct. E.g. if he went to a place that pronounced /w/ as /v/ and then to a place that pronounced /v/ as /b/, whereas the reverse route might leave him with both /b/ and /v/. – Loewian Feb 1 '16 at 22:43
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    That seems silly, as while Ashkenazim pronounce both ב and ו as /v/ and ו is pronounced by some as /w/, that doesn't mean Ashkenazim pronounce /w/ as /v/. They pronounce ו as /v/. I don't see how you can apply a transitive sort of property here. – Double AA Feb 1 '16 at 23:04
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    @DoubleAA The assumption is that he loses the ability to pronounce the /w/ and pronounces it /v/ instead. In the same way arguably the Ashkenazim eventually did. Technically, I could ask the same question about an entire community over several generations. (Perhaps that would be a better paradigm.) The crux would then be the reductio ad absurdum of a community that has one sound for all its Hebrew characters ("Aaa aa aaa aaaa aaa)." – Loewian Feb 2 '16 at 2:13

Proper pronunciation and proper distinguishing of letters and vowels is halakha.

How must one enunciate? He must be careful not to pronounce [a letter with] a strong dagesh as if there were no dagesh, or [a letter with] no dagesh as if there were one. Nor should one pronounce the silent sheva or silence the pronounced sheva. Hil. Kriath Shema' 2:9


There are six factors that prevent [a priest] from reciting the priestly blessings: [an inability] to pronounce [the blessings properly],...

[An inability] to pronounce [the blessings properly]: What is implied? Those who cannot articulate the letters properly - e.g., those who read an aleph as an ayin and an ayin as an aleph, or who pronounce shibbolet as sibbolet and the like - should not recite the priestly blessings. Hil. Tefilah 15:1


The person reading the Torah is not allowed to begin reading until the congregation ceases responding "Amen." If one erred while reading, even regarding the careful pronunciation of one letter, [the reader] is forced to repeat [the reading] until he reads it correctly. Id. 12:6


Similarly, the inarticulate who pronounce an alef as an ayin or an ayin as an alef or one who cannot articulate the letters in the proper manner should not be appointed as the leader of a congregation. Id. 8:12

Thus any exacerbation of the problem of inarticulation would be halakhicaly problematic. However, it would be impractical to enforce these halakhoth in today's world where 99%+ Jews fall into the category of the inarticulate. Many authorities, Such as Rav. Kook in Orah Mishpat 16-17, permit one to use any pronunciation they were raised with.

As for the first part of your question, by my count, there are 29 consonant phonemes in the full range of proper hebrew. If you were to not use the double pronunciation for resh, that would bring it down to 28. Except for kaf, at least one community merges all the bgdkft letters. If one were to do this, that would bring the count down to 23. If you were to merge ayin and aleph that would it down to 22. Qaf merges in a variety of ways in different pronunciations, but that would bring it down to 21. Merging heth and khaf brings it down to 20, and merging teth and taw brings it down to 19. Corrupting ssadhi to a combination of taw and sin brings it down to 18. If you want to bring Ephraim into this, that brings it down to only 17. This would be the minimum number theoretically possible. The modern pronunciation merges resh and ghimmel as well as waw and veth, however, you could not merge these and the bgdkft letters simultaneously as these are fricatives and the merged bgdkft phonemes are always plosive. Vowels gets more complicated, but pretty much all of them have been merged or corrupted in one way or another.

This is a chart that I have put together of all the phonemes with a current live tradition for reference.

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    For reference, here is the entirety of R Kook's Orah Mishpat 16: הדין הוא שאסור לשנות מנהג אבות, גם במבטא של תפילה וקריאת התורה, אבל אם רוב הציבור מסכים על איזה מבטא אי-אפשר להתקוטט עמהם בעבור זה – Double AA Feb 2 '16 at 5:56
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    See seforim.blogspot.com/2016/02/keser-vs-kesher-whats-in-name.html about recent s/sh merging – Double AA Feb 11 '16 at 19:28
  • @DoubleAA very interesting Yiddishism. You couldn't merge sin shin and samekh this way, but fascinating none the less. – ShamanSTK Feb 11 '16 at 22:40

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