Many older (19th and 20th century) Anglo Ashkenaz seforim translate ת (without a dagesh) as "th" - resulting in transliterations like "Sukkoth", "haftaroth", "mishnayoth" - when the general Ashkenazi pronunciation today is more like an "s".

How was this pronounced at the time? Like an English "s", "th", or something else?

If it was pronounced like an English "s", why was it transliterated as a "th"?

A possible explanation might be to ensure it was obvious that it was transliterating a ת or ס or a ש but this doesn't explain why these same transliterations don't distinguish between a ס or a ש, or between a כ and a ח (such as in the common English transliteration of "baruch" instead of "barukh).

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    In Old German "th" is pronounced as "s" in English.
    – ezra
    Jan 22, 2018 at 18:39
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    One of my photo professors was a Swiss gentleman of Bohemian Jewish ancestry who would always pronounce English hard th (thick) as s. In English, Th was pronounced as it is today, but it was likely, as you posit, a question of dikduk. It should be noted though that S&P Sephardim didn't differentiate between ח and כ either, so there was not tendency for anyone to make note of such phonetic differences in transliteration. Jan 22, 2018 at 18:46
  • Another note: my oldest siddur, an Alexander siddur (c. 1809, Ashkenaz, with English translation) doesn't frequently use th in such contexts, although it has a very strange and inconsistent transliteration. Jan 22, 2018 at 18:48
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    @ezra How old? I'm not sure that's true.
    – Double AA
    Jan 22, 2018 at 18:55
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    Don't understand the question. A ת is a th - ask any Teimani. (So I was taught, Sheen, Seen, Tof, Thof, in a Yekkish Cheider; not a Teimani in sight.) Jan 23, 2018 at 10:14

1 Answer 1


As the Jewish Encyclopedia states,

to the middle of the nineteenth century no attempt was made to elaborate a scientific system of transcription of Hebrew in foreign characters, and every one followed his own caprice. In 1854 Bargès published the Book of Ruth with a French transliteration of the text. In his system, which was followed by nearly all the French Orientalists, the letters בגדכפת, according as they have or have not dagesh, are represented by their equivalent French letters with or without "h."

Even an earlier source from 1821, Moses Stuart's grammar uses the same principle:

When any of the letters בגדכפת are written without Daghesh lene, they are said to be aspirated; e.g. ת = th, or has the aspirate h united with it. When they are written with a Daghesh lene in them, they are said to be unaspirated; e.g. תּ = t, or is written without the aspirate h.

However, when JE cites Bargès a bit later, they fail to transliterate the citation according to his principles (see מִבֵּית). This may be due to the fact that the JE's simplyfied system didn't differentiate between ת and תּ, which they based on recommendations of the Geneva Congress of Orientalists.* There were many authors and journals, who did this distinction, while there were some others that didn't (see the tables in Werner Weinberg's paper). To illustrate the randomness, the American Library Association used only t in 1908, then both t and th in 1941, and reverted back to only t in 1949, while still having inconsistent examples (Japheth vs. Sheshet).

Although one is clear, all these methods follow the Sefardic pronunciation (no s for ת). Almost none of the English books had the Ashkenazi system (aulom, aylom, oylom etc. for עוֹלָם), but were using the simplified one proposed by the JE either only with t or with t and th. Two extremely influential 20th century books in the English-speaking Jewish world, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs edited by Hertz and the Soncino Talmud edited by Epstein had the t/th system, just as in your examples.

Even though now it's almost impossible to reconstruct the intent of individual authors, Bargès made clear that without dagesh he proposed a soft and aspirated sound, while Weinberg (p. 4.) is more explicit by giving a good example:

When a congregation called itself "Adath Yeshurun," [...] the rendition of ת by th could be either a German transliteration (in old orthography) to be pronounced /t/ or an English transliteration-transcription, rendering the pronunciation of undageshed ת as that of unvoiced English th. The original intention was then to realize the pronunciation /adát (or adáθ) yəšurún/. But the congregational member will usually pronounce it the way the spelling suggests, namely /ædəθ ǧéšərən/.

Indeed, the latter th is closer to the original Tiberian pronunciation (which is preserved by the Yemenites) and was strongly advocated by Sefath Emeth.

* It was in 1894, but I couldn't find any reference on this issue in the report.

  • Did Hertz also use gh and dh for the same reasons? If not, why not? And what's your answer to "How was this pronounced at the time? Like an English 's', 'th', or something else?"?
    – Double AA
    Jan 23, 2018 at 14:28
  • "This is actually closer to the original Tiberian pronunciation" Huh?? Whats 'this'? You've only discussed orthography not vocalization. Don't confuse the English grapheme/multigraph 'th' with the sound /θ/. Using an 'h' to mark a weakened ת doesn't mean they intended the sound indicated in English by 'th', just like if they wanted to mark a weakened 'c' with an 'h', they don't necessarily mean the sound indicated in English by 'ch'.
    – Double AA
    Jan 23, 2018 at 14:30
  • In French the "th" orograph makes a normal /t/ sound.
    – ezra
    Jan 23, 2018 at 15:58
  • @ezra Bargès' intention was clearly different: Les six lettres beth, guimel, daleth, kaph, pé et tav sont susceptibles de deux prononciations. Elles sont fortes et sonnent comme les lettres francaises b, g, d, k, p, t, lorsqu'elles portent un point dans le ventre, de cette manière: תּ, פּ, כּ, דּ, גּ, בּ; sinon, elles sont douces et aspirées. Jan 23, 2018 at 16:04
  • @DoubleAA Hope it's clearer now Jan 24, 2018 at 15:42

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