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Two Cheers for Daled

Discrepando reader Michael Katz writes:

In a recent piece of yours, you referred to the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet as daled. I believe that the correct spelling is dalet, with the Hebrew letter tav as the word’s last consonant. I wonder why it is that Ashkenazim, who traditionally pronounce the final tav of all Hebrew words as an “s” (think of the Hebrew letter bet, pronounced by them as beys), do not pronounce the fourth letter as dales. Any thoughts?

I have a few, of which the first is that Mr. Katz is right: Dalet (pronounced DAH-let) and not daled is indeed the “correct” name of the Hebrew letter. We can be sure that it has been so ever since the Hebrew/Phoenician alphabet originated more than 3,000 years ago, because all of this alphabet’s letters were named after objects they were thought to resemble, and the original dalet, which looked nothing like today’s character, suggested a door — the Hebrew word for which is delet. (In biblical times the final tav was pronounced “th.”) No doubt the original form of the dalet was a door-like rectangle standing on one of its short ends, but in the earliest inscriptions that have come down to us this has already changed into a triangle, with the rectangle’s two long sides joined together at the top. This is also the shape of the Greek letter delta, whose name comes from dalet and gives us the word for the triangular plain of alluvial deposits formed by the arms of large rivers as they near the sea.

To the best of my knowledge, in any case, Eastern European Jews did universally say daled and not dalet. I myself attended as a boy a thoroughly Ashkenazic Jewish school in New York City in which I can remember cheering our teams on in athletic contests by shouting, “Alef, Beys, Gimel, Daled — School is really solid!” And Mr. Katz is quite right, too, that this goes against all the rules of the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew, in which final tav is always pronounced as an “s,” so that dalet should indeed be pronounced “DAH-less.”

On first thought, this very fact would seem to suggest a possible answer to Mr. Katz’s question, for the word dales in Yiddish already has a meaning, namely, “poverty” or “downtroddenness.” The word comes from Hebrew dalut (pronounced dah-LOOT) which in turn comes from dal, “poor” or “poor man.” Is it not likely that, in order to avoid calling the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet “poverty,” Ashkenazic speakers violated their own rules for pronouncing final tav?

This theory would appear to make some sense — and yet there are two difficulties with it. The first is that, apart from tav, which is sometime “t” and sometimes “s” in Ashkenazic Hebrew but always “t” in Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Hebrew, Hebrew has a second letter, tet, which is always “t” in all varieties of Hebrew. Since Ashkenazic Hebrew does, then, have a final “t” sound in the form of tet, why would Ashkenazim wishing to avoid pronouncing dalet as dales not have said dalet, as if the word ended with a tet?

Secondly, the form of daled is not exclusively Ashkenazic at all. Although in most parts of the Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jewish worlds the letter was more commonly pronounced as dalet, there is evidence that the variant form of daled was known there as well. One proof of this is a medieval Hebrew text called “The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva,” which consists of religious homilies on each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Although this text was composed in the ninth or 10th century in an Arabic-speaking land, the earliest editions of it date from much later, specifically, from the 16th century in Sephardic Constantinople and Venice and in Ashkenazic Krakow. The Constantinople and Venice editions have three homilies on the Hebrew alphabet’s fourth letter, in one of which it is spelled daled, while the Krakow edition has the spelling of dalet alone. (Although, in all fairness, we do not know how this spelling was pronounced.)

With this in mind, we can, I think, refine our answer to Mr. Katz’s question. While the original name of the letter was undoubtedly dalet, the alternate form of daled was a very old one that predated the split between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic worlds and was found in both of them. But whereas in non-Ashkenazic Hebrew dalet was more common, there being no particular reason to prefer daled, its Ashkenazic form of dales was gradually replaced by daled entirely — most likely, as we have said, because of its being a homonym of the word for “poverty.” In Israel today, despite the country’s so-called “Sephardic” pronunciation, daled is universal and dalet is not heard at all, although the word is still generally written that way. And that is why I wrote daled in the column to which Mr. Katz referred.

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