Some will say to clear your throat. Some will say to imagine coughing up a fish bone. But what, really, is the easiest and most accurate way to say the sound that starts chai, challah, and chutzpah?
The sound made by the Hebrew letters chaf and chet also can be heard in Arabic, German, Dutch, Scottish and other languages. So it’s also useful in imagining Gaddafi, Bach and van Gogh touring Loch Ness.
But for most of us, it comes up when pronouncing Hebrew or Yiddish words: congratulating the chatan under the chupah at his chatunah, greeting the Chasid at a Chabad house, or discussing the works of Chaim Potok, Itzhak Perlman, and Shmuley Boteach.
You might really use the ch sound during the Jewish holidays, wishing someone Chag same’ach on Chanukah… celebrating Rosh Chodesh… and especially searching for chametz or making charoset on Pesach.
My favorite dictionary (writers are allowed to have such things) is Webster’s Riverside III. Its pronunciation guide spells this sound kh.
Why that combination of letters? Well, it explains, that to say the sound, you should hold your mouth as if to say the k sound, and instead say an h. It even offers this tip— say the k sound four times, quickly… and then, without changing the orientation of your tongue, say the h sound.
In explaining how to say the ch sound to others, I have realized that the reason the sound is so difficult for so many is that it involves a part of our mouths that is never used when speaking English: the uvula. This is the small tab of skin hanging down over the back of one’s tongue.
We do use the uvula, however, in making another, non-speaking sound— snoring. The uvula, vibrating like a boxer’s punching bag against the back of your throat, produces this distinctive, raspy sound. A snore is made while inhaling, drawing air into the throat.
All the Hebrew/Yiddish ch sound is, then, is a backward snore. The ch is a vibration of the uvula while exhaling, pushing air up out of the throat. So try making snoring sound… and then, not changing the orientation of your tongue or lips, breathe out… snoring backward.
One final note: making this sound, you should not sound like you are clearing your throat from a bad cold (unless you are speaking in the Yemenite dialect). The sound is not made that low in the throat; it comes from a higher spot by the back of the tongue.
With a little practice, you’ll sound as comfortably convincing with the ch sound as Talmudic as a chochom, as authentic as an Israeli chalutz, and as melodic as a chazan.
Until next month: as an American president once said to a fallen Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin: “Shalom, chaver.”
For more ch words to learn and practice, visit this page of JUF’s Jewish Word Glossary. B’hatzlacha… good luck!