Friday, March 27, 2009

Kabbalistic dyslexia

Defining one's own distinctive character through spelling of names and suchlike is something that occurs quite often, but one especially interesting phenomenon occurs when this method is used to separate religious traditions from each other. This is well exemplified by the word which in English is usually spelled Kabbalah, i.e. Jewish mysticism. The word itself is derived from the Hebrew verb qibbel, "to recieve", and means "tradition". As I'm sure many of you know, Kabbalah today extends far beyond Judaism (Madonna is one of the more humorous examples of this), a process that began during the Renaissance, when thinkers such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin became interested in Kabbalah and created a Christian variant. In later Western esotericism (even non-Christian and non-Jewish) it has had quite a central position (in particular the symbolism surrounding the 'Etz Chayim, the tree of life).

The funny thing is that the various "transformations" of the concept have recived different spellings of the word itself in Western languages. The original, Jewish variant tends to be rendered "Kabbalah", while the more Christianized version is often given the name "Cabala". The occult version is often called "qabala" (a spelling which was popularized by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn around the end of 19th century and the early 1900s). These variant spellings have almost become ideological markers to some modern practicioners, and some people have gone so far as to encourage this confusion of spellings in order to make an ideological point. A bit funny, that.

It is especially interesting, and somewhat ironic, to note these variations in spelling, as Kabbalah traditionally puts extreme emphasis on the exact letters used to spell a word (in order to make the letter mysticism and numerology work) ...

The Golden Dawn use of (and often peculiar pronunciation of) the Hebrew language is a topic I am thinking of doing a future article on. It would be a nice thing to do if I can find the time. Modern Western Hebrew and quasi-Hebrew has its peculiar charm... though I really don't want to think about how Madonna pronounces it!

'Ayin, the sound of thunder

One of the most characteristic sounds of the Semitic languages (and probably the one most non-Semitic-speaking people find the hardest to pronounce) is 'ayin (or 'Ayn as it is called in Arabic). To some of those whose native language belongs to other linguistic families (like Indo-European, for example) it sounds almost like some kind of vomiting or nausea, but I happen to be one of those who really think it is beautiful and pleasant to listen to. Thus, I feel called upon to provide a small tutorial on how to pronounce this sound, which is phonetically classified as a voiced pharyngeal fricative (or sometimes a pharyngealized glottal stop)—as a simple service to non-semitist mankind:

1) constrict the muscles as far down in the throat as you can.
2) produce an ah-sound, as deep and gargly as you possibly can, almost like when the doctor examines your throat with one of those funny little tongue depressor-thingies.
3) Feel how your whole body vibrates when you make the extraordinary sound.

Hey presto! Now you can pronounce beautiful words such as mu'allim ( "teacher" in Arabic), and enunciate the name of the country Iraq as it was meant to: 'irâq, with an audible 'ayn at the beginning. And don't forget ra'am ( "thunder" in Hebrew, in the classical pronunciation). Particularly note how the 'ayn-sound makes the Hebrew word vibrate and almost sound like the sonic shockwave created by lightning: RA'AM!

Beauty in its most unadulterated form. Call me crazy, but that's what I think it is. I spent many years of my adolescence trying to learn to produce this sound correctly: I suppose a lot of people thought I was somewhat demented, but hey: it worked!