It’s not surprising that you might be wondering how to spell Hanukkah. It’s not unusual to see it spelled a few different ways, some of which are correct and some of which are not. Discover the answer to the question, “How do you spell Hanukkah?” once and for all, keeping in mind that there is more than one right answer.
The two most commonly seen English spellings for the name of the Festival of Lights, as observed in the Jewish faith, are Chanukah and Hanukkah. These options are both considered correct spellings in the English language for the Hebrew word חֲנוּכָּה. One has been around longer and the other is used more commonly in English-speaking countries.
- Chanukah - This is considered the traditional English spelling. It has been in use the longest and tends to be used in synagogues.
- Hanukkah - This spelling is more commonly used than the traditional version. Some theorize that this spelling is easier for English speakers to say.
The pronunciation is the same for both spellings. It can be represented phonetically as [KHänəkə] or [χanuˈka]. Even though these phonetic spellings appear quite different, they sound the same when spoken.
Hanukkah is a Jewish observance, so it is a Hebrew word. The Hebrew language is distinct, with its own letters that do not directly translate to the letters of the Latin alphabet (also known as the Roman alphabet), which is used in English. When translating words from one language to another that uses an entirely different alphabet, there isn’t always a clearly-defined correct answer for how the word should be spelled in the target language.
The process of representing meaning using letters that don’t exist in another language is called transliteration. Because Hebrew and English use different alphabets and Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, expressing it in English goes beyond translation to transliteration. This poses some unique challenges.
- The first letter in the Hebrew word for Hanukkah is חֲ, which is the letter het.
- There is not an equivalent letter in the Latin alphabet.
- The closest Latin alphabet letter is “h.”
- The pronunciation commonly associated with “h” in English is not consistent with how חֲ is pronounced in Hebrew.
- The sound of חֲ is dissimilar from sounds associated with the English language. It is not a soft “h” sound (think hand).
- It is similar to the sound of “ch” in Scottish pronunciations (think loch), which is denoted by [χ] or [KH] when expressed phonetically.
- It is not at all similar to the “ch” sound in English (think chair).
Since the word Chanukah has been in use longer and is still the preferred choice in traditional faith-based settings, it’s likely that early transliterations utilized the spelling that most closely aligned the Hebrew and Latin alphabets (Chanukah). It is likely that pronunciation difficulties for native English speakers led to the evolution of an alternate spelling (Hanukkah).
Basically, both spellings (Hanukkah and Chanukah) are easy for English speakers to mispronounce. Saying the word correctly means using a sound not commonly used in the English language [χ] or [KH]. English speakers often mispronounce the word by using a soft “h” sound, which is at least closer to how the word should be said than if they were to use a traditional English language “ch” sound. This may be how and why Hanukkah has become more common, but no one knows for sure. This is one of the many examples of how language style and usage evolves.
Of course, many non-English speaking countries use the same alphabet used in English. Some non-English speaking countries also primarily use the spelling of Hanukkah, such as Iceland, Italy and Spain. In Poland, the primary spelling is Chanukah. There are several other spellings in different languages.
- Croatian - Hanuka
- Dutch - Chanoeka
- French - Hanoukka
- German - Chanukkah
- Latvian - Hanuka
- Zulu - Sibusisiwe
Now that you are aware that there is more than one way to spell Hanukkah, you are armed with a few different ways to spell the term correctly. Assuming you’re in an English-speaking country, consider the preferences of the person with whom you are communicating when deciding which spelling to use.
If you’re interacting with someone who practices traditional Jewish customs and observances, perhaps Chanukah would be better received than Hanukkah. Use your best judgement. Review vernacular language examples for more information on how audience and identity preferences can impact language usage. Keep in mind that there are also a number of appropriate Hanukkah greetings. Make sure you know how to say Happy Hanukkah using various greetings and wishes.