Old Persian

Our Transliterations are Inconsistent

A photo of a tabbycat sitting on a pathway and staring at a closed door with a white rabbit painted on it
Although a brute beast who does not even know aleph bet gamel, this cat knows exactly what that sign means! A model of clear communication. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2017.

Over on Language Hat, people are arguing about how to pronounce LaTeX, the encoding for mathematical formulas: does it end with <k> like in <tech> or <ks> like in <hex>?

And for me it was worth it just for this footnote: “TeX is pronounced ‘tek’ and is an English representation of the Greek letters τεχ, which is an abbreviation of τέχνη (or technē).” All these years I’ve been saying “tex” (and “latex” for LaTeX) like a doofus!

And LaTeX is pronounced [lɑːtɛk]

If you cast your mind back to “How do you pronounce those accented characters in ancient Near Eastern languages anyways?” two lines on the chart might spring out:

Table 1: Special Characters Used for Transcribing Ancient Languages

Character Name Approximate Pronunciation IPA
H with breve below
Classical Greek chi, <ch> as in Scots loch, German ich x
x n/a
In Old Persian, <ch> as in German auch (not [ks] as in English hex) x

One letter in Latinized Akkadian (ḫ) and one in Latinized Old Persian and the International Phonetic Alphabet (x) have the same pronunciation. But look at which pronunciation it is!

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How Do You Pronounce Those Accented Characters in Ancient Near Eastern Languages Anyways?

An old cutwater of natural stones set in concrete, barely higher than the water which flows by it and into cracks in the end facing the onrushing water; some stones are covered with slimy moss
Rivers have their own interesting sounds. The cutwater of the old footings of a bridge in the river Inn. Photo by author.

Specialists in ancient Southwest Asia do not always name and define the special accented characters which they use to transcribe words in languages like Aramaic, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Old Persian. While this is convenient for fellow specialists, and avoids taking side in some debates about the sounds of ancient languages, it makes it hard for readers without their special training to read these words, to pronounce them, and to copy them on a computer. They also sometimes refer to these characters after their Greek or Hebrew names, which can also be confusing if one does not know these alphabets and how they are transcribed in Latin letters. One of the appendices to my doctoral thesis will give the names and pronunciations of every special character which I use. I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience. If a passing phoneticist drops in to prevent a poor historian from mangling the International Phonetic Alphabet or spreading nonsense about Akkadian phonology, so much the better! I would rather be corrected now than by a reviewer when in the distant future the dissertation becomes a book.
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