Ah, Those -ah words in English!

By Maeve Maddox

AJ Tapper wrote:

I’ve seen on a couple different books and websites two different spellings of the word, “savannah”. Is it “savanna” or “savannah”?

The OED gives savannah as the only spelling.

Merriam-Webster gives savanna as the first spelling and savannah as a variant.

This question about savannah caused me to wonder about other -ah words in English. Here are the results of my inquiry.

The OED prefers veranda to verandah.

H. W. Fowler curtly concurs:

OED gives the -da form first, & there is no reason for the -h;

In my opinion verandah looks more exotic than veranda. If I were writing a novel set in India or even England of a hundred years ago, I think I’d go for the h.

The OED and Merriam-Webster agree on the -ah ending for:
mitzvah
wallah
howdah
hallelujah
menorah
messiah
selah
torah
chutzpah
pariah
ayatollah
shah
loofah

Although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the spelling “hosannah,” both the OED and Merriam-Webster give only hosanna.

Depending upon which dictionary you prefer, the following words may be spelled either way:

yeshivah/yeshiva
megillah/megilla
mezuzah/mezuza
cheetah/cheeta
hookah/hooka
maharajah/maharaja
pujah/puja
rajah/raja
mullah/mulla
casbah/kasbah
kabbalah/cabala/cabbala
halvah/halva
huzzah/huzza
moolah/moola

I haven’t taken the time to define all these words. If you don’t already know what they mean, you’re not likely to need to know how to spell them.

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13 Responses to “Ah, Those -ah words in English!”

  • Deborah H

    The suffix “ah” appears on the end of many Hebrew names and words, and means “of God” or “from God.” Not every Hebrew word translates easily, and a lot depends on the translator. An English scholar who reads Hebrew might translate and spell a word differently from the Hebrew scholar who is translating it to English.

  • sherry roth

    As a Jewish person who speaks Hebrew and does use many of the above-mentioned words on a fairly regular basis, I will stick my 2 cents in. I often drop the “h” (mitzva, chanuka, menora) because there is no way anyone (at least, anyone to whom I might be writing) would confuse those words for anything else. Also, and maybe this is another factor (although not consistently), the pronunciation of that final syllable is often closer to the schwa sound (mitz-vuh, chanu-kuh, meno-ruh) than a true “ah” sound. However, that’s really an Americanization for when I’m speaking English; in Israel and in true Hebrew, these words have a true “ah” sound at the end. Deborah’s comment is not totally applicable to these words, since the true ending for “[of] God” is usually “YAH,” (for example, “Halleluyah,” meaning, “praise [to] God.”) In addition, in Hebrew, we don’t say “messiah,” we say “mashiach” (ma-SHEE-ach).
    For the non-Hebrew words, I usually do put the “h” at the end (although I feel “verandah” is pretentious, especially if you pronounce it with a true “ah” sound at the end). Words like moolah, casbah, loofah, cheetah, etc, all have the true “ah” sound at the end (not a schwa sound), and also possibly because they look a little forlorn without their final “h’s,” I personally would leave them there.

  • Susan Swan

    How interesting that many of these words are Arabic, Hindi, and Hebraic — and that English dictionaries would see fit to remove those final h’s (some of which are fairly important for knowing how to pronounce the words correctly). In the U.S., savanna might be seen as a sacrilege — we have a city in Georgia, Savannah, which would set the tone for the word in a geographical sense. And, oddly enough, veranda with an h would be equally as strange — a sit out on the veranda is a tradition in the South. Taking into account world Englishes is part of the fun with figuring out word usage.

    Nice article and great website! Thanks.

  • Vic

    When it comes to Yiddish, spell the word any old way you want to, as it is completely and utterly arbitrary. Yiddish is derived from German in part, with parts of Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Hungarian and even Arabic. It is written using Hebrew characters, so there is no real way to spell anything except via transliteration. This is true even if Chanukah comes before your bar mitzvah. Many Yiddish words are not even pronounced the way they are written, including yarmulke, which is from Hebrew. I’ve never heard it pronounced any other way than yamulkah, or yamakah, which sounds less like a head covering and more like a Japanese motorcycle. When it comes to Southern words like veranda, I would leave off the “h” just because it takes longer to pronounce, and people in the South speak slowly enough as it is. If you are spelling Yiddish words spoken by a Southern character, good luck, you’re on your own.

  • sherry roth

    LOL Vic, but the Hebrew word for the man’s head covering is “kipa” (kipah?? another -AH word). I am not sure where “yarmulka” (or whatever variant spelling one chooses to use) came from…but it’s true, we do pronounce it YAH-muh-kuh (maybe that’s a Noo Yawk thing…except for my dad, who really does say YAHR-mul-kuh)! LOL

  • Vic

    Sherry; I have no idea where yarmulke, yahmakah or yamikah comes from. I spent four years with a Holocaust survivor from Poland, writing his life story, and he told me that many strange pronunciations come from pronouncing Hebrew words with a Yiddish accent. This must be what I heard when I was small and explains a lot of discrepancies such as toirah for torah, or shabbas for shabbat. But thanks for your explanation.

  • sherry roth

    Vic, You are definitely right as far as the discrepancies in pronunciation. As far as why “shabbat” became “shabbis”: There is a Hebrew letter (the last letter of the alphabet, taf). It can have a “dot” in it or not, depending on various grammar rules that I can hardly remember now. To differentiate between a taf with a dot and a taf without, there were people who made the “one without the dot” a “soft” taf, or “saf.” Ergo, Shabbat (ending with the taf-without-the-dot) became Shabbas (shabbis, shabbos, whatever). It kind of makes me think of Sneetches, and I personally see no reason to differentiate between them, but it does follow suit with other letters that do similar things (Kaf/Chaf, Bet/Vet, Pay/Phay, depending on if there is a dot in them or not). So I guess it’s not that bizarre, if I think about it.
    It probably goes back to the Litvack-versus-Galitziana thing, and maybe goes along with those who pronounce “ayntz-tzvay” versus “eintz-tvy.” (one-two). Why can’t we all just get along LOL

  • Anagha

    majarajah/majaraja >> Is that a typo?
    Dictionary.com doesn’t recognise majarajah.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Anagha,
    You’re right. It’s a typo. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Michael

    I was given another meaning to the suffix ah in hebrew. I was told that ah is Gods disapointment in man or mankind. The word Isaiah by this understanding means to me I Say Ah (Gods Disappointed in you….. the hebrew nation), or Jeremiah to me means Germ My Ah. When it came to Noah, God found no disapointment or corruption in him. No Ah

  • Samatha

    I had a dream. In this dream was someone who was named Ester Ah. The two opinions here would leave my interpretation at two opposite ends of the spectrum. Anyone have any ideas what this could mean. I do believe that this person conveyed Gods peace. In my original interpretation of the dream when writing it down, it was known or understood that this person was from or of God.

    Anyone care to share? Would you happen to know what a name such as Esterah would have meant or would still mean today?

  • Samatha

    I’m sorry.. I meant Estherah. Typo!

  • nancy

    What is the significance of the addition of “ah” to a Hebrew name? Is it a shortened form of “Jah”? Examples of Abram to AbrAHam, Sarai to SarAH. Some names which have the “ah” ending have a definition that includes “God”, others leave God out. Is it just assumed to be there in those that leave God out, or does it have another meaning?

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