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In most Semitic language, one of the phonemes is a voiced pharyngeal fricative (ע in Hebrew and ع in Arabic). However, in some dialects of Hebrew, namely Spanish-Portuguese, Dutch Ashkenazi, and Italian, the letter ע has shifted from a voiced pharyngeal fricative to velar nasal phoneme. How could these phonemes shift so drastically?

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    Why shouldn't they? Labialised velar stops (/kw/ etc) have shifted to labial stops (/p/) on at least three separate occasions in the development of Indo-European languages, and these are much less similar acoustically than the ones you mention. similarly, interdental fricatives have shifted to labiodental ones at several times and places.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 9 '15 at 16:34
  • It was proposed to use ע in phonetic script for the velar nasal by you'll never guess who -- books.google.com/…
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 9 '15 at 20:05
  • @ColinFine kW and p are both stops, though. The striking fact about the Hebrew change above isn't the addition of nasalization, but the conversion of a fricative into a nasal stop (which is what I understood by "velar nasal" in the original question) with a different place of articulation. For example, did the nasalization "swallow up" the pharyngeal in this case, along the lines of ʕ > ʕŋ > ŋ, or similar?
    – user8017
    Nov 10 '15 at 6:55
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This is an instance of rhinoglottophilia, related to antiresonances and the acoustic structure of these sounds. A parallel case is the change of h to ŋ in the Luyia Bantu language Nyole.

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The word "dialect" is misleading in this context. We are talking not about spoken languages, but about reading conventions of a liturgical language, in the same way that (for example) the French liturgical pronunciation of Latin is not a dialect of Latin but a reading convention. In the case of Hebrew, the unfamiliar sounds of the sacred language are replaced by sounds familiar to the speakers of the colloquial language.

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