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Pronunciation, spelling and meaning of Old Testament Biblical Names

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Meaning of Names
 

Names in the Bible - Pronunciation, spelling and meaning of Old Testament Biblical Place Names and Personal Names

Hebrew place names and personal names and some Hebrew words that appear in the King James and other versions of the bible were transliterated according to an often incorrect and arbitrary method, and sometimes several words were run together either in the Hebrew original or gratuitously in the translation.

These errors originated before the publication of the King James Version, but one of the rules adopted by the translators was to retain the "vulgar" or common pronunciations, thereby perpetuating distorted pronunciations such as Jehosaphat for Yehoshaphat and "Jezebel" for "Eey - Zehvehl." 

Very often, the biblical name of a place or person has a meaning in the context of the story being told, as names of persons were often assumed names, epithets or nicknames. These meanings are often lost in translation and transliteration. Sometimes the original is unintelligible from the English transcription, which came by way of Latin and Greek.

In some cases, we do not know the original meaning of a name for certain, and we do not even know if it had a meaning. However such meanings were often attached as "explanations" or "glosses" and gained credence by force of tradition.

A further difficulty is added by the fact that Hebrew was written without vowels originally. Like all Semitic alphabets, Hebrew was derived from the  phonetic alphabets of consonants devised by the Phoenicians. Symbols for vowel sounds were added or the sound could be inferred from the consonant letter, its position in the word or the grammatical construction of verbs and possessive nouns from the roots, which is reasonably regular. For example, the letter Yud  usually is pronounced "ee:" BaYit - house. BaitY - my house.

The letter Heh at the end of a word usually signifies an "ah" sound: BeitaH - her house.   

Nonetheless, the absence of vowels left ambiguity in the pronunciation of certain words and still does in modern Hebrew. This is especially true of names and regular nouns, since the vowels cannot be derived from the rules of grammatical construction from roots. For example, "DAVID" is usually written "DVD" in the Old Testament Bible, and might have been DAVID, DUD, DOD or a number of other names. Ayin Bet Dalet may be "Avad"" - he worked or Eved - slave. The correct pronunciation can only be known from context.

Pronunciation and linguistic assimilation  - The most popular names became parts of other languages and assimilated into the.  English speakers replaced short Semitic vowels with long English ones. Shiloh is pronounced "Shee Lo" in Hebrew, not "Shai Low" as in English.

English speakers cannot pronounce the 'H (Het) sound, which does  exist in English, In words like 'Hebron it was transformed to a an "H," In other names it was simply ignored or omitted. The Hebrew name "Yeh 'hehz kehl became "Ezekiel," in English, a name which is quite different from the original.

German Scholarship - German uses the Latin alphabet, but the letters are not pronounced the same as they are in English of course. German Biblical scholarship encouraged the proliferation of transliterations of Yud as "J" and Vav as "W." In German, the sounds are correct, but not in English.

W for Vav causes the most confusion, since Vav can also have a vowel sound in which case it is "oo" or "o."

Passage of time -  The Bible itself covers a vast time span, and the period of it existence and transmission is even longer. We know that pronunciation changes over time even for the same words and letters. The "great vowel shift" took place in English for example, so that words such as "love" are no longer pronounced as they were in time of Shakespeare. It is unlikely that that the pronunciation of the first kings of Judea was the same as that of the Maccabbean Kings, or that words were pronounced the same way in the time of the Mishna.  

The names of God. - In the Hebrew Bible text, God is referred to in a number of ways, including ELOHIM and YHVH. The latter "tetragrammaton" also appears on the Moabite Mesha Stele as the name of the Hebrew God. It literally means "he will be" or "It will be" when translated into Hebrew, but it may have been derived otherwise. It would be pronounced "Yehaveh" in modern Hebrew if it meant "It will be.". t is supposedly forbidden for modern Jews to pronounce this name, and the pronunciation is probably not known. This prohibition is held by some to hav been in force in ancient times.

According to Maimonides, the name, whatever it was, could be uttered by the Levites. The English text always refers to "The Lord" or Lord God.

It is always pronounced "Adonai" today as are other codes such as "YY." The ancient pronunciation is not known, and we do not have sufficient information to reconstruct the original pronunciation.

Probably at least part of it was pronounced an some occasions, since it was incorporated in names such as Yedidiah, Adoniyah and others. In Jewish tradition the name of God was supposed to have mystical powers. In non-Jewish renditions and derivations this name became "Jehovah."

The Hebrew voweling or pointillation system for pronunciation of vowels was devised by the Mesoretic scholars about 400 ACE. it renders YHVH in a way that is apparently intentionally unpronounceable, since the VAV (V) has both a cholam ("O") and a kamatz - "AH." The name "JEHOVAH" or any equivalent does not seem to exist in Hebrew, and may have been devised by Catholic divines (see here) in the middle ages.  

Some insist there is a theological issue involved in finding the "correct" pronunciation of "Yahveh" or "Jehovah."  This question cannot be answered with existing information. It is almost certain that the name was never pronounced "Jehovah" as there is no "J" sound in Hebrew, However, we do not have enough information to reconstruct the original pronunciation, which was probable different at different times in any cases. Knowledge or pseudo-knowledge about pronunciation has been abused in tendentious attempts to back one or another pronunciation, but it is not likely to lead to "the truth."  This page is not intended to answer questions of that nature.

 

Transliteration and pronunciation of these foreign (Hebrew) words in English can never reconstruct the original sound, since this is  not known. But the pronunciation should be as close as possible to the probable original, ad the transliteration system should be internally consistent.

The following will give some idea of the distortions and how to restore the original.

Letter J - Hebrew has no letter "J." In all names having a "J" in them, the J should be pronounced as "Y" or sometimes as 'I" at the beginning of the syllable. For example:

Adonijah should be Ahdoneeyah (meaning, "My lord is God")

Jedediah should be Yehdeedyah  (meaning, "Friend of God")

 

Jeremiah is Yehrmiyahu in Hebrew. The omission of the final "u" is an unexplained inconsistency.

 

Joel is Yo El in Hebrew (meaning "Jehovah is God" or "Yo is God")

 

The error was reinserted in many cases owing to the work of German scholars, since the German "Y" sound is written as "J." The German transliteratons were correct of Germans, but they were then inserted directly into English.

The J for Y  error was transmitted indiscriminately, even when the Hebrew spelling was Aleph Yud rather than Yud:

Jaffa is Yaffo

 

Job (Aleph Yud Vav Bet) should be iyohv.

 

Jezebel should be eezehvehl. The name begins with "ALEPH" and not with "YOD." The name means "pile of garbage" in Hebrew, and was certainly not the real name of the Phoenician princess taken to wife by King Ahab.

 

She was given that name because of her idolatrous practices, and because the compilers of the Bible and the Book of Kings obviously did not like her. It is not clear what the actual name should be, or what she was called in her lifetime by her subjects.

The application of the erroneous transliterations is not always consistent, and therefore there is no rule that can be used reliably to retrieve the original. The transliterations often passed through Latin, Greek. middle English, Old French  or German. Latin had no "J." German renders "J" as "Y." The popular pronunciation of the names, however incorrect, became established and had to be respected. This was especially true of the most familiar names, which were subjected to the most mutilation and were hardest to correct. 

These vicissitudes may account for a part of the vagaries of mispronunciation. 

The name Yeh'hehzkehl (God will strengthen) was transmuted to "Ezekiel" in English. If the transliteration had been consistent in the error it would have rendered his name as "Jehezkel."   The name Yishahyahu (probably God will save) was transmuted to "Isaiah" in English, rather than "Jeshayah," but "Yishai" (father of King David) Is rendered as "Jesse." "Jesus" was probably called "Yeshua" or "Yehoshua."

Letter S - The letter "S" is often used instead of the Hebrew or Semitic "Shin" which is pronounced as "sh". Thus, for example:

Jerusalem is Yerushalayim in Hebrew (Meaning "City of Peace" perhaps originally "Yeru Shalem or Ur Salem")

 

Jehosaphat (or Jehoshapat) is Yeho-Shahfaht (meaning "God Judged".

 

Letters B and V - In the middle or end of a syllable, the Hebrew Bet (B) is always "soft" and is pronounced as "v." Thus for example:

Abigail is Ahvigahyil in Hebrew.

Abinadab is Ahvi nahdahv in Hebrew (Ather of Nadav).

Abimelech is Ahvi Melech in Hebrew (meaning "Father of a king")

Ebenezer is Evehn ehzehr in Hebrew (not "Ebuneezer").

Jeraboam is Yerahvahm in Hebrew. It probably means, "May the nation increase."

Jerubaal is Yerubaal in Hebrew because the "B" in Baal begins a new syllable and is therefore a hard "B." The name means "Fears (worships) Baal (the god of the Canaanites).

Joab is Yoav, meaning perhaps "God is the father."

Caprices of transliteration - Transliteration can generate unfamiliar vowel combinations, which are the mispronounced in English. For example, the name "Beulah" is pronounced Byoolah in English. In Hebrew it is Beh'oohla,  which means given a husband or mated.   

Letters th - The th dipthong combination was often used to signify the letter "taf" in the middle or end of a syllable, where it is softer than "T." In modern Hebrew these are not usually distinguished. Thus, "Jonathan" is "Yohnahtahn" (God Gave) in Hebrew.

Common components of biblical names - Some commonly used components of biblical names and their meaning:

Ahvi - Father. Always transliterated incorrectly as "Abi" in the King James version.

Mehlehch - King.

Ehl - God

Yah - God. Usually transliterated as JA in the King James Bible.

Yahu - God

Yo - God

Nahtahn - gave

Rahm - mighty. Abram (av ram) may have meant "mighty father," or "father of the mighty."

Tsehdehk - Justice. Melkizedek (pronounced Mehlkitsehdehk) = My king is justice.

Nouns mistaken for names and incorrect plurals - The translators sometimes mistook ordinary nouns for names of nations. Thus, for example, Anahkim means "giants". It is the plural of Anahk. The translators apparently took "Anahkim" to be the name of a people, and therefore added an "s" at the end and rendered it as "Anakims." Likewise, Seraphim (plural of Saraph) is rendered in English as "Seraphims." These renditions are rather comical to speakers of modern Hebrew.

Ami Isseroff

 


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The bible and Zionism

The Bible, the Old Testament, has become a mainstay of human culture, but it is first and foremost a historical document of the Jewish people and our culture. It tells the story of our ancient kingdoms and civilization in the Land of Israel, and therefore it kept alive the tie of the people of Israel to the land of Israel for 2000 years. It forms the moral and cultural basis of Zionist ideology and aspirations.

The Bible, the Old Testament, is accepted by the three major Western faiths. It is a major work of Western civilization. The Bible documents the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, even for those who do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and even for those who do not believe in God at all. It is the historic epic of the Jewish people in our land.  

Additional Background

Maps of Israel (Canaan, Palestine)in Bible Times

Map of Canaan (Israel) in the time of Joshua (Black and White)
Map of ancient Canaan (Palestine) after the Conquest by the Israelites
Palestine (Israel, Canaan) in the Time of the Judges
Map of Ancient Israel (Canaan) in the reigns of Kings David and Solomon (Black and White)
Map of Judah (Judea) in the Divided Kingdom
Map of Judah (Judea) in the Maccabean Kingdom of Alexander Janeus (Yannai)
Map of the Roman Province of Judea

Map - Canaan Before the Hebrews

Map - Canaan and the Early Israelite Kingdom

Map - The kingdoms of Israel and Judea; Judea and Samaria in the time of Jesus

Map and article - Judea (Judah) and Judea and Samaria

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