How Biblical names sounded in Biblical times
— or what sound was expressed in what we read—
How Biblical names sounded in Biblical times
Here at Abarim Publications we frequently receive emails from expecting parents who want to give their baby a Biblical name and want to know the exact way it sounded back in Biblical times. Our reply is usually duly festive, but gently leading towards the obvious: nobody knows how names — or any other written words for that matter — may have sounded prior to the advent of sound recording devices.
Language evolves in all kinds of ways and a few centuries ago even English sounded quite different than it does today. We may be able to read Shakespeare the way he wrote it, but we would have a hard time following one of his plays it we could eavesdrop on the night it premiered. Some words that don't rhyme today did back then. We know this from certain words the Bard juxtaposed in a rhyme scheme — knees, grease, grass and grace rhymed to Shakespeare. And by following Shakespeare's impeccable metres, we know that some words that are polysyllabic today were monosyllabic back then.
And even if we would have three modern people read aloud a recently produced text, we still would end up with three widely varying audile reflections if one of these three people comes from, say, Dallas, another from Sidney, and the third is a high school student from Belgrade, Serbia. And even though Dallas, Sidney and Belgrade are far apart, in ancient Israel people who lived relatively close to each other could still be very clearly recognized by their accent. In Judges 12 we read that people from Ephraim would pronounce a certain word as שׂבלת, whereas people from Gilead said סבלת (and we guess that this word probably sounded something like shibboleth). And in Matthew 26:73 Peter is recognized to be from Galilee when he speaks.
The Anglicized name Jesus, to give another example, probably started out as the Hebrew name ישוע (possibly pronounced as Yesuha, but that's a guess), became the Greek name Ιησους (possibly pronounced as Iesous; also a guess) and is today known around the world as Jezus (Dutch), Giesu (Vietnamese), Iso (Uzbek), Gesus (Sardinian), Iosa (Irish), Isus (Bosnian), Xesus (Galician), and so on.
Transliterating or transcribing Biblical names
There are only so many sounds a human mouth can produce, and chances are excellent that the sounds of one language also appear as the sounds of another, unrelated language. That means that all we have to do is establish which sound each letter represented in the source text, and replace it with the corresponding one in English. That, however, seems a lot simpler than it really is.
According to the best and brightest linguists, classical Hebrew contains two or three letters that probably sounded similar to our letter 's,' namely: ס and ש. That would neatly correlate with our letters 's' and 'c'; after all, the words 'cent', 'sent' and 'scent' sound the same, but by writing a 'c' we make clear that we're dealing with a Latin word that means 100, and by using the 's' we demonstrate that this is a Germanic word having to do with the verb to send. There is obviously no correlation between the Hebrew ס and ש and the English 's' and 'c' and we have no idea according to which distinction the Hebrews used either ס or ש.
Then Hebrew contains two letters that probably sounded like our 't', namely ט and ת. Again we have no idea when or why the Hebrews used either, and even if we did, there's no such thing as the English 't'. As Bill Bryson writes in his fascinating book The Mother Tongue, "An analysis of speech at the Bell Telephone Laboratories by Dr. John R. Pierce detected more than ninety separate sounds just for the letter 't'."
Hebrew has two letters that probably sounded like 'z', namely ז and צ (although the latter was probably pronounced more like 'tz'), two that were like our 'h', namely ה and ח, two that were like our 'k' and 'q', namely כ and ק, which dictionaries usually transliterated with a 'k' and a 'q' respectively, but which in transliterated names only occur as 'k' (probably because of the rule that in English a 'q' is always followed by a 'u').
The riddle of the syllables
Hebrew even had two letters that (probably) had no sound at all but represented a guttural stop: א and ע, which obviously poses a problem as we have no guttural stops in English. Dictionaries will transliterate these letters with an all-telling apostrophe (') but in transliterated names these letters are commonly omitted for reasons of style (as they were perceived in centuries hence). The name Baal, for instance, isn't the familiar monosyllabic Baal but the disyllabic Ba'al (or so we surmise).
The Hebrew of the Bible was written more than two and a half millennia ago, and many of the names are much older than that simply because prior to the invention of science fiction, all stories played in the past. Since we only have the consonants of those names — and we don't even know how those were pronounced — we are absolutely and entirely in the dark about how those names may have sounded back then. At some point, the ancient Hebrews began to make sporadic use of vowel-notation and used for this symbols that were already used for consonants. Hence, in the Biblical text that we now possess, these letters: י, ו and ה, may each represent a consonant or an vowel, and that means that of words and names that contain these symbols, we don't even know how many syllables they have!
As noted by Joel M. Hoffman in his riveting little tome on the history of the Hebrew language, In the Beginning, the Name יהוה or YHWH; the name of the Lord, consists of only those ambiguous double-duty symbols and is far beyond any attempt to pronounce it. In fact, the name YHWH may be specifically designed to be unpronounceable, possibly to demonstrate the power of written language over spoken language.
Or the name דוד to give another example, may be the popular disyllabic name David, but it might also be the monosyllabic name Dod. Both names occurred in antiquity and both are spelled the same in Hebrew. It's even worse than that: Zion, to us also known as "the city of David," was once upon a time known as "the city of Dod," where Dod or Dodo was the local name of the sun-god.
Hebrew names through the ages
When in the fourth century BC the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) was written, many of the Hebrew names were transliterated into Greek. That sounds hopeful for sound-hounds, but:
- We don't know whether the translators sought to represent solely the Hebrew consonants or the whole words. Did they try to give the Hebrew names a Greek twang or did they strive to preserve the tongue-twisting Semitic rings? (Probably the first.)
- Many of the Hebrew names were in some form or other also known in Greek (many names mean something that also exists expressed in a name in another language, and many Hebrew names are not Hebrew but transliterated or translated names from other languages), which caused the Greek alternative rather than the Semitic one to be adopted. This is not very strange. Take the English/French name James, for instance. In Greek that name is identical to the name Jacob.
- It's by no means certain and by some means quite unlikely that the authors of the Septuagint knew how the ancient Hebrews pronounced their texts. Even the most linear Greek transliterations of Hebrew names are secondary approximations of primary estimations.
- Even when we assume that the authors of the Septuagint had perfect knowledge of how ancient Hebrew had sounded, and were able to transliterate this into a perfect phonetic transcription, then we still don't know how the Greek of the Septuagint sounded, and we're back to square one.
After the Greek translation and transliterations of the Hebrew texts came the Latin Vulgate, which was more of the same, and hundreds of years after that, separate groups of co-called Masoretes began their phenomenal but differing works of adding vowel symbols to the Hebrew text.
They also created new consonants out of the old ones. For instance: שׂ, probably sounding like 's' and שׁ, sounding like 'sh' were both derived from the original ש. Bill Bryson helpfully notes that the 'sh' sound in English is represented by fourteen different spellings, as in shoe, sugar, passion, ocean, and so on.
The Masoretes' aim was to preserve the way the Hebrew was pronounced in their days, because Biblical Hebrew was nobody's (or very few people's) first language anymore. The Masoretic text of the Bible remained standard until our own age, but the following observations remain:
- Standardization, or the notion that the same word should be spelled the same way every time you write it, independent on its varying pronunciation across a language area, seems logic and natural to us but it's really a recent invention. In his extant writings, Shakespeare left us his own name six times, each time spelled different (and never as the now standard "Shakespeare"). So, which spelling was the proper one and which ones were wrong? The Bard himself would probably have scoffed at the question: his name was a sound, and a written name is always "wrong".
- The Masoretes worked more than a millennium after the texts were written, and were certainly not privy to the original pronunciations.
- The Masoretes disagreed with the Septuagint on much of their interpretations of the ancient Hebrew and were decidedly inconsistent with their interpretations. As per Joel M. Hoffman's resolute decree, "While some of what the Masoretes gave us may represent older Hebrew, we can not simply rely on Masoretic Hebrew to give us an indication of what older Hebrew was like" (page 76) and "[...] we have no evidence that the Masoretes correctly recorded the details" (page 101).
- Besides the Masoretes' enormous efforts and undisputed genius, we have no blithering clue how those Masoretic symbols sounded to them! All they left us is Hebrew text augmented with well-intended dots and thingies that we don't know how to pronounce. You simply can't write sound.
Down the slippery onomatopoeic slope
Sometimes ancient texts describe sounds which we may assume haven't changed (like the rustle of wind through trees or the gushing of water down a mountain or even the expletives of a carpenter who hits his thumb with his hammer). But that seems more promising than it really is.
Take the good old human sneeze, for instance. In English we utter a hefty Ahchoo!; in Dutch we go Hatsjoe! which is obviously the same word, spelled according to the rules of onomatopoeia (sound-writing) of either language. In French, however, we do Atchoum, which represents the same disyllabic utterance that centers on the tsh, yet ends with a muffled 'm' and not an open, bacilli-dispensing OOO!! And where the Germanic speakers (such as English and Dutch) emphasize the OOO!!-part, and the French show manners even in their sneezing, the Italians squeak out a modest Etci! when they sneeze. My Serbian homies produce something that written looks like this: ciha and spoken sounds like tshee-haa!! (with the emphasis on the tshee-part). And I'm pretty sure I once heard a young lady from Poland say something that sounded like ap-cheek!! (with the emphasis on the cheek-part). That's five widely differing transliterations of the same sound, experienced by relatively adjacent peoples, all in modern times.
So, how did the names Caleb, Nahash, Ra'amah and Ahoah sound to the ancient Hebrews? We still don't know, but it seems obvious that the transliterations don't do these names much justice. The name Caleb is an English transliteration of a noun that derived from the Hebrew verb כלב, which (probably) represented the ancient Hebrew perception of the sound a dog makes (woof in English; bau in Italian; ouaf in French; ham in Albanian; gheu in Bengali; wong in Cantonese; guk in Indonesian; haap in Persian, and, very helpful: wff in Welsh). Also note that the dog is considered our best friend, but was considered a scavenging and vile, unclean creature by the Hebrews. The perception of the creature that produces the sound certainly affects the way this sound is perceived.
The name Nahash comes from נחש; the sound a snake makes. The name Ra'amah originated in רעם, which reflects the sound of thunder. And the name Ahoah is the guesstimated transliteration of the Hebrew name אחוח, which reflects a sound that was made by both the jackal and the falcon (or such we hopefully translate those words).
And that, remarkably, reminds us that names in ancient times where sounded long before they were written! The first boy named Caleb wasn't called Caleb or even כלב but had to show up when someone made a sound like a dog barking. And the first Ahoah wasn't called Ahoah or even אחוח but was hailed by imitating a screeching hawk or yelping jackal. How did Biblical names sound? We haven't the soggiest. Even their 'original' Hebrew and Greek representations are just approximations.