The Pronunciation of Hebrew Names

By James Sanders

To the Occidental mind, Hebrew is all backwards and complex. It is virtually useless. Too many of the letters look alike and the consonants are written from right to left, just reversed laterally from the English writing. Books written in Hebrew are opened at the back and read toward the front. In ancient Hebrew there was no system of vowel notation. The reader, finding only the consonants, had to supply the proper vowel. For example, a simple word like did would be written as DD. But so would every other word that began and ended with the letter D. Words such as DaD, DiD, DeeD, DeaD, and DuDe in Hebrew would all appear as DD.

This, in part, explains why names such as Adithaim, Absalom, Ahithophel, or Cushanrishathaim are so difficult to pronounce. Hebrew is Oriental, not Occidental. It is a language from the East and not from the West. But there are other reasons. The pronunciation of Hebrew names in the English Bible is based upon three things: (1) spelling, (2) accent, and (3) pronunciation of the individual letters.

1. Spelling.

The spelling of Hebrew names in the English Bible is not natural. Letters are often deleted. Names such as Adam, Solomon, Aaron or Moses are accurately spelled: ‘Adham, Shelomoh, Aharon and Mosheh. But in the English Bible, Hebrew names are all spelled as if they were Latin or Greek words. The pronunciation in many cases then, becomes difficult and strange.

2Accent. .

The accent of Hebrew names adds to the problem. The accentuation is based on the Latin scheme, never on the Hebrew. This makes the pronunciation awkward and very unnatural. The accent should occur on the last syllable rather than on the first or second. There are, of course, exceptions but this is the general rule. The secret in pronouncing Hebrew is to say the entire word in one breath with emphasis upon the last syllable.

3. Pronunciation of individual letters.

Hebrew has sounds that are not reproducible .in English. Many consonants are guttural (pronounced in the throat). The Hebrew letters, ‘Aleph and ‘Ayin have no English equivalents. But in the English Bible, Hebrew letters are pronounced as if they were English letters.

The Hebrew names which occur in the English Bible are spelled as if derived from Greek, accented as if Latin, but pronounced so far as the individual letters are concerned as if native English words. Little wonder that many Hebrew names are hard to say. The oriental may well think us the backward one — and perhaps with good reason.

List of References

Orr, James (ed.). The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1939.

Yates, Kyle M. The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, New York: Harper & Row Publishers. n.d.

September 28, 1972