Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pronouncing the Bible!


Every so often seminarians come to me asking how to pronounce this or that name in an upcoming lectionary reading. An “authoritative”  answer is not always possible. Consider the following. Even back in biblical times, the spelling and pronunciation of proper names was not consistent, varying, for example, between short and long spellings. Even in English, biblical pronunciations have changed considerably over time. “Jacob,” for example, was pronounced “Iakob” until at least the 1200’s CE, before which “J” did not exist Old English. Common English pronunciations of biblical names were never real transliterations reflecting original Hebrew pronunciations. Rather, our common US pronunciations derive from anglicized versions of Latin spellings in Old English translations of the Bible (the KJV and its predecessors). The Latin spellings, in turn, were based on the Greek spellings in the Septuagint.

In reading from the English lectionary, we don’t normally use original Hebrew and Greek pronunciations but traditional English ones. But how can one know how to pronounce the latter? The correct pronunciation of a word spelled in English is often not transparent. Many biblical proper names are absent from English dictionaries that provide pronunciations, even from the Oxford English Dictionary. I’m collecting here resources that help. Do not expect all the aids here to be consistent, however. Audio Bibles, for example, will sometimes go for more popular pronunciations rather than ones suggested in handbooks. Aim for an acceptable pronunciation, not a definitively correct one. Above all, pronounce names with confidence when reading in public---even if you are off, most people won’t know!

If you are on a pc or mac connected to the internet, quick help with finding an acceptable English pronunciation of a biblical proper name can be found here, and here, and here.

If you are on a smartphone, some cool app-resources are now available to quickly find acceptable pronunciations of biblical names. The Olive Tree app is highly recommended, providing many, many resources for biblical study.


To find an English pronunciation, select the English term, tap on “Lookup” in the menu that appears, and then select the New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (or another resource that includes pronunciations). See the example below:


A new app has appeared in the last year or two that focuses solely on Bible Audio Pronunciations. The app’s website is  Although the app is not optimized for the newer iPhones, it is still worth a look:


Finally, why not have the reading of the day read aloud to you by your phone? Apps such as Bible Gateway and You Version will do that for you for free. The one annoyance is that the audio usually starts at the head of any given chapter. You will have to listen to the whole chapter, or you will have to poke around till you find the specific verses you need to hear.


Just remember, you will have to select a translation within the app that has an “Audio” function included with it:


Do you know of other good pronunciation resources? Please let me know via the comments section (below).

My colleague Prof. Prichard reminds me of the print resource we have in our seminary chapel (click here). My colleague Prof. Robert Heaney has emailed about an app that includes the NRSV read as audio: (by Faith Comes by Hearing).


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