GOD’S NAME? Why do some people pronounce God’s name as Yahweh and others say Jehovah?
Answer by John Mackay
In a nutshell, it has to do with three things: 1) Y do we have J? i.e. what is the history of the letter J in the English language. 2) The Jews fear of pronouncing God’s name in vain, and 3) What happens to all languages with use through time?
Say It Again?
To explain the first point, you need only think of Händel’s Hallelujah chorus. You didn’t notice? Read the words again – Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. Do you notice the letter J is pronounced as a Y? No one says Hallelu- JAR. Everyone says Hallelu- YAH!
What Did You Say?
Part of this problem is that history records that from several hundred BC, Jewish people became so phobic about breaking the commandment on using the Lord’s name in vain, that they simple stopped pronouncing it. One present day result is that it’s rather difficult to be dogmatic about how to pronounce what is called the “Tetragrammaton”, which is the group of 4 Hebrew consonants giving the revealed name of God. These 4 letters were traditionally translated into English as Lord, or if pronounced, usually came out as JEHOVAH. There are other Hebrew words that are also translated with the word Lord, such as Adonai. However this Adonai Lord is not a name – it is a position, as in the Lord of the Manor. A simple way to distinguish them was developed. The King James Version used the printed text Lord as the name, to distinguish it from the position Lord (Adonai)
As to the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton – that is what this question is all about.
U Got Problem Vowels?
Since the Hebrew language used consonants (e.g. t, b) but did not originally use written vowels (e.g. a, e) we may have to guess which vowels were used originally. For those who can’t appreciate this last comment, perhaps a simple and more modern illustration.
Consonants are letters such as b, v, t, and p. English vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and they are very flexible in pronunciation. This shows when people groups from the same background (say England) become separated even for a very short period of time. Queenslanders in Australia pronounce the town Newcastle, as New-cass-el. Then express shock when they travel to NSW (the next state) where our close cousins pronounce it New-car-sel.
It is even more obvious when an Australian goes to New Zealand and counts four, five then six, yet they hear New Zealanders saying four, five then sex. The ‘i’ vowel sound can easily become ‘e’ and vice versa.
Add all this to the mix, and be an Englishman in the 1600’s, when you try to pronounce what appears to you to be the consonant combination JH. Should you link them with an a, e or i? Should it be Jah, Jeh, Jih, etc? Mostly, we go for the easiest pronunciations such as a’s or e’s and aim for JaH or JeH. There are other factors, but we are keeping it simple!
Now some more on the question as to Y we have J, since the history of the letter J in the English language is both intriguing and sometimes debateable. Many linguists have no doubt that the sound of ‘J’ (as Jay) as in George has existed for a long time in the language, but the letter J to match it, seems to date only from the 14-1500’s. In my own families Scottish history, I was named John Mackay after my Grandfather, but the earliest John Mackay I can find in our family tree was an Iain Mhicaoidh whose fame comes from the claim he rescued our family castle site from the Vikings. So was the J pronounced as an I back then? More likely the combination ‘ia’ was pronounced Y as in Yan, which is still how John is spelt in many European languages, and the Y has ‘morphed’ to J down through time.
Likewise whenever we go to a Messianic Jewish meeting in England, they talk about Yeshua and Yacov, yet the Anglican Church next door talks about Jesus or Jacob, as well as politely discussing the folk with the wretched vowel problems in the adjacent building.
The trend away from J to Y can be seen in the difference in translation of Psalm 68 between the 1600’s and the 1900’s. KJV (1611) has Psalm 68:4 reading; “Sing unto God, sing praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice before him.”
While the NKJV (1981) has it reading; Sing to God, sing praises to His name; Extol Him who rides on the clouds,[a] By His name YAH, And rejoice before Him.
Jah or Yah?
Jah and Yah are translations of the Hebrew word listed in Strong’s concordance as Hebrew word number 3050, which turns out to simply be the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, a contraction or shortening of the Lord’s name. Many modern translations avoid this dilemma and simply revert to using the word LORD.
What About a VW Switch?
One last puzzle. How could JeHoVaH become YaHWeH? How could the V become a W?
Simple actually. Firstly let’s ask you how do you pronounce the letter W? Double U, correct? So perhaps you should write it as uu and not as a double v. We still use uu in cursive English writing, and this sound still exists when we note that the English word ‘west’ becomes the French ‘ouest’ where ‘ou’ is the ‘uu’ sound. However if you ask a German to read out the word ‘west’ they will say ‘vest’. Same word, same letters, different sounds. So with a literal slip betwixt pen and lip, JHVH moves to YHWH. Add to that, the increasing trend of Bible translators, western linguists and simplified English translations to acknowledge the letter J’s history, and we have found the reason for people moving from Jehovah to Yahweh.
The Important Bit
Perhaps a lesson from all this. When I was a child I knew my mother, but I never knew her name. As I grew, Momma became mummy became mum, but it never even occurred to me she even had a name. I just knew she loved me, and I loved her because she first loved me.
So those of you who quibble over JaH or YaH need to stop and ponder. Do you actually know Him, or do you just want to know the history of how we pronounce this Gods Name?
If you love Him because He first loved you, then you also know a more important thing. When this God became man, born to Mary in Bethlehem, He was given a name above all other names – Jesus! For there is no other name whereby you may be saved. So don’t be JeHoVaHs witnesses! Bear witness to the One whose Name is the only one which can save men and women from their sins – Jesus, who is the Christ, no matter how His name is pronounced in your dialect. And lastly ensure you bring no shame to the name his people were first called in Antioch. Christians! (Acts 11:26)
As in all of my articles that touch upon linguistics, yet as someone who trained in geology, I acknowledge my thanks to two University lecturers in linguistics both practical Bible translators. Dr Allan Hall, a dear friend of this ministry until his passing, and Dr Charles Taylor whom we worked with for quite a few years. The first from Queensland University the second from Sydney University. They intrigued me with words, taught me basic Hebrew, encouraged me to hunt behind the letters to find the meaning and encouraged me to communicate.
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