Yahweh, Jehovah, & Adonai

I learned a little Arabic in 2022. The classes ended abruptly so I did not progress as far as I had expected. My graduate studies included two linguistics courses that, for inteinsic reasons, were predominantly Indo-European (duh, I speak English, Spanish, French). Of course any linguistics curriculum includes an overview of other language families, and that once-extraneous knowledge of Semitic languages quickly made a lot of sense. It probably also accelerated my uptake. It definitely connected dots which I could apply to Hebrew.

While I am no expert in Semitic languages, phonology is a universal toolkit for all human speech. I quickly saw patterns and structures. One day I flipped to Psalm 119 and compared the alphabets. The kinship was far stronger than I could have anticipated. The affinity seemed as strong as Spanish and Portuguese. Thanks to my linguistics background, Arabic and Hebrew were no longer walled gardens.

Two linguistic terms to note are phoneme and allophone. Phoneme denotes the smallest unit of vocalized meaning. Phonemes are like elements of the periodic table. Carbon is distinct from Oxygen. They have substance alone; they produce new substance together: carbon dioxide (C + O + O => CO2). Allophones are variations of sound that do not change its meaning. Allophones are like isotopes. Carbon normally has an atomic weight of 12, but it can take on extra neutrons to be Carbon-14. And yet it is still Carbon and it still combines with Oxygen to form carbon dioxide (C-14 + O + O => 14CO2). It’s just slightly heavier (14CO2) than ordinary carbon dioxide (12CO2). In English, jet and yet and yes all demonstrate phonemes because a slight sound difference changes its meaning. But in contrast, yes and yep demonstrate allophones because there is no change in meaning. Like regional accents, allophones convey the same meaning to fluent speakers of the language.

Some sounds are nearly universal and identifiable through inscrutable linguistic notations like θ to represent a th sound and ʃ to represent sh. This International Phonetic Alphabet is  about a century old. No one except hardcore linguists read it. I know some of its notations but for the most part I don’t even try. Today, the IPA yields very precise pronunciations of phonemes and allophones. Historically  though, conveying foreign sounds was achieved through transliteration (substituting the closest target letter for each source letter).

Transliteration is how Hebrew יהוה initially became yhwh because the Hebrew letters (right-to-left) are yod-he-waw-he. Of course, this is a double transliteration, first creating latinized spellings for the Ktav Ashuri (“alphabet”) and then selecting the first consonant of each latinized Hebrew consonant. (That said, Semitic languages do not have consonants and vowels in the style of European languages, but it is convenient to use these familiar words.)

Initially, there were no written vowels. Pronunciations were just understood. That convention became problematic in time as people dispersed and their vocal reproductions drifted apart. Semitic languages were stabilized with vowel markers added above and below the consonants to indicate what type of vowel sound should follow. As if this were not challenge enough, Judaism had a custom of not intoning God’s sacred name: יהוה. So transliterating an unspoken term bearing no vowel markers has little chance of accurate translation. Drawing from other accepted transliterations of names with comparable consonant sequences, it was later proposed that יהוה was more closely approximated by jhwh and/or jhvh. The idea here is that the y in yod should be a harder sound as if one were to pronounce yes as jes (and we have all heard foreigners pronounce this way). The harder allophone plays the same in יוֹסֵף which transliterates as Yosef but better represents the sounds when spelled Joseph. Beyond this, the Old Testament—and notably the Psalms—often refer to יהוה as just יה (yod-he) whose contextualized pronunciation is predominantly accepted as the harder allophone jah. Keeping in mind that allophones do not change meaning, yhwh and jhvh have the same meaning…just not the same spelling.

The idea of “Jehovah” dates at least as far back as the middle ages, perhaps further. No one can say whether the sound was Yahweh or Jahveh or Yahwah or Jahwah. For that matter, it was recognized as somewhat arbitrary that no vowel should be inserted between the two middle consonants. It could be Jahevah or Jehevah or Yahovah or Jehovah. The point is, as far as English is concerned, Yahweh and Jehovah are always and equally interchangeable. Phonetically, however, it almost certainly is a hard initial consonant. Personally, Jahweh feels authentic as it emerges from my throat.

For whatever reason, European translators carried forward the Hebrew custom of not intoning God’s true name: יהוה. Rabbi referred indirectly to יהוה as Elohim (“God”) and most frequently as Adonai (“Lord”). So anywhere that European translations reference “The Lord ” it is actually a reference to יהוה, and but for reason of tradition, would have appeared as Yahweh or Jehovah.

The takeaway is that anyone who criticizes one or the other does not understand the heart of the matter.

2 Replies to “Yahweh, Jehovah, & Adonai”

  1. On further reflection, the Pedro/Peter example is better than I initially thought. Both names flow from Greek “Πέτρος” => Petros => Petrus => Peter/Pedro. None of the present translated forms are terribly faithful to Greek.

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