11 January 2019

Transliteration: Because in some languages, you’re illiterate.

No offense, but if you can’t read their alphabet, you are illiterate. So here’s a quick fix.

By now you’ve likely learned the bible wasn’t originally written in English. (Although good luck informing certain King James Only folks of this. Most of ’em know better, but there are some holdouts who still think God speaks in King James English.)

The bible was written in three dead languages, languages nobody speaks anymore. The present-day versions of these languages are not the same. Languages evolve. Modern Hebrew uses western word order (subject-verb-object, “I go home”), and ancient Hebrew uses middle eastern word order (verb-subject-object “Go I home”). Plus the vocabulary’s way bigger, what with all the loanwords from Yiddish, English, German, Russian, and Arabic. Plus the pronunciation’s different, much like the differences between American English and British English. Modern Greek follows new grammatical rules. Neo-Aramaic speakers love to point out Jesus spoke Aramaic like them, but the Babylonian Aramaic of the bible (and the first-century Syrian Aramaic which Jesus spoke) is like saying Geoffrey Chaucer spoke English like us. He did… and kinda didn’t.

The Old Testament was written in what we call Biblical Hebrew—the older parts in Early Biblical Hebrew, and the Aramaic-influenced later parts in Later Biblical Hebrew. A few chapters were written in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian Empire—the language Daniel put some of his visions into. After the Jews returned from Babylon, that’s what they spoke, and that’s what Jesus spoke, as demonstrated by the few direct quotes we have of him in the New Testament. As for the NT, it’s in a form of Alexandrian Greek we call Koine Greek, a term which comes from the word κοινή/kiní, “common.”

And I know; most of my readers don’t know these languages. I learned them in seminary, ’cause I wanted to know how to read the original texts of the bible. I wanted to read it unfiltered by a translator. Not that most translators don’t know what they’re doing; not that most English translations aren’t well done. They are. But if I’m gonna seriously study bible, I still wanna read the original, and go through the process of translation myself. That’s why I translate it for TXAB.

In so doing, I often need to talk about the original-language words. So I convert ’em into our alphabet so you can kinda read them. It’s called transliteration. People have always done it. Mark did it in the bible, converting some of Jesus’s Aramaic sayings into Greek characters, like so—

Mark 5.41-42 KWL
41 He gripped the child’s hand and told her, “Talítha kum” (which is translated, “Get up, I say”)
42 and the girl instantly got up, and was walking around—she was 12 years old.
They were amazed and ecstatic.

—turning the original טליתא קומי into ταλιθα κουμ for Greek-speakers who couldn’t read the Aramaic alphabet.

Until recently I’ve transliterated everything on this blog, and left the original Hebrew and Greek out. ’Cause foreign languages intimidate certain people. Throw some Hebrew-alphabet words on a page, and people flinch: “Oh no, he’s writing in Hebrew! I can’t possibly read that. I can’t possibly read anything he’s written; he’ll get too technical for me.” I know; to many of you this sounds ridiculous. But I assure you people really do get that way. And I didn’t wanna alienate readers.

I’ve lately come to realize in so doing, I’m accommodating people’s irrational fears. And shouldn’t. Such fears are wholly inappropriate for Christians. If foreign languages freak you out, you need to get over it. Need to. It ruins your ability to share Jesus with foreigners—and with anybody who has compassion for foreigners. You know, like Jesus, who includes us foreigners in his kingdom. So here on out, I’m gonna include the original text in TXAB—and relax, I’ll still transliterate it for you.

But I’ve received comments from people who aren’t sure I’m transliterating properly. Fr’instance when I write on love, I render the Greek word ἀγάπη as agápi. And they’re pretty sure I’ve done it wrong. Everybody they know spells it “agape,” with an E… and pronounces it ə'gɑ.peɪ, not ɑ'gɑ.pi.

Well, everybody they know is doing it wrong. Modern Greek speakers pronounce it ɑ'gɑ.pi, so I’m going with them.

True, ancient Hebrew and Greek is not modern Hebrew and Greek. Doesn’t matter. Today’s native speakers have the pronunciation way closer than Americans do. And for the most part Americans aren’t even trying to get the pronunciation right. They’re just repeating the way they heard other Christians and scholars say it. They’re following the crowd. Even if they learned how to pronounce these languages properly in seminary; even if they grew up in Israel or Greece! That’s just how corrupting peer pressure can be.

I strive for accuracy. So should we all. So I’ll include my transliteration scheme here, for transparency’s sake. And of course you can compare it with your favorite Greek or Hebrew dictionaries… including the mangled way they sometimes pronounce these words, which likewise bear no relation to how native speakers properly do it.

Transliterating Greek.

Since I tend to quote the New Testament more often than the Old, I tend to explain Greek words more often than Hebrew. So let’s start with Greek.

People often transliterate Greek following an older customary system. It’s why β tends to be converted into B; after all, don’t they look alike? But the letter’s pronounced v, and should therefore be converted into V’s.

Desiderus Erasmus, the medieval scholar who put together the Textus Receptus, tends to get blamed for that customary system. Many biblical Greek professors claim they’re following “Erasmean pronunciation,” and Erasmus’s system. But to me they look far too much like they’re mimicking the way their own American professors pronounced (or mispronounced) everything. In any event I’m still following modern Greek, not Erasmus. (He likewise converted β’s into B’s.)

Every so often you’re gonna find people convert η into H, or ω into W. It has nothing to do with pronunciation: It’s because Apple created a font back in the 1980s called Symbol, and if you wanted to type an η you had to type H—and some people still think the letters are related. They’re not. Greek has sounds in their alphabet which we don’t represent by single letters, and vice-versa.

So here’s how I convert their alphabet to ours.

(And just a reminder: All the vowels are pronounced like Spanish, French, Italian, and pretty much every language but English. An I isn’t pronounced like pie, but pizza.)

Α αálfaaɑ as in ma
αιeɛ as in end ɛnd
αυaf, avɑf as in toffee 'tɑf.fi, ɑv as in avocado ɑv.ə'kɑ.doʊ
Β βvítavv as in vet vɛt
Γ γghámmay, ghj as in yam jæm, g as in gum gəm
γγnghŋg as in angle 'æŋ.gəl
γκnghŋg as in angle 'æŋg.əl
γχnkhŋk as in ankle 'æŋk.əl
γξnxŋks as in lynx lɪŋks
Δ δdéltadð as in that ðæt
Ε εépsiloneɛ as in pet pɛt
ειii as in see si
ευef, evɛf as in left lɛft, ɛv as in ever ɛvər
Ζ ζzítazz as in zit zɪt
Η ηítaii as in see si
Θ θthítathθ as in thin θɪn
Ι ιyótai, yi as in see si
ιηyiji as in ye ji
Κ κkáppakk as in ark ɑrk
Λ λlámdall as in log lɔg
Μ μmimm as in mud məd
μβmm as in mud məd
Ν νninn as in no noʊ
ντdd as in do du
Ξ ξxixks as in box bɑks
Ο οómikronoɔ as in off ɔf
uu as in you ju
Π πpipp as in up əp
πνnn as in no noʊ
Ρ ρrorr as in burro 'bʊ.roʊ (trilled a bit)
Σ σ c ςsígmass as in so soʊ
Τ τtavtt as in at æt
Υ υýpsilonyi as in see si
Φ φfiff as in fit fɪt
Χ χhih, khx as in loch lɑx
Ψ ψpsipsps as in rips rɪps
Ω ωomégaoɔ as in off ɔf

Transliterating Hebrew.

The “Hebrew alphabet” is really the Aramaic alphabet. (Yep, Hebrew and Aramaic used the same alphabet; same as Latin and English. Or used to; neo-Aramaic has a new alphabet.) The original Hebrew alphabet, usually called “paleo Hebrew,” looked a bit different—but you’re not gonna find it in Hebrew-language bibles. Just ancient inscriptions, and sometimes on Israeli sheqels. Don’t worry about it.

There’s a myth Hebrew is nothing but consonants. Nope. Like our letter Y, sometimes they’re vowels. But because Hebrew was a dead language for nearly 24 centuries, the Masoretes (the folks who made copies of the bible throughout the middle ages) added niqqúd, marks above, below, and inside the letters to indicate pronunciation—whether a letter was a vowel or consonant, whether vowels oughta be included in the pronunciation, where the syllables were, and so forth. I transliterate the niqqúd too, so they’re on the chart.

אálef(glottal open)whichever vowel is indicated by the niqqúd
בvetvv as in vet vɛt
betbb as in bet bɛt
גgímelg, ghg as in go goʊ
דdáletdd as in do
הheh, ah as in hi haɪ, ə as in ago ə'goʊ
וvavv, wv as in vet vɛt, u as in too tu
hólam vavoo as in owe
šúruk vavuu as in too tu
זzáyinzz as in zit zɪt
חkhetkhx as in loch lɑx
טtettt as in at æt
יyody, ij as in yam jæm, i as in see si
ך כkafkk as in ark ɑrk
ךּ כּkhafkhx as in loch lɑx
לlámedll as in log lɔg
ם מmemmm as in mud məd
ן נnunnn as in no noʊ
סsámekhcs as in so soʊ
עáyin(glottal stop)whichever vowel is indicated by the niqqúd
ף פpepp as in pin pɪn
ףּ פּfeff as in fin fɪn
ץ צchádich as in chin tʃɪn, ts as in tsunami tsu'nɑ.mi
קqofqk as in ark ɑrk
רrešrr as in row roʊ
ššinʃ as in shin ʃɪn
ssins as in sin sɪn
תtav, taft, tht as in at æt
ְoshvaeə as in ago ə'goʊ (or as a syllabic break)
ִohíriqii as in see si
ֵochérëee as in prey preɪ
ֶosególeɛ as in pen pɛn
ַopatákhaæ as in pan pæn
ָokamátsa, oɔ as in awe ɔ, as in owe
ֹohólamoo as in owe
ֻokubúchuu as in too tu

Some Hebrew letters have a dot, or dageš, in them. Sometimes that switches the consonant, as it does with vet, kaf, and pe (turning them into bet, khaf, and fe); sometimes it doubles the consonant.

Accents work the same way they do in Spanish, or other languages where they actually bother to use the accents: That’s the syllable you emphasize. (English occasionally ignores this rule, and uses accents to indicate non-silent E’s.)

And if there are two vowels right next to one another which you’re meant to pronounce separately (like in “Hawaii”) sometimes I use an umlaut (like in “noël”) and sometimes an H, because you know how English-speakers tend to ignore umlauts.

Any deviations I make from this system are either mistakes on my part, or because native speakers pronounce it way differently than it’s spelled. You know, like English speakers occasionally do. It happens.