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In the Hebrew scriptures Abraham's name is Avraham and not Abraham (אַבְרָהָם). Is has a v and not a b. The same goes for Rebecca, who is called Rivka in Hebrew. Both v and b sounds are represented by the same letter, the letter ב, but the sound b is represented by the letter with a dot inside (known as dagesh) and then it's called bet, while the sound v is represented by the letter without the dagesh and called vet (Wiki article for the letter). Here is how they look: בּ vs ב.

In Arabic, Abraham is called Ibrahim, also with b, but the Arabic language has no v sound so it's understandable that it's replaced.

What is the source for the change is the sound?

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Latin orthography. The names were standardized in the West by Jerome's 'Vulgate' Bible, and the literary Latin of his time had no sign for /v/; while the Hebrew texts from which Jerome worked were not yet pointed with the niqqud, which were developed centuries later. –  StoneyB Nov 30 '13 at 23:29
    
New Testament / Septuagint Greek also had to replace /v/ with /b/, I think –  Daniel Harbour Dec 1 '13 at 0:22
    
If you think that is bad, ponder Joshua. –  hildred Dec 1 '13 at 0:38
    
Why Jesus and not Yehoshua or not even Joshua? –  Blessed Geek Dec 1 '13 at 8:03
    
Wouldn't that question be of interest on Linguistics? –  Laure Dec 1 '13 at 9:25

1 Answer 1

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Neither Latin nor Greek (at the time of Biblical) translation had the orthographic means (or need) to represent the contrast be /v/ and /b/. These were the source of the English versions of these names (not the Hebrew). They have been further distorted by letters assigned their English, rather than Latin, values. The result is that many names Hebrew names are pronounced in ways that are unnecessarily far from the original, given the sounds at English speakers’ disposal. Besides the /v/-/b/ neutralization of Abraham, Absalom, Reuben, Job (all with /v/ in Hebrew), there are:

  • all the J-names (Job, Jonah, Jehovah) which have /y/ in Hebrew;

  • those containing v (Eve, David) which was /w/ in the Hebrew;

  • those containing /ð/ (as in English the), for which d substitutes (e.g., Gideon, Gad, the second d of David); and

  • at least some instances of s for sh (e.g., Absalom, Menasse; but, for some reason, in Shem, sh survives fine).

The survival of /θ/ (e.g., Jonathan) might be attributable to Greek, along with ch for Hebrew /x/ (e.g., Enoch).

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I've read that Hebrew never had /θ/ and /ð/. They had /tʰ/ and /dʱ/, and their present-day English values of /θ/ and /d/ were obtained in their passage through Greek. –  Peter Shor Dec 1 '13 at 0:58
    
Some corrections on Hebrew names. The Hebrew for Job is not Yob, but Eyov (איוב). Eve is Hawa in Hebrew not Ewe, also, what is represented by w is a very similar sound to v, and today you can't find anyone that differentiates the two, so phonetically speaking David and Hava are more correct than Dawid and Hawa. Gad, Gideon and David, all have only 'd' in their name and not 'th', in fact there is no 'th' sound in Hebrew, that is why many Israelis pronounce "de" instead of "the" and it's a very hard sound for native Hebrew speakers. (Gad - גד, Gideon - גדעון, David - דוד or דויד). –  Ilya Melamed Dec 1 '13 at 1:32
    
Wikipedia has something interesting to say on this. –  Andrew Lazarus Dec 1 '13 at 2:32
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@IlyaMelamed. My answer addresses classical pronunciation, not modern. Classical Hebrew had a voiced dental fricative for ד, which the modern language has lost, along with /w/ (now /v/) and many other sounds. Needless to say, the classical pronunciation is what's relevant to the question. Thanks for picking up on the misphrased first bullet point; it now talks just about the Eng. /j/ ~ Heb. /y/ correspondence. So phrased, this concerns only the phonemes in question, and does not imply that Job = Yob or Eve = Ewe: like Absalom, these names diverge in several ways from the Hebrew. –  Daniel Harbour Dec 1 '13 at 16:23
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@PeterShor. I've always been taught (both in a Jewish context and in Oxford/Harvard philology) that the classical pronunciation of the undotted <t>, <d>, <g> was as fricatives, as per the modern undotted <b> = /v/, <p> = /f/, <k> = /x/. Andrew's link points in the same direction, but its mention of ejectives for pharyngeals amazes me. I know that that's what happened in Ethiopic, but I've never heard it suggested for Hebrew. Definitely something I'll be following up on! –  Daniel Harbour Dec 1 '13 at 16:29

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