Many names in the Old Testament are transliterated and used today. The names from later books -- such as Jonathan (Yonatan), Samuel (Shemu'el), and Joshua (Yehoshu'a) -- all seem to follow basic rules like having a j instead of the Hebrew "yud" and a ch or h for the harsher sounds. However, names from the beginning of Genesis -- Eve (Chavah), Abel (Hevel), Enoch (Chanokh), and others -- sound quite different from their Hebrew originals. Why do these names seem to be transliterated differently compared to later names?

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    "Transliterated" if probably the wrong verb here, or at least "transliterated from Hebrew" is the wrong way to think about it. The Old Testament names acquired their current English forms via a process that can be best characterized as a long game of telephone. Each language that it was translated into (and hint: English didn't enter the picture for 1500 years) would "adapt" the names to fit their available sounds. The names then took on a life of their own, quite apart from the translations, leading to English having both James and Jacob, which are really the same name. Sorta.
    – Marthaª
    Jan 28, 2016 at 3:31
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    We virtually have fist-fights here about what is and isn't "proper" English, even though we have the printing press and a handful of other technological assists. 2600 years ago (IIRC), when the early texts of the Old Testament were being codified, they were lucky to be able to read the parchment scrolls (and likely some details had to be filled in from oral legend).
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 28, 2016 at 3:31
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    I think this is an excellent question about the etymology of frequently used English words. The etymology of any English word will necessarily involve other languages; this is of no consequence. Those who complain about the topicality of questions such as this should reconsider their perspective. Jan 28, 2016 at 3:35
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    Can you include in your question the original Hebrew names and their pronunciation for both the early and later names? It might help us form some conjectures. It may just be a historical accident based on who translated which books in what order. Maybe the early books were done by some lazy scribe whereas the later ones were done more faithfully.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 28, 2016 at 3:48
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    "Hevel" is modern Hebrew pronunciation. The middle consonant was historically b, and was transliterated in all positions using Greek beta, and later using Latin b. This is consistent in all books of the Bible as far as I know, not just Genesis. (Other examples: Caleb, Job, Abraham)
    – herisson
    Jan 28, 2016 at 4:01

1 Answer 1


The loss of the initial heth in Eve, Abel and Enoch (as well as Anna and other names) is due to their journey via Koine Greek, which represented the word-initial aspiration of heth (and he) with a 'rough breathing' diacritic on the initial vowel. Since the breathing marks weren't used regularly, and since the [h] sound was eventually dropped in pronunciation, the names entered Latin and English with no aspiration sound.

It's also important to remember that both the English pronunciation and Modern Hebrew pronunciation have changed significantly since the names were formed. The v in the Latin Eva and ו in חַוָּה‎ were both pronounced w. The intervocalic β in the Greek Ἄβελ (Abel) was closer to a v than word-initial βs were. And Biblical Hebrew had more vowels than Modern Hebrew does (which might partly explain why it's Eva rather than Ava, or Abel rather than Ebel).

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    Wasn't it the opposite way around – Hebrew intervocalic beth was closer to /b/ than it is nowadays? I don't know of any evidence that Greek beta used to be pronounced differently at the start and middle of words. That might be a reasonable intermediate between the original "b everywhere" pronunciation and the current "v everywhere" pronunciation, but that seems unnecessary as an explanation.
    – herisson
    Feb 11, 2016 at 20:11
  • My impression was that New Testament Koine had a bilabial fricative in intervocalic position and a b elsewhere, but you're right that this is not needed to explain the use of beta in transliterations.
    – Uri Granta
    Feb 11, 2016 at 23:51
  • Is there a reason it seems to happen more in early Genesis compared to the rest of the Bible?
    – SophArch
    Apr 18, 2016 at 14:14

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