19

Reuben is most commonly spelled as such in English and in English only. The digraph "eu" as far as I know never represents /uː/ in English nor in any other language, and surely not in any Romanization of Hebrew that I know of. Why then?

12
  • 4
    Google tells me Originating from Hebrew, Reuben is a biblical name that refers to the age-old saying “behold, a son.” AND it says Ruben is a boy's name of Spanish origins meaning “behold, a son”. This name stems from the Hebrew name Reuben, the first-born son of Jacob in the Bible. But I don't suppose Hebrew used our current alphabet (I thought they didn't even have written vowels! :), so the orthography probably doesn't "directly" derive from Hebrew anyway. Oct 10, 2023 at 17:11
  • 3
    In any number of French borrowings eu has this pronunciation (adieu and lieu come to mind).
    – Casey
    Oct 10, 2023 at 18:03
  • 4
    What the deuce! Why would you say that written ‹eu› "never" represents /u/ in English? That’s what it almost always means.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2023 at 19:41
  • 14
    Re: "The digraph "eu" as far as I know never represents /uː/": See sleuth, pseudo-, lieutenant, etc. Oct 10, 2023 at 19:42
  • 4
    The Hebrew name has 3 syllables for an umlaut effect: Reh-OO-ven. (A dot in the V signals to pronounce it B.) So, Reuben reflects the original spelling. Oct 10, 2023 at 22:05

3 Answers 3

27

The Hebrew name ראובן is apparently three syllables. The Wikipedia article Reuben (son of Jacob) offers the following romanizations: "Standard Rəʾūven, Tiberian Rŭʾūḇēn". With vowel markings, it is רְאוּבֵן: the vowel on the first letter (ר) is shva, which in Modern Hebrew is pronounced as /e/ (when it is pronounced), followed by the consonant א (a glottal stop /ʔ/), and then the vowel וּ (U).

The "e" in the spelling "Reuben" represents the Hebrew shva, while the "u" represents the Hebrew /u/ sound. But because English speakers are used to reading "eu" as a digraph, the name is currently pronounced in only two syllables in English.

4
  • 7
    One thing I wondered after writing my own answer is whether we perceived the [eu] in Reuben as a digraph as a result of the spelling change. Even though the Geneva Bible changed the spelling to Reuben for accuracy, most people (lay or ministry) likely continued to say /u/ due to prior familiarity with the name. So if the spelling changed, but the English pronunciation stayed consistent, the prior pronunciation may have induced people to perceive [eu] as a digraph, rather than [eu] natively being read as a digraph before Reuben. Oct 11, 2023 at 12:46
  • 11
    See also, "Michael" Oct 11, 2023 at 17:18
  • In Hebrew, you would say it like this: Re-u-ven
    – A P
    Oct 13, 2023 at 10:35
  • @The other other Alan: The traditional introductory comma is often dropped before quotes nowadays; I'd say it would be seen as a throwback in such examples. But a valid comparison; Raphaël usually (!) drops the diesis now but retains the three syllables. Oct 13, 2023 at 12:00
22

The Geneva Bible most likely added the Reuben spelling to English.

Middle English

In Middle English, the name was indeed rendered as Ruben. I can find mentions in Middle English of that name but not Reuben in the Middle English Compendium, e.g.,

Generides ther mette att a venture The kyng Ruben. [Generides there met by chance the king, Ruben.] (from Generydes)

Ruben, þat o broþer, þenne he is igo. [Ruben, that one brother, then he is gone.] (from Iacob and Iosep)

This corresponds to the spelling of the name Ruben in a prominent Middle English version of the Bible, the Wycliffe Bible, as well as the Latin Vulgate (see Genesis 29:32). Reuben, again, is absent from the edition.

Early Modern English and the Geneva Bible

It's in Early Modern English that the spelling Reuben begins to emerge. While Early English Books Online, a vast corpus of printed texts before 1700, has 2109 matches in 650 records for Ruben, it has 3851 matches in 1181 records for Reuben. What changes? One clue is in the first date of the result.

  • Ruben, as expected, occurs in some of the earliest printed materials: the Prolicionycion [sic] from 1482, the Legenda aurea sanctorum from 1483, and so on.

  • Reuben first appears in early modern translations of the Bible from the 16th century: the Geneva Bible (orig. published completely in 1560; EEBO entry from 1562).

Here's a sample from Geneva, Genesis 29:32 (link to NIV for comparison):

And Leáh conceiued and bare a sonne, and she called his name Reubén: for she said, Be∣cause thel Lord hathe loked vpon my tri∣bulacion, now therefore mine housband wilm loue me.

The Geneva Bible is notable for a few reasons. It was a key Bible for 16th century English Protestantism. It was the first mass-produced, printed Bible made widely available to the general public. It was the first English version to be translated from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (Wikipedia). All of these make it potent for influencing later usage. Also, if that wasn't enough, it influenced the editorial choices of the King James Bible, including its spelling of Reuben based off of רְאוּבֵן (roughly Re'uven according to Wikipedia) rather than the Latin Ruben from the Vulgate:

And Leah conceiued and bare a sonne, and shee called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely, the LORD hath looked vpon my affliction; now therefore my husband will loue me. (King James Bible Online, 1611 version)

So in this case, spelling closer to Hebrew was one way to differentiate the newer Protestant Bibles (Geneva, KJV) from the older ones. Nonetheless, Ruben didn't go away; EEBO results continue to the latest date in the corpus, and the name is still around today. Instead, both spellings stayed in English as versions of the name.

1
  • 4
    It seems the Geneva Bible used Reuben in the Old Testament translating from Hebrew but Ruben in Revelation 7:5 translating from Greek (Ῥουβήν ?)
    – Henry
    Oct 12, 2023 at 11:00
0

The more precise transliteration would be Re'uven. Here the apostrophe stands for the guttural consonant "alef" (which has no equivalent in English). These are routinely ignored in English versions of Biblical names, resulting in Reuven or Reuben ("v" and "b" are closely related in Hebrew; it's essentially the same letter). Presumably this was eventually contracted to "Ruben" because the first "e" in "Reuben" does not affect the (English) pronunciation of the name.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.