The Wartburg Project

April 4th, 2016

17. The spelling of personal names and place names in various Bibles is very inconsistent. Is the EHV going to have a consistent system of spelling?

The short answer is “No.” Here is why.

The problem of the spelling of personal and geographic names is a nightmare for translators, but many users of a translation might never notice it, unless they try to look a name up in an atlas or Bible dictionary as your question indicates.

The problem arises because some letters of the Hebrew alphabet do not always have a good correspondence with one specific letter of the English alphabet, so different people transliterate the names differently. A further complication is that many of the English names have not come directly from Hebrew but via Greek or Latin.

This problem is not unique to the Bible but applies also to many other writing systems, for example Arabic and Chinese. Compare Koran/Quran and Beijing/Peking.

Today the spelling of place names and personal names in the Bible is in disarray with a tension between preserving traditional English spellings and trying to bring the English spelling into closer alignment with Hebrew. An attempt is underway to get closer to a consistent transliteration the Hebrew: k kaph=k, q qoph=q,  j chet=ch, x tsade=ts. But tsade is often written as z, and chet is often written as h. Chet really needs a special character which is not an English letter. And this is just a small sample of the problem. There are many other cases.

A particular problem is soft kaph which is also rendered ch in many names. This is a problem because biblical ch is not pronounced like the ch in church. It is a hard guttural xxxhhh sound. EHV generally uses k when we want to prevent a pronunciation like church, but there are some exceptions where traditional spelling is retained.

Some transliterations are so established that we simply must live with the inaccurate reproduction of the Hebrew. We cannot change the inaccurate Jerusalem to the more precise Yerushalaim, or Tyre to Tsur, or Bethlehem to Bet Lechem.

Among the many spelling options are Beersheba/Beersheva, Beth Shean/Beth She’an/Bet Shan/Beth Shan, Acco/Akko, Hebron/Chevron. There is no consistent system in common use. All of the systems are riddled with inconsistencies.

As a general rule EHV retains spellings made familiar by recent translations since this is the spelling in many recent Bible helps such as Zondervan Bible Atlas, which may be consulted as a source for spellings of place names, but this system too is inconsistent.

Consonantal y yod remains j not y in most cases, but there are some special cases like Yarkon, which is a familiar modern place name.

There is also the problem when names are made up of more than one Hebrew word. Beth (house) is a separate word in most place names (Beth Shan, Beth Shemesh, etc.), but these same names are hyphenated in some translations (Beth-Shemesh), and Bethel, Bethlehem, and Bethsaida are exceptions to the rule (they are one word—no hyphen). EHV’s default practice is two words, no hyphen. (Beth Shemesh means “house of the sun” or “Sun City.” Making the name two words follows the normal English practice: Sun City, Bay City, etc.)

EHV uses these names, inconsistent as they are: Acco not Akko, Akkad not Accad, Achor not Akor, Akzib not Achzib, Tannach not Tannak, Meshek not Meshech, Machpelah not Makpelah, Mikmash not Michmash, Lachish not Lakish; Aijalon not Ayalon, Jericho not Yericho, Joppa not Yafo; Aphek not Afeq, Ashkelon not Ashqelon; En Gedi two words but the parallel formation Endor only one word; Elat not Elath or Eilat; Kinneret not Chinnereth.

What a mess! The system is wildly inconsistent, and no solution is in sight. The best we can hope for is to make it as easy as possible for readers to find names in atlases and Bible dictionaries, but these resources too are inconsistent, and some of them offer options for spellings. The best thing readers can do if they don’t find what they are looking for is to look up the name online. This will often show the options for spelling.

The same chaos exists in personal names: Melchizedek but Adoni-Zedek even though it is the same type of formation. EHV spells “king names” ending in melek with a final k not a final ch: Abimelek, Elimelek, but inconsistently it uses Lamech, because we preserve traditional spellings of well-known names.

There are a couple of bright spots in a cloudy sky: the other common systems in use are less consistent than ours, computers make it much easier to get consistency of spelling across the translation, and English speakers already know that English spelling is a really messed up discipline. The most notorious example is ghoti, which is an alternate spelling for “fish”: gh as in enough, o as in women, and ti as in nation.

This is an example of a translation issue which many readers may never notice, but which requires thousands of decisions for translators and editors.