Correct Spelling and Pronunciation of Yahweh vs. Jehovah

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio Audio (8:01) |

A previous generation pronounced God's name as Jehovah, not Yahweh. The American Standard Version of 1901 actually used the word Jehovah whenever God's name appeared in the Old Testament. But today the correct pronunciation and spelling is believed to be Yahweh. Why the change? Fasten your seat belt; this gets technical fast.

The pronunciation can never be certain, since early Hebrew had no vowels, only consonants, though evidence from several sources, such as early Greek transliterations, point to the pronunciation as Yahweh.1

The four letters of the divine name are YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton (a Greek word meaning "four letters" from tetra "four" and gramma "letter). Here are the steps that moved us from the (presumed) original Yahweh to Jehovah.

1. Substitution of Adonai for YHWH

Probably the early Israelites actually pronounced the name Yahweh. But by the end of the pre-Christian era, a fear of misusing God's name developed (based on Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11) to such a degree that pious Jews avoided speaking the divine name out loud. When it appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures read in the synagogue, they would substitute the word ´adon or ´adonay, meaning "lord, master" (which we'll consider in chapter 6). If you compare "kingdom of God" in Luke, written for a Gentile audience, with "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew, written for a Jewish audience, you can see this phenomenon of avoiding the divine name in some of the Gospels. To this day, orthodox Jews avoid even spelling God, and render it G-d out of reverence. They refer to YHWH as the Ineffable Name, the Unutterable Name or the Distinctive Name. The first step in the transition from Yahweh to Jehovah was the substitution of Adonai for Yahweh when the Scripture was read.

2. Vowel Pointing to Indicate Pronunciation

The second step was vowel pointing to indicate pronunciation. As mentioned, early Hebrew had no vowels, only consonants. But in 906 AD, a group of Hebrew scholars at Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee known as Masoretes were concerned that because fewer and fewer people were actually speaking Hebrew at that time, the memory of the language and how it was pronounced would die out. To retain the correct pronunciation, they introduced vowel points -- a series of dots and dashes under the Hebrew consonants -- to indicate the vowels for each word. The Hebrew Bible with their vowel points is known as the Masoretic text. But ancient Hebrew (such as found in Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls) and modern Hebrew use no such vowel points.

3. Vowel Points for Adonai in YHWH

The third step occurred when the vowel points for Adonai were substituted in YHWH. When the Masoretes added vowel points to the Hebrew text in the tenth century, instead of pointing the vowels of YHWH that would help the reader pronounce the name, instead they added the vowel points that would go with the regularly substituted word ´adonay or ´elohim. These vowel points were intended to prevent a reader from accidentally pronouncing the divine name, but they created a strange spelling of the word for those who didn't understand what was happening. Here's what happened:

Presumed correct vowel pointing for Yahweh

YaHWeH

Vowel pointing for Adonai (inserted into the Tetragrammaton)

YeHoWaH

4. Shift in Latin and Some European Languages from "I" and "Y" to "J"

The fourth step involved a shift in Latin, English, and French (and perhaps other European languages from "I" to "J." Originally Latin had no "J." But in the Late Roman period a "J" was introduced. At first it was considered the same as the "I" but was used at the end of words that ended with "I."2

Following the French conquest of England in the Battle of Hastings (1066 AD), French and Latin influence increased in England. But from the early 1200s through the 1700s, "J" sound was slowly replacing "I" in words that began with "I," especially where "I" was used as a consonant. Names like Iames became James, Iakob became Jacob, and Yohan became John. In addition, Ioshua became Joshua and Iehouah became Jehovah. The pronunciation didn't necessarily change at the same time as the letter change.

You can see the shift from I to J in the chart below. The King James Version uses Jehovah by itself only four times: Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; 26:4. In addition, the KJV version includes the word Jehovah in compound names three times: Genesis 22:14; Exodus 17:15; and Judges 6:24. I have compared these verses, plus passages that show the spelling of Joshua and Jesus in several early English translations. By 1611 when the King James Version was published, the shift from I to J was fairly complete.

 

Wycliffe Bible (1395)

William Tyndale (1530)

Miles Cloverdale (1535)

Bishop's Bible (1568)

Geneva Bible (1587)

King James Version (1611)3

Genesis 22:14

The Lord seeth

the LORde will see

The LORDE shall prouyde

the Lorde wyll see

Iehouah-iireh

Jehouah-jireh

Exodus 6:3

Adonai

Iehouah

LORDE

Iehouah

Iehouah

IEHOVAH

Exodus 17:15

Lord myn enhaunsere

Iehouah Nissi

The LORDE Nissi

The Lorde is he that worketh miracles for me

Iehouah-nissi

JEHOUAH-nissi

Judges 6:24

the Pees of the Lord

--

The LORDE of peace

The Lord of peace

Iehouah shalom

Jehouah-shalom

Psalm 83:18

Lord

--

LORDE

God eternall

Iehouah

JEHOUAH

Isaiah 12:2

Lord

--

LORDE

Lorde

Lord

JEHOUAH

Isaiah 26:4

Lord

--

LORDE

Lorde

Lord

JEHOUAH

Joshua 1:1

Josue

--

Iosua

Iosuah

Ioshua

Joshua

John 20:31

Jhesus

Iesus

Iesus

Iesus

Iesus

Jesus

5. Shift in Pronunciation of the J Sound

Names and Titles of God, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Now available as in paperback and  e-book formats. Includes Hebrew & Greek word studies, discussion questions and handouts for groups or classes, suggests songs, comprehensive with 120 core names, titles, etc., total of 219 varieties.  Detailed index. Modestly priced. Buy your copy today.

Finally, while pronunciation didn't necessarily change at the same time as the shift from "I" to "J," gradually the spelling of the words probably began to influence their pronunciation. In Germany, the "J" has a "Y" sound. In Spain the "J" is silent. But in English, the "J" developed to have a harder sound, that in the Divine Name developed into our present pronunciation of Jehovah.

Hopefully this long explanation helps you see how the presumed original Yahweh came to be pronounced as Jehovah, both with the different vowel sounds and with a "J" instead of "Y" at the beginning.


References

  1. Anson F. Rainey, "How was the Tetragrammaton Pronounced?," Biblical Archaeological Review (July/August 1985), pp. 78-79. J. Barton Payne, hāwā, TWOT #484a.
  2. Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language (Second Edition: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 1971), pp. 61-62.
  3. Spellings for the KJV are taken from a facsimile of the original 1611 publication. More recent editions of the KJV have modernized the spelling of numerous words. Verification of the original KJV spellings was made by my son, Dr. David Wilson-Okamura, Assistant Professor, English Department, East Carolina University. He notes: "u for v is the norm in the middle of a word in this period. It would be pronounced v, though, it being just a spelling convention."

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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