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Transliteration of Biblical Languages

Dennis Bratcher

Transliteration is the representation of the sounds of one language in the characters or alphabet of another language.  This is often helpful in dealing with languages written in non-Roman alphabets, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek (examples of languages that use the Roman or Latin alphabet are English, Spanish, German, Vietnamese, Turkish, etc.).

A complete transliteration scheme provides some way to represent every consonant and vowel sound from the other language. In some cases there is no direct equivalent of the sound of one language in another, so additional markings must be used to indicate the unique sound (such as a dot under the letter h to indicate the Hebrew letter chet, which is a hard guttural ch sound something like the ch  in "chord").  Such a comprehensive system is necessary for precise study of the texts, for example, in representing Hebrew in Braille or in older scholarly publications that could not go to the considerable expense of typesetting non-roman fonts.  Computer typesetting and modern printers have largely eliminated that problem for publications.

However, the web presents even more formidable problems for non-Roman alphabets. Most computer users are familiar with the gibberish that results when trying to read a web page or e-mail  in a non-Roman language when the default settings for the browser or e-mail program are for English.  Different browsers that display texts in different ways, lack of standardization in how non-Roman fonts are mapped (which keyboard keys produce which letters), lack of these fonts on most home computers, as well as difficulty in switching back and forth between left to right (English) and right to left (Hebrew) languages make using mixed English and non-Roman languages on a single web page difficult.  While advancing technology is rapidly addressing this problem, for now it is still difficult to provide mixed language texts on web pages.

And yet in dealing with the biblical text, there is often a need to refer to the original words in Hebrew, Aramaic, of Greek.  On this site, we have addressed the problem in two ways.  When it is necessary to provide biblical texts in the original languages, we usually use a graphic of the text rather than trying to switch to Greek or Hebrew fonts.

In other cases where only single words need to be referenced in an article, we usually use a very simplified system of transliteration.  The goal here is not to duplicate all of the features of the original language, but to provide enough information for students of Scripture to recognize the words.  In this system, for example, with Hebrew there is no attempt to differentiate between long and short vowels unless there is a consonant vowel carrier. Likewise in Greek there is no attempt to indicate subscript iotas or most of the diacritical marks that are common to Greek..  While those are necessary for translators to identify aspects like declension, they are not necessary for the average student of Scripture in dealing with basic word meanings.

Hebrew/Aramaic Transliteration

Hebrew is written in lines and reads top to bottom like English.  However, Hebrew reads right to left, which means that both sentences and words begin on the right and read toward the left rather than left to right as English.  Books in Hebrew open toward the right (at the "back" of what English readers are used to) and pages turn to the right.

There are no capital letters in Hebrew.  Some letters of Hebrew have a different form when they occur at the ends of words (kaph, mem, nun, pe, and tsade).  The two dots in the final kaph in the chart below indicate that it occurs at the end of a syllable.  A final kaph can also occur with a following vowel.  Transliteration does not attempt to indicate these final forms beyond the basic letter.

The difference between the letters sin and shin are indicated by a dot over either the left or right part of the letter. In transliteration, this is indicated by using either s or sh.  Hebrew uses dots inside or beside letters for various purposes, for example to indicate that the letter is doubled.  When these dots signal a doubled letter, it will usually be indicated in transliteration by using two letters.

The vowel marks (points) in Hebrew are complicated (there are fifteen basic vowel points or marks used with letters in the Hebrew Masoretic text to indicate vowel sounds).  As a result, we have made no attempt to indicate the various vowels beyond the six basic vowel letters of English.  Generally, the vowels in the Masoretic text will be approximated by the general class into which they fall by English sounds (for example, vocal sheva will be represented by e). Normally, the letters ’aleph and he will be transliterated even when they are vowel carriers.  However, when yod is used with a vowel point for a long e or i vowel, or when vav occurs as a long o or u, they are often simply transliterated as the vowel, for example in the name of the letter bet (beyt).

All languages evolve over time, both in terms of vocabulary and grammar and in terms of pronunciation. Hebrew is an ancient language that is no longer spoken (Modern Hebrew is actually Israeli, a language compounded from classical Hebrew, Yiddish, which is a mixture of Aramaic, Hebrew and German, as well as features of modern English and European languages).  As a result, we do not know how ancient Israelites pronounced ancient Hebrew.  Scholars can present some very well informed suggestions, but the fact remains that we really do know exactly how ancient Hebrew sounded.  As a matter of convention, most modern scholars of Hebrew use the pronunciation of modern Hebrew or Israeli, informed by the tradition of oral reading in synagogues over the centuries, to vocalize the biblical text. That practice is followed here.

Hebrew Name Trans. Sound
’aleph smooth breath, vowel carrier, or silent
bet or beyt b b or v
gimel g g or gh
dalet d d or dh
he h h or silent
vav v or w soft v between v and w
zayin z z
chet or cheyt ch gutteral ch as in chord
tet or teyt t t
yod y y or vowel carrier
kaph k k or kh
lamed l l
mem m m
nun n n
samek s s
‘ayin guttural breath
pe’ p p
tsadi or tsadyi ts ts as in nets
qoph q q
resh or reysh r r
shin or shiyn sh sh
sin or siyn s s
tav t t

Greek Transliteration

Classical Greek, with all its historical distance from the modern world, is much closer to English than is Hebrew, at least at first glance.  That means that it is more familiar to us and therefore that transliteration is much easier for Greek. 

However, as with Hebrew, Classical Greek is an ancient language that is not the same as its modern counterpart.  Ancient Greek was a much more complicated language than is modern Greek . As with Hebrew, the exact pronunciation of classical Greek has been lost, which makes precise transliteration of ancient texts a problem.  Scholars have been more successful in reconstructing what they assume to be the original pronunciation of classical Greek.  Still, it is only reconstruction, an approximation of the original language. 

As a result, transliteration of ancient Greek is largely based on the simplified equivalents in modern Greek. For most purposes in dealing with the biblical text, we do not really need precision of sounds anyway.  What we need are simple ways to duplicate the written text of Greek into the Latin/Roman letters of English.  It is to that end that most systems of transliteration for Greek have been developed.

Once again, the system used on this site is to provide students of Scripture enough information to recognize the words of the biblical text.  If they need further information, it should be easy to do searches in Strong's Concordance or in computer Bible programs.

Greek Name Trans. Sound
alpha a short a as in father
beta b b
gamma g or n g; before another gamma, kappa, xi, or chi, it takes the sound n
delta d d
  epsilon e short e as it pet
zeta z soft z or sd as in wisdom
  eta a or long a as in hay
theta th th
  iota i short i as in it; long i as ee in meet
kappa k k
lambda l l
mu m m
nu n n
ksi ks ks as in nicks
omicron o short o as in pond
pi p p
rho r r
sigma a s;  before beta, gamma, delta, and mu , z
tau t t
upsilon u short u as the oo in oops
phi ph f as in phone
chi ch soft k as in kit
psi ps ps as is pups
omega o long o as in oh

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2011, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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