At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow …
and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
—Phil. 2:10, 11
You might remember the old song in which a man and woman argue about pronunciation. “You like potayto and I like potahto; you like tomayto and I like tomahto … let’s call the whole thing off!” The couple agrees to disagree. But anyone who sings in a choir knows that you can’t call the whole thing off: all the singers must share a uniform pronunciation, and determining what it should be isn’t always simple. In college I sang in a choir that was hired for a major performance of Dvořák’s Requiem. At one point, the regimented dress rehearsal with paid soloists, choir, and unionized orchestra came to a halt: the conductor was unhappy with our Latin. He wanted the Italian pronunciation for some words and the German pronunciation for others… We had the delicate task of explaining that he couldn’t have it both ways.
It’s usually simpler when a choir is singing in its own language. Even though English is chock-full of words taken from foreign languages, the sound of these words is well-known. In classical Latin, for example, ratio would be “rah-ti-o,” but in English everyone knows it’s “ray-shi-o.” The earth’s biggest continent isn’t “Ah-si-a,” it’s “Ay-zhuh.” And when we come across words that appear to rhyme with Asia, most of us don’t skip a beat: fantasia, euthanasia, aphasia… But we might falter at names like Anastasia and Athanasia. “Anasta-si-a”? “Anas-tas-ia”? “Ana-stay-zi-a”? “Ana-stay-zhuh”?
Many singers and clergy approach this problem by finding out (or guessing) how a name is pronounced in its original language—often Greek. According to this method, Anastasia doesn’t rhyme with Asia but with panacea; Joachim sounds like “Yo-a-kheem;” Cyprian and Cyril should both start with k; and Acacius and Eustathius both have the “ah” of potahto, not the “ay” of potayto.
Even though I’m going to make the case for a different approach, it’s important to recognize the logic found here. Most of these saints were Greek, after all, and Greek, as the language of scripture, liturgy, and dogma, is accorded pride of place within Orthodoxy. In addition, the immigrant roots of many of our communities in America remain strong. Even in places where services are now celebrated mostly in English, some names may resonate more with a foreign pronunciation than an English one. “Ana-stay-zhuh” may indeed be the authentic English pronunciation of that classic name, but if your great aunt goes by “Ana-sta-si-a,” then the “authentic English” pronunciation may not feel so authentic.
It’s not surprising, then, that many communities use a hybrid approach. On the one hand, hardly anyone speaking in English refers to Saint Ioannis, Andreas, or Ekaterina: they say John, Andrew, and Catherine. And there’s also broad consensus that in English we say “A-tha-nay-shus” and “Ig-nay-shus,” not “A-tha-nah-si-os” and “Ig-nah-ti-os,” despite their more foreign-looking forms. But on the other hand, a name like Sabbatius—which in both Greek and Slavonic rhymes with Ignatius—is commonly rendered not as the authentically English “Sa-bay-shus,” nor as the authentically Greek “Sav-vah-ti-os,” but as “Sa-bah-ti-us,” a pronunciation that falls in the no-man’s-land between English and Greek.
We see the same hybrid approach with Bible names as well. The better known names have well-established English sounds: “Ay-mus,” “Ben-juh-min,” “Day-vid” (not “Ah-mos,” “Bin-ya-meen,” and “Daw-weeth”). But when we have to read obscure names like those in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, it’s anyone’s guess—and the result is often not English. But it’s not Greek or Hebrew either!
Such inconsistency is just the thing to elicit the tut-tutting of pedants and schoolmarms. But really it was quite natural that this hybrid approach should have arisen during a transitional period for the Church in Anglophone countries.
Whether we should hold on to it going forward, however, is another matter, and language pedants aren’t the only ones with reason to care. As a monk and a seminary instructor, I’m keenly aware of how helpful it would be to introduce novices and students to a systematic method of name pronunciation, one that integrates seamlessly with the patterns of English phonetics they already instinctively know. Lacking such a system, singers, readers, and clergy are often left feeling hesitant and awkward.
But aside from a choir’s practical need for a uniform sound and a reader’s attempt to avoid uncertain wavering, can we identify any fundamental principles at stake in this discussion? What might a principled approach to liturgical name pronunciation look like, and why does it matter?
One possible answer takes its cue from our contemporary multicultural context. This would say that a name is bound to the particular culture and language of the person who bore it, and so should be left in its original form, untampered with. We know Bach as “Johann Sebastian,” but I once came across a 19th-century British publication that called him “John Sebastian.” We might dismiss that as a quaint Victorianism, but a publisher doing that now would be found guilty of a sin against multiculturalism. Thus, according to the linguistic orthodoxy of our day, we should keep every name in its original form: Andreas and Ig-nah-ti-os, Yer-a-mee-ah and Da-weeth… even Mary should really be Mariam. After all, none of these people were Anglo-American.
It seems to me, however, that that approach has more in common with postmodern identity politics than with the Church’s authentic attitude to human culture. That this is so will become plain if we take a close look at that particular name that lies at the heart of the life of the Church.
The Holy Name of Jesus has a rich and complex history. Its original Hebrew form was Yehoshua, which means “The Lord saves.” With time it got shortened to Yeshua or Yoshua—or, as we now have it in English, Joshua. Yeshua was the Aramaic form of the name. Throughout her life, the Mother of God would have called Our Lord Yeshua. And, some might well argue, so should we.
But remarkably, that’s not what the Apostles themselves did. When composing the Gospels in Greek, they used the Greek form of the name: Iisous. And St. Paul, even though himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” used the Greek Iisous in his epistles. Later, when the Holy Name entered Latin, it took on a slightly different spelling and pronunciation: Iesus. And, as in Greek, the name accommodated itself to other forms in Latin grammar: Iesu; Iesum.
So this Hebrew name that had entered Aramaic was then hellenized and later latinized. Finally (for our purposes) it was anglicized: Jesus. And it has entered hundreds of other languages as well. Indeed, it has taken to itself the particular characteristics of all the world’s languages. It is a universal name. But its universality is given expression not by everyone saying it the same way, but by each culture and language giving it its own distinctive form and pronunciation.
We can see here a reflection of the miracle that took place on the day of Pentecost. The miracle was not that everyone in Jerusalem that morning could finally understand Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, but that each heard the preaching “in his own language” (Acts 2:6).
Thus the Orthodox Church does not have a universal language of revelation and prayer akin to Arabic in the religion of Mohammed. While Greek does hold a primacy of honor, still, no one must become Greek in order to be Orthodox, any more than St. Paul’s Greek-speaking converts had to become Jewish. And while, in the Christian West, Latin came to function as a kind of universal liturgical language, even so, it had no universal pronunciation until the early 20th century: prior to that, each European nation pronounced Latin according to the phonetic patterns of its own language. When the Word became flesh, He took to Himself not only human nature, but also human languages, human words, and His very Name expresses the universality of His incarnate dispensation.
But this universality must not eclipse the equally important aspect of Christ’s particularity: when the Word became flesh, He did so as a first-century Jewish man with a specific home, family, and language. This explains why the English form of Yeshua is not just a translation of the name’s meaning into English. We don’t call Him “The-Lord-Saves,” but “Jesus”—a word that participates in both Aramaic and English at the same time. We could say, then, that the correspondence between the name in its original language and its adaptation in other languages is not etymological, but orthographic and phonetic. In other words, the Holy Name was not translated into English: it was transposed.
And, as we have seen, it was not transposed straight from Hebrew, but by way of Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Latin, in particular, has left its imprint on countless Greek words that found their way, often via French, into English. This is why Greek masculine names that end in -os are, in standard English, spelled with the Latin ending -us. This is also why many feminine names ending in -a in both Greek and Latin will, in English, often take the French ending -ie (Melanie, Natalie, Emilie), from which arose the English ending -y (Emily, Mary, Lucy).
But English, French, and Latin are hardly exceptional in imparting their own characteristics to foreign names. In Slavonic, for example, “A-tha-nah-si-os” becomes “A-fa-nah-sy;” “Ev-do-ki-mos” becomes “Yev-do-kim.” In Romanian, Kyriakos becomes Chiriac; Spanish turns Onuphrios into Onofre; and where a Greek would say “Savvas,” a Georgian says “Saba.” Every language that has been hallowed by the Gospel takes the names of Christ’s saints into its own embrace, so that, like their Lord, the saints too can be at home in every culture.
That’s why when we pray to the Holy Virgin, we don’t call her Miriam, or Mariam, or Maria—but Mary. Other great biblical names have also been fully transposed into English: Michael and Gabriel, Peter and Andrew, John and Paul. And the names of the Church Fathers also have well-established spellings and pronunciations, since generations of English-speakers have read and revered them: Ignatius and Athanasius; Cyril and Cyprian; Dennys, Ambrose, Basil, and Jerome… And to this list we can add George, Barbara, Lucy, Anthony, and dozens of other great martyrs and ascetics long known and loved by English-speaking Christians.
Most of these names are uncontroversial. But what about less common names like Bashan or Balaam, Naucratius or Artemius? Their pronunciation would have been instinctual to previous generations, but our culture’s widespread estrangement from the Bible and the saints extends also to their names. How to proceed, then? For people and places in Scripture, a bible pronouncing dictionary will provide a phonetic spelling for the traditional English pronunciation of every name. Another option is to find an old edition of the King James Bible with a pronunciation key. These tools will show you that Bashan rhymes with nation, that Judea rhymes with Korea, and that Balaam (like Canaan) sounds like Salem or layman.
What about non-biblical names? There are traditional English pronunciations for the names of almost every first-millennium saint, but many of those names have fallen out of our cultural memory, and reference books that list them, like this one, are long out of print. Still, we’re not left in the dark. The majority of these names come from Greek and Latin. This is key. It means that the same phonetic patterns we use in the thousands of other classical words in English apply to these names as well. Thus:
- Naucratius and Acacius rhyme with audacious and vexatious. They sound like Galatian and acacia. Naucratius begins with the same sound as nautical.
- Athanasius and Athanasia both follow the sound pattern of euthanasia—and mean its opposite.
- Theodosius and Photius sound (as Mary Poppins might say) quite precocious—like motion, Cappadocian, and ocean.
- Various names like Nazarius and Macarius sound like vicarious or hilarious. The same vowel is in Arius, synaxarion, and Mary.
- The boldface i or y in Isidore, Dionysius, Anycia, Melchizedek, Eutychius, Euthymius, Alypius, Nyssa, and Joannicius, is a short i (not a long e), just like in Timothy, Nicholas, mystery, and nymph.
- The c in Cyprian, Cyril, Nicephorus, and Nicetas sounds like the c in cycle, cinema, cemetery, and Nicea (even though in Greek, they’re all k’s).
- Joseph, Jeremiah, Joachim, Juvenal, Joasaph, and Joannicius all begin with the same j sound heard in jubilation, jurisprudence, and just.
- The theo- in Theodosius (and theologian, theophany, Theodora, etc.) rhymes with Leo and Neo. It’s the same sound in atheist, theater, and theoretical.
- Artemius and Eumenius both sound like genius. Meletius also shares this long e with Cornelius, Euphemia, and Ezekiel. It’s the same pattern at work in abstemious, obsequious, artesian, and Athenian.
Phonetic patterns like these permeate our language. H.A. Kelly, who taught Classics at UCLA, observes that
The traditional English method of pronouncing Latin had a profound effect on the pronunciation of words that were “naturalized” in English from the Latin, or from Greek through Latin. The system itself developed according to what Sir James Murray in the Oxford English Dictionary calls “natural English habits” … Words are pronounced in accord with innate rules that are followed with a surprising consistency.1
And yet, when those innate “English habits” get applied to a name we’ve only ever heard pronounced in a foreign way, we may at first be disappointed or even amused. The quasi-Greek “Aleepius” has an exotic air, but the plain English “Alypius” (with a short i) sounds like “lip.” But this perception is short-lived. With time, it’s the absence of English phonetics that begin to grate on the ear. If someone says “Neekolas” instead of “Nicholas,” it’s not exotic, it’s just wrong! And even though Nicholas rhymes with “pickle us” (as I learned from kids at summer camp), most of us, when we hear “Nicholas,” don’t think of anything other than the name itself.
The phonetic patterns that Kelly presents in his article apply, as he notes, with striking dependability to “the whole range of words derived from the classical and even Romance languages.”2 This gives the lie to a common caricature of English as hopelessly inconsistent in its phonetics. But more to the point, the rules are the surest way to arrive at the traditional English pronunciation of a classical name, “especially,” Kelly writes, “in cases where the names have not been treated in English pronouncing dictionaries.”3
One of the rules, for example, explains why the a in Arius and Macarius sounds like care and dare, not like car and far. I call it the Mary-Martha Rule: in English, a before r sounds like the a in “Mary” unless the r is either at the end of the word (like car, star) or is followed by another consonant, like in Martha and artist (but not another r, like in marrow or harrow). Some words contain both sounds: barbarian, Mardarius, and Aristarchus.
Another rule explains why Eusebius and Artemius share the long e of Cornelius, not the short e of Onesimus. The answer—buckle up for this one!—is Kelly’s rule II.B.4 and 5, but we could call it the Meditate-Mediate Rule: in classical vocabulary in English, the vowels a, e, and o in an accented third-to-last syllable are short when the second-to-last syllable ends in a consonant, and long when it doesn’t. Got it? Here are some more illustrations:
- sătisfy, but sātiate
- erădicate, but irrādiate
- dĕdicate, but dēviate
- congĕnital, but congēnial
- Rŏmulus, but Rōmeo
- theolŏgical, but theolōgian
Lists of complex rules are, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea. For the non-specialist, they can seem quite daunting. This is why English-speaking Orthodox would have much to gain from the publication of a new pronouncing dictionary for saints’ names, like those already available for biblical names.
Specialized dictionaries and complex rules may be unavoidable when learning a new language, but one might perhaps question their necessity in one’s own language: isn’t it rather artificial to look up or puzzle out the pronunciation of a word you’ve been using for years? I think it depends on the context. If you’ve always said “potahto” and I’ve always said “potayto,” there’s little point in us fighting it out with dictionaries and style guides. But the language of private conversation and that of public liturgy occupy very different registers. So if both of us are in a church choir, and you sing “Pa-tah-pius” while I’m singing “Pa-tay-pius,” then whosever job it is to resolve the disagreement needs a governing principle greater than personal taste, a principle appropriate to the formal and conservative character of liturgical speech. And it’s the domain of those who make careful study of a language to help us discern what those principles should be.
Good rules bring to light patterns that are intrinsic to the genius of a language, and a good dictionary-maker takes those rules and helps connect the dots for us. The phonetic patterns that are seamlessly woven throughout the fabric of English don’t suddenly break off when they arrive at proper names. This is evident whenever someone says Michael or Isaac, Dorothy or Magdalene or Jacob or Ananias in English. The principles that underly such pronunciation are not the exception but the norm—in English as in any other language. And as Orthodox Christianity, by God’s grace, puts down deeper roots among English-speakers, perhaps it’s time for us to embrace those principles more purposefully—but always with pastoral discernment and common sense.
Doing so would be one small way to show fitting respect for the English language and its culture, and to act, in the name of the Church, as its true custodians. Such cultural stewardship has been modeled for us by great missionary saints like Cosmas of Aetolia, Innocent of Alaska, and Nicholas of Japan. They sought to preserve whatever was true and noble in the cultures and languages where God placed them to preach the Gospel.
The cultural patrimony of English, shaped by fifteen hundred years of Christianity, has much that is true and noble. But perhaps some would say that I’ve overlooked an important distinction between the languages of pagan culture and of heterodox culture. They might argue that pagan Greek or Aleut or Japanese is like virgin earth ready for the seed of truth to be planted, while Protestant English is a field choked with weeds. This is a view whose far-reaching implications deserve a full discussion. But two problems occur to me right now: first, in practice this view is simply unverifiable; second, it’s inconsistent. The fact that for centuries most English-speaking Christians weren’t Orthodox hasn’t stopped the Orthodox Church from pronouncing the most sweet and sacred Name of Jesus just like the Baptists down the street! And with good reason. The Savior’s Name, like the Savior’s Church, is catholic: truly universal. And so are all His saints. For, as David once wrote in the Psalms, “there are no tongues nor words where their voices are not heard” (Ps. 18:3).
 Kelly, H. A. (1986) ‘Pronouncing Latin words in English’, Classical World 80, p. 34.
 Ibid., p. 36.
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For further reading: In addition to H.A. Kelly’s article, I can also recommend two other articles online:
First, Gerald F. Else, “The Pronunciation of Classical Names and Words in English” (The Classical Journal Vol. 62, No. 5, Feb., 1967, pp. 210–214). This paper presents roughly the same background and rules Kelly’s article, but with a touch more elegance and detail, and many more (and helpful) examples. It’s available on JStor.org if you sign up for a free account.
Second, for a deep-sea dive into the colorful history of the English pronunciation of Latin (and Greek), see Andrew Collins, “The English Pronunciation of Latin: Its Rise and Fall.” (The Cambridge Classical Journal 58, 2012: pp. 23–57), available for free to view online or as a PDF download. This paper includes a similar set of rules found in Kelly and Selfe but with far greater detail and an impressive bibliography.
Fr. Herman is a member of the Brotherhood of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, and a liturgical editor for St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press. Fr. Herman also lectures in Spirituality and Liturgics at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and taught liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York for several years. His 12-part video series that introduces the Typikon to chanters, choir directors, and readers (and features several mispronounced words) can be found here, and some of his other writings can be found here.
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