Wednesday, November 16, 2016


I joked with my church the other day about the pronunciation of Bible words. If you didn't grow up in church and you came across the word "Malachi" how would you pronounce it? Mah-lah-CHEE might make sense. Mah-lah-KEY. MAL-uh-she, maybe. There are many possibilities. Which one is right?

All good Christians know the proper pronunciation is MAHL-uh-Khigh. One might snicker at a mispronunciation of such a word. But how do you know that is how it is pronounced? We look at our way of pronouncing it as the definitive, correct pronunciation. The problem with that is that nobody actually knows how it was pronounced at the time. We have no recordings. There are no philological (or phonological?) descriptions of the language (or any language I know of) from that time. When people wrote in a language they assumed you knew how to pronounce it. The Hebrew language has been well preserved in written form, but it was not uniformly spoken from the time the Bible was written until today. Even by the time of Malachi himself it is possible that most Jews spoke mostly Aramaic. Pronunciation can change quickly as we can see even from the relatively short time that English has existed. It seems to especially undergo changes when peoples are displaced or invaded. That's one of the reasons English has lots of weird spellings and pronunciations. It is a language that has been transported around the world through colonization and globalization. Hebrew has been through quite a bit of disruption as well. So it would be impossible with 100% certainty to recreate the original pronunciation of ancient Hebrew. Incidentally, the closest you would hope to come would be to hear a modern Hebrew speaker pronounce it. Which, through the magic of the internet you can now do! (How to say "Malachi" in Hebrew) Go listen. I'll wait.

Turns out that American Christians might be off the mark in their pronunciation of Malachi. Hold on though. Even the Hebrew speaker's pronunciation isn't definitive. It might have the best chance of being right since there is at least a link between ancient and modern Hebrew, but there's no way of knowing if it is any closer to the truth than anything else we can come up with. If that doesn't blow your mind enough, think about this. There's no reason to think that the way Moses pronounced "Malachi" would be the same as the way Malachi pronounced "Malachi." They were 1000 years apart! Maybe Moses said, "Hamalicky"  and Malachi said, "Myalisgee". Someone who studies language development (philology) could probably make a better guess, but it would still just be a guess.

One other trivial knowledge tidbit. In modern script the name Malachi looks like מַלְאָכִי
You can see an image of a commentary on Malachi from the Dead Sea Scrolls. You'll notice the writing is very different. The the Dead Sea Scroll document was written up to 400 years after Malachi lived. And it is probable that Malachi even used a different alphabet than those who had gone before him. This means that if David time traveled 600 or so years to Malachi's time (or, even worse, 3000 yrs to our own time), he would probably be unable to read the Psalms that he had written!

So get down off your high horse, you Bible-name-pronunciation police.