biblical pronouncements

There’s a new app for iOS called “Biblical Audio Pronunciations” (also available in “Lite” version) which aims to offer “correct” pronunciation of biblical terms. The web page claims:

We carefully researched and recorded the pronunciations of important terms, names, and places, to help you embrace the Word of God more easily.

Does it live up to its claims?

Well, not really. I tried out the “lite” version and found that the examples were somewhat mixed in their accuracy. While the American accent isn’t too overpowering in most places, the speech didn’t sound particularly semitic, failing to reproduce gutterals (particularly noticeable with ח), as well as other letters such as צ. It also often fails to distinguish based on the presence or absence of dagesh qal (e.g. “Abed-Nego”).

The pronunciation of “Yahweh Yireh” (admittedly a particularly difficult example because of the inclusion of the Tetragrammaton) used a very “-ay” sound for the “-eh.”

Keep in mind, of course, that we don’t have any audio recordings of precisely how ancient Hebrew was spoken, and that there were likely diachronic changes in pronunciation of terms as well as other dialectical variations (we even have evidence for this in Judg 12:6). Nonetheless this app doesn’t really provide accurate pronunciation for most of the Hebrew terms it includes. It could sound more authentic if a native speaker of modern Hebrew were to provide the voice, but even modern Hebrew pronunciation is coloured by considerable foreign influence which renders it significantly dissimilar to ancient Hebrew.

For readers of English Bibles who want to reach for some degree of accuracy, perhaps the simplest advice is to find a simple guide to pronunciation of the key sounds in Hebrew and employ those consistently. If you have Accordance with a Hebrew text, you can select words and get it to speak them to you with some better results than the iOS app (although sounding a little robotic).

Just be aware that any ancient Hebrew who happens to wander into the audience will still most likely scratch their heads and laugh at our attempts to pronounce their language.

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