How to Pronounce “Logos” and Other Important Evangelical Words

how to pronounce greek and hebrew words

Almost four years to the day before I came to serve the church as a Logos Pro at Faithlife, I wrote a post on my personal blog, “How to Pronounce ‘Logos’ in ‘Logos Bible Software.’” And since a big part of our mission is to turn you into a Logos Pro, the proper pronunciation of “Logos” is something we need to settle. Right here. Right now.

You see, there’s something of a schism among Logos aficionados, with two increasingly polarized parties, the LOW-goess (loʊɡoʊs) party and the LAH-gahss (lɑɡɑs) party. And believe it or not, this dispute has relevance for Bible students.

how to pronounce logos in logos bible software

LOW-goess LAH-gahss

In my old post I was a pretty solid LAH-gahss partisan, giving only grudging respect to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. But four years later, opinion polling of 35-year-old middle-class redheaded males in my household has revealed a shift. I am ready to declare myself the one thing worse than an undecided voter: yes, I am a compromiser. I use both pronunciations.

The reasons are a little complicated, but they boil down to this: Logos Bible Software serves students of the Bible who have never studied Greek, and many of them may hear LAH-gahss as a word with no O’s in it, whereas they’re unlikely to mishear LOW-goess. But many people who have studied Greek know that “Logos” comes from a Greek word generally pronounced in American classrooms as LAH-gahss. (This derives from the Erasmian practice of distinguishing the pronunciation of omega [ω] and omicron [ο] for pedagogical reasons.)

When I first started at Faithlife, I purposed to use the pronunciation best suited for my audience. In other words, I became a proud proponent of whatever floats someone else’s boat. Tomato, tomahtoe. You know.

But I’ve found that this principle is difficult to live by—I don’t know who my audience is every time I have to say “Logos.” So I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t always consciously plan which pronunciation of “Logos” I’m about to use. It’s like that old playground game, Funnel Ball. You toss the ball up, but you never know what’s going to happen when it comes out.

And just look how much fun those kids are having! That’s the way I feel about “Logos.”

Used by permission from Burke Premier Play Environments, http://www.bciburke.com/

Pronunciation of Bible words

Now I could end here. But one of my hobby horses just trotted up and is beckoning me to hop on and ride. And it’s a big horse; there’s space for you, too. I can’t pass up an opportunity to raise a question related to the pronunciation of “Logos,” a question that really vexes some Bible readers.

So you’re reading the Bible out loud in Sunday school at the request of the teacher, and all of the sudden, your heart skips a beat as your eye scans ahead and notices a classic “big word” looming in the next line. Oh no! Oh no! You slow down as you try desperately to figure out how you’re going to say it without stumbling in front of everybody. Yes, it’s Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Why did your teacher do this to you?!

Here’s the vexing question: What’s the correct pronunciation for any particular difficult word in Scripture? A diligent Bible student I know, one who had no Hebrew training, once said he was all excited because he had finally found a book which promised to give him the correct pronunciations of all the difficult words in the Old Testament. Later, however, he purchased another book purporting to do the same thing—but the two books disagreed. He was visibly crestfallen.

How, in fact, can you know how to pronounce the name of Benaiah, one of David’s mighty men? Do Baptists say buh-NAY-uh, and Presbyterians buh-NIE-uh? How do you pronounce agape, the Greek word for love? Almost everyone I know says uh-GAH-pay, but almost everyone I know is not as smart as C.S. Lewis (who began reading Greek as a child), and he said AG-uh-pee.

People who study the Bible will regularly run across words, both in the English Bible text and in Christian talk about the Bible, that are not part of their everyday speech. How can you know how to pronounce these words?

Two bad answers to a vexing question

Many people assume that the key to correct pronunciation of a Bible word is either 1) its spelling in English or 2) its spelling in Greek or Hebrew.

But think of “Israel,” a word you hear all the time not only in church but in the evening news. And take a close look at its spelling: the “a” comes before the “e.” Note: though the OED tells me that speakers of British English put the “a” before the “e,” no American you know ever says it that way. Everyone here says “IS-ree-uhl.” If you said, “IS-rah-el” in any (American) circumstance other than while singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (“and ransom captive ih-ih-is-rah-yel”), you would sound hoity-toity. People would notice, in the way they notice patent leather shoes on a grown man. Are you really prepared to say that every speaker of Standard American English that you know—from newscaster to professor to pastor to next-door neighbor—pronounces “Israel” incorrectly? Or, perhaps, might it be the case that English spelling is not the only guide to correct pronunciation of difficult Bible words?

Is Hebrew and Greek spelling, then, the hidden key to pronunciation? Nope. In Hebrew, “Israel” sounds like “ees-rah-ALE.” And anyway, no variety of English includes all of the sounds (called phonemes) used in Hebrew, meaning that English speakers who learn these foreign sounds as adults will always sound like they have a foreign accent. And if we tried to use Hebrew pronunciation as our standard, kids would come home from Sunday school telling their parents how “da-WEED” killed “gal-YAT” with a stone in a sling. Pronunciation in the original Hebrew (or Greek) is not the key to correct pronunciation of Bible words by English speakers.

Evangelical words

Don’t think of logos, agape, Benaiah, and even Maher-shalal-hash-baz as Greek or Hebrew words at all. Think of them as “evangelical words,” words that only a certain subset of English speakers need to pronounce. Just as pseudofolliculitis barbae is something only people in the medical field really need to know how to say, so evangelicals are some of the only English speakers who ever regularly read Isaiah 8 in public. It’s permissible, linguistically speaking, for the community of English-speaking Bible readers to come up with their own pronunciations of Bible words.

Perhaps a modern example will help: the famous city of Nuremberg, Germany. In German, it’s called Nürnberg. Two syllables, not three; and there’s an “n” in the middle, not an “m.” On top of that, Nürnberg includes a sound no native-born English speaker ever uses, the umlaut. (German teachers tell students to form their lips like “oo” and make an “ee” sound through them). “Nuremberg” is really just a slightly mangled English transliteration of the German—a mangling that has now become an English word in its own right. Nürnberg becomes “Nuremberg,” Napoli becomes “Naples,” Moskva becomes “Moscow.” This morphing happens all the time between languages, especially with proper nouns.

For commonly used proper nouns in the Bible—like “Abraham” and “Syria”—we all implicitly accept this linguistic morphing. We pronounce these words in a way no one in the world pronounced them during Bible times—or even 1,500 years ago. Their pronunciation has changed over time as languages have branched out and wiggled around on the family tree of languages. The difficulty with Isaiah’s son’s name, and with many other proper nouns in the Bible, is that we don’t say them often enough to develop a clear English standard for pronunciation. The “correct” pronunciation of these words is unclear.

Look it up, dear

Some readers right now are clutching their dictionaries to their hearts and muttering under their breath, “Those crazy postmodern relativists! There’s one right way to say every word!” But open that dictionary of yours to the preface, and this is what you’ll see:

Readers often turn to the dictionary wanting to learn the exact pronunciation of a word, only to discover that the word may have several pronunciations, as is the case for deity, economic, envelope, and greasy, among many others. The inclusion of variant pronunciations disappoints those who want their dictionary to list one “correct” pronunciation. In truth, though, there can be no objective standard for correct pronunciation other than the usage of thoughtful and, in particular, educated speakers of English. Among such speakers one hears much variation in pronunciation.

Frederick C. Mish, “Preface,” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003), emphasis mine.

Likewise, the actual standard of “correctness” in pronunciation of Bible words is what Bible readers in fact say. That changes over time and in various regions, and that’s okay. This is not unfettered relativism, because pronunciation is relative to something definite, namely what people say. There is not an infinite variation in pronunciations of “Haggai”—it’s either HAG-ee-aye or HAG-aye. English will continue to survive people’s use of it. I promise.

So here’s my advice with Maher-shalal-hash-baz: 1) mimic what other Christians say if you can, and 2) if you can’t, everyone will assume you’re right if you just sound confident and make a plausible effort to include most of the sounds. You may play a small role in establishing the “correct” pronunciation of that name.

Let us hear the conclusion of the matter

By the power vested in me by the state of confusion we are now in, I hereby pronounce “Logos” as LOW-goess or LAH-gahss—and you can, too. And I hereby grant authority to all English Bible readers to use how-most-educated-Bible-readers-around-me-pronounce-it as the standard for pronunciation of difficult Bible words.

Comments

  1. Guess I just like being different…
    I like “LOW-gahss” : -)

  2. Ask the Greeks how to speak Greek try modern Greek pronunciation for bible Greek i guarantee it closest! Erasmian murders Greek!

    • Aha, but closest to what?

      • Closest to NT/Koine Greek :-) The variant of Romans 5:1 only makes sense if omicron and omega sounded alike.
        Sorry, I could not resist.

        • Right, that’s what Metzger says in his Textual Commentary:

          Since the difference in pronunciation between ο and ω in the Hellenistic age was almost non-existent, when Paul dictated ἔχομεν, Tertius, his amanuensis (16:22), may have written down ἔχωμεν. (For another set of variant readings involving the interchange of ο and ω, see 1 Cor 15.49.)

          Indeed, the evidence for both ἔχομεν and ἔχωμεν is very early, so if diachronic study of the pronunciation system suggests (as it appears to do, though I haven’t looked at the evidence firsthand) that the omicron and omega were pronounced identically, then Metzger’s comment is the best proposal I’ve seen for explaining the variant. The comment about Tertius is, however, pretty speculative.

          An upcoming post by a fellow Faithlife Greek enthusiast should be tackling the value of pronunciation for textual criticism and exegesis soon.

  3. I’m afraid it’s different in England folks…

  4. Johnnie R Bailey says:

    LOW – gahss. You know your getting so old when everyone else calls it something.

  5. LOW-goess for me please.

  6. I feel less stress! Grace and biblical pronunciations colided and I feel FREE!

  7. Colby E. Kinser says:

    Well, thanks for clearing that up! ;-) Actually, a good article.

    By the same means, can you solve the Calvisnism-Armininianism thing?

  8. It’s not how we wanted to pronounce it, it’s what our professor made us say! Dr. Helmut Koester at Harvard Divinity always said “Lawhgaws”, so we did, too! And as one of my Church of Christ friends used to say, tongue in cheek, “if you have to go to the Greek to prove it, it ain’t so!”

  9. You’ve done a fantastic job of dealing with this. Not that my heart loves your conclusion, because I’m much more energized by what we can learn about origins than in anglicizations, but my head thinks you’re on target in suggesting either mimicry or trying your best to sound confident. :-) The appeal to the dictionary has always seemed false to me, and you’ve shown why. I shoulda looked in the preface years ago.

    Now, I was even more interested in your recent post on pronunciation on the other blog (https://academic.logos.com/2015/11/25/how-should-%CE%BA%CE%BF%CE%B9%CE%BD%E1%BD%B5-greek-be-pronounced/?utm_source=greek&utm_medium=email&utm_content=5263102&utm_campaign=promo-logospro2015)

    You wrote, “I think there may be hidden value for textual criticism in the careful study of pronunciation,” and I would add that there will be value for *exegesis,* in addition to TC. Especially in a primarily oral-transmission culture, it seems that whatever we can uncover w/regard to how word sounded will feed directly into how first-century hearers received the words.

    • You’re very right, and I’ve asked someone with more expertise than I on Faithlife staff to deal with the value of pronunciation for TC and exegesis. I’m looking forward to what he’ll say. Stay tuned in the next few weeks.

  10. Susan Murphy says:

    I’m a little disappointed. I read the entire article and thought you were going to tell us how to pronounce Logos correctly or tell us about a website on how to pronounce the Bible words. I’m guilty of pronouncing Logos both ways. This was definitely an interesting article on pronouncing Bible words. At least now I don’t feel guilty for mispronouncing Bible words.

    • It can be a little disappointing to find out that—to quote yet another linguist, Steven Pinker of the American Heritage Dictionary—the inmates are running the asylum, that there is no God-given standard for “correct” English spelling, pronunciation, and usage. Ammon Shea in Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation suggests that such disappointment stems from the feeling that one has gone to the trouble to master English grammar and other rules needlessly. But he says, and I agree, that it is not needless. The “rules” are just “the way educated people talk.” And there are many good reasons to talk the way they do.

  11. I don’t fell stress…Omicron is Omicron no matter where you find it!!!

  12. Problem is that Americans can't pronounce short-O! They say 'ah' when it should be, well, 'o'!

  13. Someone told me when coming to these big names and hard words, not to hesitate and sound confident. 99..9% of people will just silently nod and think, “That is how you say that”, and move on.

  14. Thank you for a good article on US English pronunciation. It would have been even better if it said "US English" rather than just "English". Do you ever give any thought to the fact that you are an international company and that there are many varieties of English throughout the world? I didn't really like reading that the way I pronounce Logos as a British English speaker is "hoity-toity"! :-)

  15. Erasmus made up a decent approximation of how to pronounce Greek, but this is not how Greek was ever really pronounced by those who used it to speak with other people. How different groups pronounce Benaiah starts to walk in the direction of understanding: pronunciation is convention, established by groups of people. Personally, I like to pronounce words in the style of the group the word comes from. That means I prefer to look carefully not at Erasmian practice common in classrooms or what helps students pedagogically to correctly spell a transliteration of a Greek word, but rather at how people actually spoke in Jesus' time — arguably rather close to the Greek of today. By that rule, low-goess is the closer pronunciation, which also suits those who want people to hear correctly the spelling of the word. But if I pronounce some of the vowel combinations "correctly" by this rule, no one will spell metanoia correctly. Oh well, nothing human is perfect.

  16. Samuel Ball says:

    It seemed that the only time my Greek professor back in undergrad (early 90’s) would ever smile was when he heard my feeble attempts at reading the Greek with my deep southern accent. I can’t say with certainty how that there logos was originally pronounced, but according to one of my elementary school teachers, I can still here her say, “If it ends with an “e”, then the vowel will say it’s name. If it doesn’t, then the the vowel will be short.” Therefore, anytime I say the word, I always pronounce it as LAH-GOES:)

  17. So why is the reading outloud so bad in pronunciation with your expert stance on it? Listen to Job. There are many examples throughout listening to the Bible. Cannot the text to voice be tweaked for Biblical pronunciation?