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.
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.”
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.
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.