You say Melchizedek and I say pardon!10 Feb 2020 By Doug Chaplin
Have you ever worried about how you pronounce biblical names?
(This is adapted from a blog post by Doug Chaplin in a series called Rite Reading. You can access the whole series – a guide to the Bible for those who read it in church – from this index page: https://liturgica.today/rite-reading/)
Many people get really anxious about reading in church because of some of the very strange names of places and people in the Bible. The first, and most important piece of advice to remember, is that when it comes to the really difficult names, no-one else is likely to know exactly how they are pronounced either.
However, in most cases, there is a relatively traditional English pronunciation of most names. Very often, the translated English name is quite different from the Hebrew or Greek way of saying the names in the original language. The traditional English is itself simply a time-honoured way of mangling the original, but if you know it, or can find it out, it’s certainly worth doing so. If you can’t, then you will simply join a long tradition of mangling the pronunciation in your own way. Do your best, and be consistent: don’t pronounce the name differently every time it comes up, but in the same way throughout the reading.
How can you find out how the name is normally said, however, so that you don’t put any unnecessary obstacles in the way of those listening? There are things that can help. Nowadays the easiest thing is to Google, for example “how to pronounce Melchizedek”. You may end up sounding American, of course, but sound or video files for most names are now accessible. (See for example the website www.biblespeak.org.)
A second is to ask someone else: that may be your parish priest, deacon or other minister, lay or ordained. It may also be one of the older members of the congregation: the English tradition of pronouncing names has very often been passed down by osmosis. As people have heard the stories read, they have heard the names pronounced, year by year and have simply absorbed the way – or at least a way – to say them.
There are other things to watch out for as well. An easy trap can be when the same word is pronounced differently depending on whether it is a noun or a verb. We automatically get this right when speaking, but somehow it can be remarkably easy to trip yourself up when reading. An example might be “record”: we keep a RECord, but we reCORD something. In the Bible, the most obvious example is what prophets do. The verb is prophesy, pronounced prof-ess-SIGH; the name of what they say is a prophecy, pronounced PROF-ess-see.
There are other words that have unusual spellings and we rarely see them written. On a couple of occasions, I have heard someone stumble after putting St Paul in goal. They have misread the traditional English spelling of “gaol”, whose American spelling “jail” is rather easier to read off the page. St Paul, I am sure, would see himself as more of a striker, and put Jesus in goal: Jesus always saves.
But nearly always, if you make a mistake, you will be the only one who notices it. So trust the Lord, be bold, and follow all those previous generations of English readers who have mangled their words with confidence.