The translation of ancient texts from one language to another often involves intriguing linguistic choices that reflect the cultural and phonetic nuances of the time when sounds in one language are totally alien in another. In the case of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint, a particular transliteration question emerges when dealing with the Hebrew letter ע “ayin”. In Hebrew and other languages common throughout Africa and the Middle East, it is a pharyngeal fricative /ʕ/ blocking air by placing the root of one’s tongue over the back of the throat, on the pharynx.
No Greek letter is like this, so they could have used G, simply remove the sound like a silent letter, or even something else like an R (we’ll get to that later). This is not the only reason for the transformations of “ayin” into a “G” sound seen in the names Gaza and Gomorrah though. This article explores the linguistic reasons behind this phenomenon and provides examples to illustrate the pattern.
Ayin to G Transformation: The Hebrew letter ע “ayin” represents a unique glottal sound not present in many European languages, including Greek and Latin. This phonetic discrepancy posed a challenge for the translators of the Septuagint. While later translators retained the “ayin” sound as a rough breathing mark (ʿ) in words such as ʿAyin , they adopted a distinct approach for certain proper nouns like Gaza and Gomorrah.
Examples of Ayin to G Transformation:
- Gaza (עַזָּה) – The Hebrew city name “Gaza” is transliterated as “Gazē” in the Septuagint, replacing the “ayin” sound with a “G” sound.
- Gomorrah (עֲמֹרָה) – Similarly, the city of “Gomorrah” is rendered as “Gomorra” in Greek, once again employing the “G” transformation.
Ayin Retained in Other Cases: Aside from very few instances like those two however, very few Hebrew words or names beginning with “ayin” underwent this change in the Septuagint. For example:
- Ammon (עַמּוֹן) – The name “Ammon” remains unchanged in the Greek translation, losing any the original “ayin” sound but retaining the vowel sound.
- Ai (עַי) – The city of “Ai” is also transliterated as “Ai” in Greek, preserving the “ayin” sound.
- Ezra (עֶזְרָא) – Ezra, a personal name, does not take a G, and shows only the vowel.
Linguistic Reasons: The transformation of “ayin” to “G” in specific instances can be attributed to the linguistic compatibility between Hebrew and Greek phonology, as well as the phonetic tendencies of the time. The “G” sound represents a voiced glottal fricative (i.e. a G sound) that is easier for Greek speakers to pronounce and comprehend while still being relatively close to as a consonant produced near the back of the throat. This linguistic adaptation aimed to ensure the intelligibility of the text to Greek-speaking readers.
Another reason not explored here yet is the not Hebrew letter of Ghayn, found in Arabic. In Arabic translations, which do have the ע “ayin” available to them, in the cases of Gaza and Gomorrah there is a third choice letter. غ “ghayn” is a consonant made with the uvula, which to an English-speaker may sound like gurgling water or the Parisian French “r” [ʁ] and crucially is physically in between a G and the ע “ayin”. Arabic translations of the city of غزة (Ġazzah) use this letter instead of the ע “ayin” in Hebrew. Generally this letter is transliterated as G in European languages—even in French or German where their letter R is pronounced quite similarly—sometimes written with a GH like in “Baghdad”. غ “ghayn” is not present in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Canaanite (a.k.a. Phoenician) which were the languages spoken there before Arabic existed. It’s possible, though, that local dialects of those other Semitic languages would have made ע “ayin” sound something like غ “ghayn”.
Transforming the Hebrew letter “ayin” into a “G” sound in certain instances within the Septuagint showcases the intricate interplay between linguistic systems and cultural adaptations in translation. While the “G” transformation is not applied uniformly or even often across all words and names starting with “ayin,” it underscores the translators’ efforts to convey the phonetic nuances of the original language to the target language. The study of such transliteration patterns provides valuable insights into the dynamic nature of language and translation. Without this insight from Greek, we would not have as much information about the original Hebrew.
- Lust, Johan. “Septuagint Transliteration of Proper Names and the Pronunciation of Hebrew in the Second Temple Period.” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 64.4 (1988): 353-360.
- Muraoka, Takamitsu. A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint. Peeters, 2009.
- Joosten, Jan. “The Transliteration of the Divine Name and the Greek Language of the Septuagint.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 38.3 (2007): 315-328.
- LXX and the Greek Alphabet: The Language of the Septuagint in Its Historical Context. Karen H. Jobes, 2015.
- Greek Pronunciation Guide. Hellenic American Union.
- The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants. Eugene Ulrich, 2010.