Lesson 4 of 7

When looking at a Greek and Hebrew word or sentence from the Bible, you have the following options:  1) Learn Greek and Hebrew well – as close to a native speaker as possible. Do so by watching videos of native speakers from Greece or Israel to see how they create each sound. 2) Refrain from trying to say Greek or Hebrew words out loud when in front of a group. Even though I have studied Greek and Hebrew, I choose not to say them out loud for I know I do not sound even close to a native speaker; I simply explain what the word means or how it is used in that verse. If there is a connection to English, I say something like “our English word _____ comes from this Greek word.”  3) Yet another option is to say something like, “Using English letters it is spelled  _ _ _ _ _,” thus you would communicate something, while refraining from saying the word out loud.


I have heard many, many preachers butcher Greek or Hebrew words. Many preachers say or imply, “Here’s how that word is pronounced …” and then he guesses at it. Even though I am not always sure how a native speaker would say it, there are things I know are definitely wrong, and that is what is often heard from the pulpit on Sunday morning, not always, but often. If the pastor has studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, he is probably using a standard method of pronunciation for non-Greek and non-Hebrew speakers, which is acceptable to most people, but I have come to see that even that system is very different from the way the people in Israel and Greece today speak. I realized this by watching just a few online videos of people in Israel and Greece speaking their own language and I thought, “What I was taught in Bible-college and seminary was not like that.”

Some websites offer an audio file of that word being spoken. Aren’t those helpful?

There are two problems with those audio files. They offer the pronunciation for the primary word in its most basic grammatical form, which is only sometimes the same as the form found in the verse you want to study. From what I can see, they are following the diacritical symbols that supposedly show how a word is to be pronounced.

Paul, are you saying that even the system of diacritical marks intended to help us know how to pronounce something is wrong?

Yes. The diacritical markings are the little dashes and dots etc. above and sometimes below the transliteration, and sometimes an English letter upside down or in some other unique form. Few people invest the time and effort to learn the diacritical system, and not every resource uses the same diacritical symbols, meaning more time and effort are required. Those systems seldom include accent marks. This means that even if you learn the diacritical symbols, you will likely be getting the emphasis on the wrong syllable much of the time. Imagine if I pronounced the following sentence in the way indicated by accent marks where the emphasis is being placed:  “You are placíng the emphásis on the wrong sylláble.” Getting the sounds correct but putting the emphasis in the wrong place still makes the sentence sound wrong. That is what I mean by accents and that is why they are important.

I believe all Bible school and seminary students are taught an englishized pronunciation rather than the way native speakers pronounce things. That is because trying to teach beginning students how to pronounce things as the native speakers do would be extremely difficult and time-consuming.

I once watched a You Tube video of a Hebrew rabbi trying to help English speakers know how to pronounce the two Hebrew vowels sounds we would call “A” vowels. The rabbi said the difference between the two vowel sounds was like the difference between the English words “pot” and “father.” At first, I thought they were the same sound, but after hearing him say both words slowly about 7 or 8 times, I finally realized that I do open my mouth a bit more when I say Father, than when I say pot (the name for the vowel sound in father means “open”). So I learned that the differences are sometimes far too subtle to express through diacritical markings, and very difficult to teach to beginning students. It would require far too much of the already limited time in the classroom.

Scholars have made it easier and faster for beginning students. The same things has been done when teaching Spanish or French etc. to beginners – the pronunciation guides are usually an attempt to associate the sound in the foreign language with a sound the student is familiar with in his own language, but sometimes a corollary does not exist or the differences are ver slight but still important. The professors and textbook writers who have spent considerable time in the country where that language is spoken know that their teaching method will not make their students native speakers. They have accepted, and some will openly admit, that there just isn’t enough time for that. Please realize that just because it is the standard way to teach beginners, it would make a native speaker cringe and cover his ears.


I know that most preachers that say Greek and Hebrew words out loud have good hearts and are trying to be helpful. Some of them have been trained in the standard way of saying those kinds of words. But I determined early in my time at Bible school that I would not be one of those that tells people how to say something and then proceeds to get it wrong. I believe it is the meaning that is important and that is what we should focus on. Saying it out loud, even as a native speaker would say it, is still not helpful.

What’s more, saying Greek and Hebrew words out loud may open a door for Satan to tempt us to pride. “Look at me, I know how to say Greek and Hebrew words.” Not all preachers fall for that temptation; many are just trying to be helpful. But I think the amount of help the pronunciation offers is minimal, and we are better off keeping that door to pride closed and securely locked.