In reading particularly the Old Testament, I think I note a pattern formed by many names such as:

Israel, Abraham, Jerusalem, Solomon, Babylon, Zerubbabel, Lebanon, Capernaum, Zebulun, Galilee, Phoenicia, Samaria, Mediterranean, Benjamin, Bethlehem, Ephesus, Galatia, Italia, Byzantium, Mesopotamia, Melchizedek, Corinthians, Thessalonians, etc.

In pronouncing these names, the pattern seems to be that with names of three or more syllables the accent is on the syllable that is third from last. Thus:

ISrael, Abraham, jeRUsalem, SOLomon, BAbylon, zeRUbbabel, LEBanon, caPERnaum, ZEBulun, GALilee, phoeNIcia, saMARia, mediterrAnean, BENjamin, BETHlehem, EPHesus, galAtia, iTALia, byZANtium, mesopoTAmia, melCHIzedek, coRINthians, thessaLOnians etc.

However, some other names are not pronounced the way I would expect (stress on the third-to-last syllable). For example, I would expect these names to be pronounced as follows:

neHEMiah, jerEMiah, HOsea, oBADia, zePHANiah, zeCHARiah...

However, these are not pronounced like this by most English speakers. Instead, the stress moves to the next-to-last syllable (e.g. neheMIah, jereMIah, etc). Is there a reason that the names in this second group have the stress shifted like this?


2 Answers 2


Specifically to these:

neHEMiah, jerEMiah, HOsea, oBADia, zePHANiah, zeCHARiah...

These are normally pronounced with the stress on the second to last syllable in English.

More generally:

The Biblical names in English were borrowed from Latin. The general principle is historically that Latin words in English are stressed on the same syllable as in Latin, that is: on the second-to-last syllable if this has a long vowel in Latin, and otherwise on the third-to-last syllable. This is the general principle, but there are exceptions.

So NehemIah is stressed on the second to last, because the /i/ was long in Latin, whereas ThessaLOnians is stressed on the third to last because the /i/ was short, so the stress moved one back. These stress patterns are quite consistent with those in other languages that use Latin stress for bible words, such as German, so we can rule out mere chance.

  • Yes, they normally are pronounced with the stress on the second to last syllable, but are they in fact correctly pronounced that way? I'm not so sure, given all the others, and that's the essence of my question.
    – Journeyman
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:33
  • Israel, Solomon, Capernaum, Zebulun, Mediterranean, and Melchizedek all seem to be exceptions to the general principle; Solomon and Melchizedek depending on whether the syllable properly is long or not, you hear it more or less slurred both ways. And that gets to my question, too, whether over the years the lengths of the vowels, the stresses of the syllables have evolved (pardon the expression) from their origins...
    – Journeyman
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:33
  • ...Do we really know how these names were being pronounced in 1611? English certainly has lots of rules that it breaks, and the rules nevertheless stand. Nevertheless I tend to think those names in the last box are pronounced the way they are just because that's the way they're pronounced, and not because they are respecting or excepting a general rule.
    – Journeyman
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:33
  • But, heck, I don't know, which is why I posted the question. I'm open to being convinced that there's nothing to my theory, but I'm not sure it's dismissable quite yet. Even Susan commented (somewhere, I think at BH) to the effect that she'd never noticed the pattern before and finds it interesting, so I think I'm not totally out of left field.
    – Journeyman
    Mar 8, 2015 at 14:34
  • @Journeyman fdb doesn’t have an account here, so you can’t communicate with him in this way. According to my rudimentary understanding of linguistic principles, the term “rule” is used descriptively, and “correctly” has little meaning (particularly in the case of dead languages). But do you see that fdb has validated the pattern you’ve noticed and explained why the group in the second box follows a different pattern? It’s not that there’s “nothing to [your] theory.” Rather, you’re correct, but the pattern expanded to include a bit more complexity can explain a wider range of pronunciations.
    – Susan
    Mar 9, 2015 at 0:23

The third-to-last syllable (in jargon, the antepenult) is the normal place for nouns in English to be stressed, except for (1) some morphologically complex forms with -ate, -er, -y, etc., (2) syllables are stressed if they have tense/long vowels that underwent the Great Vowel Shift, (3) next-to-last syllables that end in a consonant are stressed (e.g., "veranda"). There are many exceptions, but this holds more or less, and is well-described in The Sound Pattern of English.

Your examples are not morphologically complex, so we can forget about (1). And I don't see any in category (3). So that leaves (2).

Your examples with stress on the next-to-last syllable (the penult) would all be explained if we supposed they all have long vowels in the series that underwent the GVS. E.g., Nehem[i:]a would get stress on the long [i:], then the [i:] would become [ai] by the GVS change, to give us the modern pronunciation with stress on the penult.

But of course just looking at the modern spelling, there is no way to know that the penults in those words are long. If they're short, they would be stressed on the antepenults, as you note. NeHEMiah. And since there are English words pronounced like this, "Bohemia" e.g., I think we just have to say the stress is irregular, and due to the peculiar histories of these words.

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