This is something I noticed when reading some different older English bibles. Often times, it seems there was originally & traditionally a digraph (I guess) ⟨Hi⟩ where now the more proper letter ⟨J⟩ is used:

  • Hierusalem (Jerusalem)
  • Hiob (Job)
  • Hieremias (Jeremiah)
  • Hiacobos (Jacob), etc.

On one of these occasions, I saw that the Greek transliteration was probably pronounced as /hi/, so I assume it would have been a similar case for greek, but that would spawn the question of if that was pronounced /j/ and why it was there, and that is off-topic, so I am only explicitly mentioning it also for that reason of that's on my mind too.

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    Incidentally, note that not all Latin speakers pronounced H by the time the Bible was being translated. There's some classical Roman play in which a numbskull (named Arrius, I think), knowing that upper-class folk still pronounce the "h" in "honour" and so on but having no idea which words have an "h", prepends it at random and is mocked by his friends. Obviously the explanations below are more coherent, but this could give you an idea of the lack of practical difference it might have made. Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 17:54
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    @LukeSawczak that sounds familiar. I am reminded of an English musical (I can't remember the name) where this exact thing happens to a young woman from London. And this H/no H thing is a phenomenon which explains some Algonquian sound changes too. Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 9:15
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    Job, unlike the other examples, actually starts with a vocalic i in Hebrew.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 1:06
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    @LukeSawczak: Splendid! Do you happen to know which play this was, or which author, or some hint about the plot? Then I could Google it.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 15:45
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    @Cerberus My memory failed me. It was no play but Catullus mocking Arrius in poetry: "Chommoda dicebat, si quando commoda / vellet dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias, / et tum mirifice sperabat se esse locutum, / cum quantum poterat dixerat hinsidias." The authors of my textbook translate: "Arrius, whenever he meant commoda, would say chommoda, and hinsidias for insidias, and then he was sure he had spoken splendidly when he said at the top of his lungs, hinsidias." (For chommoda, he wrongly assumes it's an original Greek /x/.) Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 3:44

2 Answers 2


Greek had the /h/ phoneme only at the beginning of a word, and it was marked with a diacritic (rough breathing sign) rather than with a letter. Koine Greek lost the /h/ phoneme and early manuscripts (such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) didn't mark rough breathing, or had it added by a later scribe (according to their respective Wikipedia pages), and so they don't offer evidence on how it was pronounced. Latin, which did have represent /h/ with a letter, would translate the rough breathing as "h".

Since readers unschooled in Hebrew had to guess for themselves whether the Greek word began with a rough breathing mark, both Ierousalem and Hierousalem, Ieremias and Hieremias existed in Greek.

Alexander Sperber wrote an article with a list of Greek transliterations (Septuagint and Origen) and Latin transliterations (Jerome) of Hebrew words. Since the Greek words don't mark breathing, only the Latin is helpful here. Jerome uses i/j for this letter; he never uses "hi" to translate words beginning with Hebrew yod (his full list is on p. 124). Jerome, who learned Hebrew, certainly would have had no doubt as to the correct pronunciation.

Apparently, the rough breathing interpretation won out, because that was what was borrowed into Latin. It certainly helped that hieros meant "sacred" in Greek (that point made here), which would have been meaningful to Christians who considered Jerusalem a holy city, but also could have been a simple hypercorrection. Notably, names such as Iesous are never (to my knowledge, at least) spelled Hiesous, which might support the theory of a hieros misunderstanding, but if names such as Hiakobus are indeed attested, I can only explain this as having been made by analogy to words such as Hierousalem.

So the "hi" spelling in Latin Hierusalem, Hieremias, etc. would have necessarily come through Greek, and not directly from Hebrew.

  • Thank you. That sums it up nicely. I figured Greek was the cause of this phantom ⟨h⟩. Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 3:09

This may have to do with the evolution of the pronunciation of certain letters.

J. A. Picton (?) writes the following in Notes and Queries 7:4 (1887) p. 22, referring to the word "jubilee":

Our modern pronunciation is entirely out of accord with the ancient. It will be seen above that in our early English versions the initial letter is i, representing the Hebrew yod. This marks a transition taking place in the pronunciation of j, which, being merely an initial i or y, was intermingled in the old dictionaries with the vowel i. It is not easy to determine the precise period when the semivowel j, with the sound of initial y, hardened into the palatal j. In Italian a change in the spelling took place. Lat. justus, jubilœus, became givusto, giubeleo. In English we contented ourselves with altering the pronunciation, which, however, gave rise to some inconveniences. Hallelujah is a poser to many rustic musical amateurs. I suppose, however, that we shall never get back to the Hebrew yobel or the old English iubely.

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