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Word of the Day: ALLELUIA

Word of the Day: ALLELUIA

The perils of Biblical transliteration…. The man whose earth-moving machines across the street are waking us up early in the morning is a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t like to say it, but “JEHOVAH” is just what you get when you mistake the vowel points in the Hebrew text for the vowels for YHWH, rather than what they were, the vowels for what you would actually pronounce — ADONAI. That is, you weren’t permitted to say YHWH, so there was no reason to point the word for YHWH’s vowels. They pointed the word for ADONAI’S vowels, because that is what you would say.

Saint Jerome sometimes simply imports Greek words into Latin, or they already had been so imported; we can tell some of those words from vowels or consonant combinations that don’t exist in Latin: CHRISTUS, most obviously: the Anointed One. Your unleavened bread is AZYMUS, from the Septuagint: without leaven (cf. English ENZYME; much of Louis Pasteur’s work concerned the relationship between fermentation and disease). God is seated upon his THRONUS, THRONE; and the English pronunciation is based upon the spelling and comes by way of analogy with other English words with TH; it was not so pronounced in late Latin, though it was so pronounced in Greek. Just looking at the beginning of chapter 20 of the APOCALYPSIS, which is Greek: ABYSSUS (ABYSS), DIABOLUS (borrowed into Anglo Saxon as DEOFOL > Modern English DEVIL), CHARACTER ( = distinguishing mark, as in a birthmark), SULPHUR (English BRIMSTONE, burn-stone), PSEUDOPROPHETA (evidently an early term to describe what came to be known as a JOURNALIST), and more.

Jerome also had to transliterate words from Hebrew, which he knew well. He seems to have chosen to render Hebrew words beginning with the light H (not the hard H, or CH, as in HAM / CHAM) as merely beginning with the following vowel. I guess that by that time, H was rapidly disappearing as a phoneme in many Latin accents. Hyper-correct speakers made sure to pronounce it, but we hear from his younger contemporary Saint Augustine that well-trained speakers made sure to say “HOMO” instead of “OMO,” although they were not so careful to make sure that they never killed any of those persons.

So when he came to the Greek HALLELUIAH, itself a transliteration of Hebrew HALLELU-JAH, may GOD (JAH, abbreviated from the unutterable Holy Name) BE PRAISED, Jerome left off the H front and back, and gives us ALLELUIA. The King James rendering HALLELUJAH is thus closer to the original, though not necessarily in the English pronunciation of HALL-, rhyming with SHALL. The word ALLELUIA is uttered lovingly by the Church in all of her canonical hours during Eastertide, especially in the praying of the psalms, where ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA simply replaces all of the connecting antiphons.

When I was a kid, all at once we had a great pile of hippy-dippy pseudo-folk songs to sing in church, and I remember being vaguely irritated by such lines as “Sing ALLELU, sing ALLELU, sing ALLELU-U-IA!” Part of my problem was that I had no notion of all the chants with ALLELUIA in them, because we weren’t singing them, and part of it was that the new songs were just lousy. Yet ALLELUIA deserved far better than either those songs or my reaction. It is THE great word of praise, in both the Jewish TEHILLIM — the PSALMS as we call them — and in Christian prayer. So it is entirely fitting that ALLELUIA should be heard again and again in the final book, that beautiful and dread APOCALYPSE.