In Jerome's Vulgate translation of the Bible, the name of the patriarch is spelled Abraham, however, Modern Hebrew pronounces this with a /β/ sound (Avraham).

I'm trying to figure out if Jerome wrote Abraham simply because there was not /β/ sound in Latin (although, while this might be true for Clasic Latin, I'm not sure if it's true for Jerome's Late Latin).

Or am I missing something?

1 Answer 1


It's plausible that the BR in ABRAHAM was pronounced as [βɾ] in Jerome's Latin. If it was pronounced as [bɾ] instead, it's unlikely that pronunciation represents intentional selection of [bɾ] over [βɾ]; it would more likely mean that [bɾ] was the only one of these consonant clusters in use in Jerome's Latin. Phonemically, we can probably identify the cluster as /br/ regardless of whether its phonetic realization was [βɾ] or [bɾ].

Clusters like -VR- do not occur natively in Latin and had no unambiguous way of being represented in Latin spelling of the time (since the spelling distinction between V for a consonant sound and U for a vowel sound is modern, not ancient).

Abraham may not directly represent the sound of the Hebrew name

Even though the Vulgate Old Testament is described as being a translation directly from Hebrew texts rather than by way of Greek, it is clear that it was not actually 100% independent of Greek translations.

For example, Hebrew פּ is conventionally transcribed in many names as Latin f or ph, even though it is doubtful that this was closer to the sound of Hebrew than Latin p would be. Examples are Arfaxad/Arphaxad = Greek Ἀρφαξάδ (Arphaxad) = אַרְפַּכְשַׁד/אַרְפַּכְשָׁד‎, Pharao = Greek Φαραώ (Pharaō) = פַּרְעֹה. This is likely the result of a Hebrew-to-Greek transcription convention that was established at a time where Hebrew פּ and Greek φ were both pronounced similarly as an aspirated stop [pʰ]. Greek φ ended up changing into a voiceless labial fricative, and this seems to have also become the pronunciation of the corresponding Latin digraph "ph" by Jerome's time (making it equivalent in pronunciation to "f").

Similarly, the use of Abraham may owe a debt to the Greek spelling Ἀβραάμ, and so doesn't necessarily tell us directly about what sounded closest to Latin and Hebrew speakers of Jerome's time. (For comparison, "Gorbachev" became an established transliteration in English even though the pronunciation of Mikhail Gorbachev's name in Russian was never well approximated by the English sounds that the spelling "ev" would imply.)

[β] might have existed in Latin at this time

Jerome's life postdates the earliest evidence of spelling confusion in Latin between B and V, which suggests that one or both of them had acquired a pronunciation like [β].

Latin B and V eventually merge in intervocalic position in all Romance languages, resulting in a voiced labial fricative rather than a plosive, which implies that a sound change from intervocalic B > [β] and from V > [β] both occurred eventually in Latin. (Examples of intervocalic B > [β]: habēre > Italian avere, Romanian avea, French avoir, Spanish haber [aˈβ̞eɾ].) But it is hard to establish when this merger was completed. For example, it is possible that for a time, some speakers pronounced intervocalic B and V as [β], while others pronounced intervocalic B as [β] while continuing to pronounce V as [w], but we don't have a clear picture of whether or when this kind of intermediate situation would have happened.

Another piece of evidence that might suggest that Latin V had come to be pronounced as [β] is transcriptions from Latin into Greek. The oldest transcription of Latin consonantal V in Greek is ου, but β is found sporadically as early as the 2nd century BC and came to be the regular transcription somewhere around the second to fourth century AD.

However, even if Latin consonantal V was pronounced as [β] in Jerome's time, a spelling like "AVRAHAM" would not necessarily have been a plausible candidate to represent a pronunciation with [βr]. The reason is that consonantal V occurs in Latin only at the start of a syllable, and the letter V is ambiguous, being used also for vowel sounds and for the second element of diphthongs. "AVRAHAM" would look like it was supposed to be read "Auraham", with a diphthong [au̯] in the first syllable. (In Latin, unlike in Greek or Hebrew, the final element of such diphthongs never underwent strengthening to a fricative.)

  • 1
    Although most of the Vulgate's translation was from the Hebrew, pretty much none of its transliteration was from the Hebrew. Jerome took most all of his transliteration of names from the Greek.
    – Figulus
    Oct 27, 2023 at 21:29
  • One question, why would BR ever be pronounced [βɾ] in Latin? It's Greeks who suffered from betacism, pronouncing beta (β) as /v/, not the other way around.
    – Dan
    Oct 27, 2023 at 21:46
  • @Dan: All Romance languages show a shift of Latin intervocalic single -b- to a fricative: thus habēre > Italian avere, Romanian avea, French avoir, Spanish haber pronounced [aˈβ̞eɾ]. In principle, this could have been in progress as early as the 1st-century spelling confusion between B and V mentioned in Nathaniel's answer; it is even possible that [β] existed earlier in Latin but was not confused with V due to the latter being [w].
    – Asteroides
    Oct 27, 2023 at 22:55
  • 1
    In the specific context of the cluster -BR- (where B is not intervocalic) some Romance languages show a weakened pronunciation of B, while others like Italian show strengthening (Italian fabbro from Latin fabrum).
    – Asteroides
    Oct 27, 2023 at 22:55

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