If the previous post looked mainly at grasping the overall meaning of a reading, today’s looks at the question of detail. It is not just the devil who is in the details. Paying attention to details helps meaning and truth emerge. Exploring the details can help the reading be heard as the word of the Lord. Perhaps the most obvious of those details is the pronunciation of names, people and places.
The first, and most important piece of advice to remember, is that when it comes to the really difficult names, no-one else is likely to know exactly how they are pronounced either.
However, in most cases, there is a relatively traditional English pronunciation of most names. Very often the translated English name is quite different from the Hebrew or Greek way of saying the names in the original language. The traditional English is itself simply a time-honoured way of mangling the original, but if you know it, or can find it out, it’s certainly worth doing so. If you can’t, then you will simply join a long tradition of mangling the pronunciation in your own way. Do your best, and be consistent: don’t pronounce the name differently every time it comes up, but in the same way throughout the reading.
How can you find out how the name is normally said, however, so that you don’t put any unnecessary obstacles in the way of those listening? There are at least three things that can help. Nowadays the easiest thing is to Google, for example “how to pronounce Melchizedek”. You may end up sounding American1, of course, but sound or video files for most names are now accessible2.
A second is to ask someone else: that may be your parish priest, deacon or other minister, lay or ordained. It may also be one of the older members of the congregation: the English tradition of pronouncing names has very often been passed down by osmosis. As people have heard the stories read, they have heard the names pronounced, year by year and have simply absorbed the way – or at least a way – to say them.
Finally, with the King James Bible, or Authorised Version, a number of editions have aids to pronunciation included. People and place names are hyphenated with various accents also included. Here’s an example chosen entirely at random: my KJV happened to fall open at 2 Kings 25; verse 27 includes the name Ē´-vǐl – mĕr´-o-dăch, spelt out with short and long hyphens indicating the syllables, and there is a page at the front decoding all the different symbols used. The accent character (´) after a syllable indicates that it should be stressed. It may not be worth buying a copy solely for this purpose, but so many homes and churches have old copies lying around, that it’s certainly worth a look to see if you have access to one. It’s rather a shame this helpful practice hasn’t been carried through to contemporary translations.
There are other things to watch out for as well. An easy trap can be when the same word is pronounced differently depending on whether it is a noun or a verb. We automatically get this right when speaking, but somehow it can be remarkably easy to trip yourself up when reading. An example might be “record”: we keep a RECord, but we reCORD something. In the Bible, the most obvious example is what prophets do. The verb is prophesy, pronounced prof-ess-sigh; the name of what they say is a prophecy, pronounced prof-ess-see.
There are other words that have unusual spellings and we rarely see them written. On a couple of occasions, I have heard someone stumble after putting St Paul in goal. They have misread the traditional English spelling of “gaol”, whose American spelling “jail” is rather easier to read off the page. St Paul, I am sure, would see himself as more of a striker, and put Jesus in goal: Jesus always saves.
One other detail is well worth mentioning; it’s really part of varying your pace4. Look for the natural pauses in a reading. One sort of pause may come when you are reading a story that includes a conversation. Pauses can help indicate changes of speaker, or change from speaker back to story-teller. Another can come in how an argument works, something that often applies to readings from Paul. Sometimes a pause really helps to indicate one line of argument has finished, and he’s now beginning another. Don’t be afraid to pause.
- English pronunciation on the web is one of the ways Americans are often advantaged compared to other speakers of world Englishes, whether British, Indian, Australian or some other dialect or variety.
- There is even a website dedicated to pronunciation: www.biblespeak.org
- For example the Cameo (pictured above) and Concord editions published by Cambridge University Press – you will need to look for editions either labelled “pronouncing” or with pronunciation marks.
- I will look at practicalities like this in more detail in a subsequent post.