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An English Primer for Orthodox Christians

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Written by Basil on 03/27/2005 3:58 PM. Filed under:

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A great peeve of mine is people (read: Orthodox folk) who pronounce “theology” incorrectly. In English, it is not pronouncedtha̅ ah lə je̅.” It is pronounced “the̅ ah lə je̅.” Yes, the root is the Greek “θεολογια.” However, this is English. The word is “theology,” not “θεολογια.” To paraphrase Jedi Master Yoda: “Translate, or translate not. There is no….” (Not sure what to put in there; perhaps “half-a——ing it” works best.)

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get some other things straight:

They are all pronounced the same way. Oh, and if I am to call the Mother of God Theotokos, the word is no longer Greek but English, and the pronunciation should be Anglicized — “the̅ o̅ to̅ kəs.” Otherwise, please stop the foolishness and translate it.

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27 Responses to “An English Primer for Orthodox Christians”

  1. Erich Says:

    Perhaps this is due to your region. I’ve never heard anyone pronounce theology “thaÌ… ah lÉ™ jeÌ….â€? Are you thinking of Kentuckians? If so, one need not make this an Orthodox phenomenon, but perhaps a Kentuckian one (or whatever region we’re talking about).

  2. Basil Says:

    No, actually, this is Connecticut. (I’m in the Navy, remember?) I’m not sure whether I heard this ethnicism until I came here. On the other hand, Fr. D. (in Ky.) has taken to the ethnic pronunciation of “Theophany,” and most everyone uses the ethnic “Theotokos.”

    Also, I have heard the word “theology” mispronounced in a recording somewhere, I’m pretty sure.

  3. philippa Says:

    Where in CT are you stationed?

  4. Basil Says:

    Philippa, I’m at the submarine base in Groton/New London, near Mystic.

  5. philippa Says:


    I tried emailing you. Message said neither one went through. Just an “oops” message. I used to live in New London. My first husband (memory eternal) was stationed there about 24 years ago. My son was born in the base hospital. Write me. Would like to know what you do there.

  6. pete Says:

    Hmmm…I’m going to agree with you on “theology” and other such words that have their roots in other languages, but I don’t think that Greek (or any other language) words that are “borrowed into” English ought to be handled in a similar manner–particularly words whose theological specificity is their primarily significance, such as “Theotokos.” My professors at seminary–more expert at these issues than you or I, certainly–fairly consistently pronounced Greek, Hebrew and German words as the words would be pronounced in those respective languages by speakers of those languages rather than Anglicizing them.

  7. Basil Says:

    Pete, if I were in academia, I would agree with you. What we are talking about is not an issue so much of technical theological jargon but missiology — the choice of when to translate and when to require indigenous people (in this case Americans) to learn a foreign word because no suitable equivalent can be found. English is a very fluid language, thankfully, and it is quite able to absorb words from a wide variety of other languages. However, looking at some words which have come into English from Greek, Hebrew and German, we still find that a certain Anglicization takes place. On your side, you could use the example of “Gestalt,” for example, but on my side I could cite “doppleganger” or “Volkswagen.” (Notice that the umlaut is missing from “doppleganger.”) From Hebrew, the weight is on my side: messiah, cherubim (another pronunciation peeve of mine), seraphim, etc. If Theotokos is to be an English word (which Merriam Webster and the OED already indicate that it is), it will be pronounced as an English word (as both the aforementioned already indicate that it is). Too bad the OED isn’t online. It is the great answer in these kinds of debates.

  8. pete Says:

    On the other hand, consider some of the Spanish words we use on a regular basis, such as San Diego and San Francisco, or the Native American words used similarly: Spokane (pronounced spo-can), Mississippi, Minnesota, Dakota…

    I think that at best we’ll end up with a draw on this issue.

  9. Tim Says:

    I will totally sidestep the pronounciation discussion and comment on the phonetic markup in case you care:

    Even using the suggested Firefox browser the characters do not appear as intended on all platforms. The combining overline character U+0304 does not have consistent support in all fonts. On winXP with the standard fonts I see the overline following the desired characters and much wider than a single character, perhaps as wide as an emdash. Using a span with a border-top over the desired characters might render more consistently. Alternatively, you might specify a font to use for that section of your post. The default Times New Roman browser font does not support the combining overline. Lucida Sans Unicode supports it wonderfully. Tahoma, which may be more widely available, also supports it, but the overline is slightly offset to the right from the left edge of the characters.

    At least you get the overlines in Firefox even if they are misplaced. With IE6, you get boxes after the desired characters except when using fonts that properly support the overline.

  10. Basil Says:

    Pete, on a theoretical plane, I admit, my position comes to a draw. On the actual plane, Merriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary already support my position. 😀

  11. Basil Says:

    Tim, noted and implemented. What is thy bidding, my master? 😉

  12. pete Says:

    And the difference between a theoretical plane and an actual plane when we’re dealing with theoretical linguistics is what, exactly? :-)

    I don’t have either a MW dictionary or the OED around at the moment, but I’m not sure they consistently support your position with regard to words borrowed into English, such as Native American place names. The issue here really comes down to the fact that sometimes words are borrowed into English with pronunciation consistent with the source language, and sometimes they are butchered and/or made into different words.

    Another thing I was thinking about in this discussion with regard to Hebrew words (such as Cherubim) is that Hebrew (particularly the proto-Canaanite alphabet, although the Masoretic has this problem as well) has no vowels in its written form, making pronunciation consistency from generation to generation difficult. For example, there is some controversy over how YHWH ought to be pronounced. This problem is somewhat amplified by the problem of translation, as exemplified when words such as Cherubim are borrowed into Koine Greek.

  13. Basil Says:

    Pete, well I was thinking specifically of the actual case of Theotokos. I’ve linked to the MW above, and the OED gives essentially the first pronunciation alone, as I recall. I find that most “theo-” root words have exactly the same pronunciation in English with regard to the “theo-” root, that’s my main point here. I also get peeved about people pronouncing the “e” in Zaccheus and Arimithea ethnically, as if they did not have an established English pronunciation. The main point I am making is contextualization; we are not out to create an Orthodox, theological jargon with an eccentric pronunciation scheme. You call it butchering; I call it the natural process of Anglicization. It happens in other languages as well. One of the first words I learned in Russian was a Russification of the word “computer.” Fascinating.

    As for YHWH, I go with the fully Anglicized “Jehovah.” 😛

  14. pete Says:

    Oooh…Dr. Miller would not be pleased with that! :-) I remember a lengthy diatribe in class once about how Jehovah is not the same God as Yahweh, that Jehovah was a poor and inaccurate transliteration, yadda yadda yadda…

    Seriously though, I understand what you’re saying–and given that I’m not a member of the group you’re speaking to here (Orthodox who pronounce theological terms in an eccentric fashion) it makes perfect sense for me to let it go in this case. What I find curious in this discussion, mainly, is that the “natural process of Anglicization” doesn’t seem to happen with any uniformity from word to word. (If English has any foundational principles, inconsistency of application seems to be a primary one.) This is what leads to my “butchering” conclusion–some words enter our lexicon completely unscathed, others undergo significant alteration. Why is that? My conclusion is that some words were introduced with more care for their origins than others. Naturally, some pronunciation changes are inevitable based on differences in alphabet–the Case of the Missing Umlaut, for example–but others seem entirely based on carelessness, as in the case of the chocolate seed: The word “cacao” was used by the Mayans between 400 BC and AD 100. Linnaeus granted this pronunciation in the scientific name Theobroma cacao in 1753. For some reason, sometime during the later part of the 18th century the English pronunciation was changed to the present “cocoa,” but nobody seems to know exactly why. It doesn’t make linguistic sense, as it contributes to, rather than reduces, confusion–at the time, coconut was sometimes referred to as “cocoa.”

    A fun example of words being borrowed by languages: The Japanese word for the “combover” method of obscuring one’s baldness is bah-kohdo, or “barcode.”

  15. Paige Says:

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at with the Russification of “computer.” They spell it in a way that transliterates to “Kom-peeoo-ter,” which is phonetically almost identical to the English. The slight pronounciation difference exists because they have no exact equivalent of the “long u” sound and substitute a letter that sounds like a long “e” followed by a long “u” for it. Are you advocating that we continue to pronounce “Theotokos” as if we were Greek, but Anglicize the spelling to reflect that? I’m confused.

  16. Basil Says:

    Paige, that was simply an example that most languages (and every language that I’m aware of) import words from other languages, and they usually adjust the pronunciation to fit the language. I am advocating pronouncing every “theo-” root word — including Theotokos — like the ones we already know. I am advocating not creating a specialized Orthodox jargon, unless insularity and not mission and witness is our goal. That’s a rhetorical “unless,” because I am also advocating mission and witness as the primary modes of the Church’s relating to the world around her. Personally, importing Theotokos seemed unnecessary to me when I became Orthodox, and it seems unnecessary now.

    I am also advocating blessing the existing Christian culture in the West — my culture. I should not have to become Greek or Russian or anything other than American to be Orthodox. There will naturally be good and holy influences from the various Orthodox cultures on ours, which is right and to be expected. But mispronouncing English words — words that have been English for centuries (cf. the first appearance of Theotokos in English in the OED) — strikes me as too much phyletism.

  17. sockmonk Says:

    I’m sorry but this really seems like a tempest in a teapot. First, I object to your choice of words; people obviously do pronounce “theology” the way you don’t prefer, or else you wouldn’t be upset by it. What you seem to mean is that the dictionaries you referenced give a phonetic pronunciation that is at variance with what you often hear. Ok, so pronunciation varies. As long as everyone knows which words we mean, I don’t see a problem. It’s like my rule of thumb for my own handwriting: every letter and number should look more like the letter or number I mean than like any other number. That’s a much looser guideline than trying to make them look exactly like what appears in a handwriting book or on the posters in an elementary school classroom, but it’s practical.

    Pronouncing “theology” or “theophany” differently doesn’t create a new jargon. It’s just people talking differently, not creating new technical meanings. Orthodoxy does use specialized meanings for many words, and that is a real source of confusion, but it has little to do with pronunciation.

    As for Theotokos showing up in the OED centuries ago… that really doesn’t matter to me. I didn’t hear the word until I joined what’s now my local parish, so I imagine I pronounce it like most other people here. If they had pronounced it differently, it would have made absolutely no difference to me, since it was a new word to begin with. In terms of mission, I would guess that would be true for most people that are new to Orthodox Christianity.

  18. Basil Says:

    What you seem to mean is that the dictionaries you referenced give a phonetic pronunciation that is at variance with what you often hear. Ok, so pronunciation varies.

    Pronunciation, like spelling and meaning, are prescriptive and descriptive. Different dictionary publishers tend towards one or the other. Merriam Webster tends more toward description than prescription. Oxford English Dictionary and American Heritage tend more toward prescription.

    Why do some people mispronounce “theology,” “Zaccheus,” and “Arimithea”? Because they learned it that way from others who were mispronouncing them. Were I in Russia or Greece (or any other land where another language is spoken), I would endeavor to pronounce their words the way they pronounce them. I am only asking the same.

    But perhaps you’re right. I’ll just pronounce words the way I want; to hell with what others think of me. Were I to do that, I would be viewed as strange and eccentric at best; at worst, I would be ignored by everyone else as an idiot. If a community takes the same stance, the surrounding society will respond the same way. I really don’t care of some odd sect does that, but it really bothers me if the Church does that while also chanting, “We have seen the true light; we have found the true faith.”

  19. alana Says:

    This whole conversation is striking me as somewhat odd in light of the fact that I’ve been spending a little bit of time lately being a reading tutor for some kids and one adult here in my community (not Church community), and the difficulty these people seem to be consistely facing is that their deeply rooted spoken language, Appalachian Kentuckian English, is in it’s pronuniciation enough different to cause phonetic difficulties in the decoding process of reading, and almost different enough that I would compare it to my growing up experience of living with a spoken language and a different written language (Schwyzerduetsch and Hochdeutsch).

    Correct pronunication of terms such at Theotokos etc. seem irrelevant in a context where, for example, the word “idea” is pronounced identically to the word “ideal” and vocabulary is culturally very limited to begin with, where the written word, when it is phonetically pronounced does not communicate that which it ought because of a vast difference between standard Enlish and the local dialect.

    Your insistence on standard Enlish really seems like a moot point. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this angle.

    We also don’t want Orthodoxy simply to become a faith of the intelligenzia, well-educated, etc. The question I walked out of my tutoring session with was: How to catechize a down home Appalachian Kentucky native Baptist without her really knowing it? We DID discuss the Bible. It was a good time.

    I think part of the answer has got to do with loving persons, and being involved in their lives, no matter what our ever-morhphing language sounds like.

  20. Basil Says:

    As an Orthodox missionary to Appalachia, that is a question you will need to answer for yourself. As someone who has been raised, at different points in my life, in Appalachia and the South, I reckon you’ve got yourself a point there. I point to dictionary pronunciations because they provide a prescription that does not depend upon a slippery “cultural context,” which becomes individually eccentric when taken to extreme. In a discussion that could easily devolve into, “I say tomato, you say tomato,” a dictionary gives us a canon against which to judge whether there is a correct pronunciation. In my experience in Appalachia and the South, “theology” is a four-letter word, but it’s still pronounced with a long “e,” not a long “a.” Similarly with “Theodore.” The main difference, it would seem to me, is that the second syllable, a schwa, might be omitted. Other “theo-” words, such as “theophany” or “theocratic,” would likely not be part of the vocabulary of most Appalachians, though I would think that probably Berry and Kingsolver would use them. It is based on this that I still insist that a long “e” is the proper English pronunciation of Theotokos, unless it’s not intended to be imported into English. In either case,I find that I side with the British who translate the term. (See the translations of Archimandrite Ephrem and the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh.)

  21. Tim Says:

    This can be more practical: how do we teach our children to pronounce these terms? On the one hand it is quite correct to say that the pronunciation doesn’t matter — it is the idea and understanding of it that is important. On the other hand, this is part of the struggle for us as we are Orthodox and American and as we seek to communicate the good news to those in our country. Using American English terms and pronunciation does not necessarily improve communication; Orthodox certainly use terms like symbol, mystery, repentance, and salvation with somewhat different or more complete meanings than our culture at large. It is also true that proper pronunciation makes proper spelling easier, although I doubt our kids will have Theotokos on any school spelling test, at least not until we have an Orthodox school that they are attending.

    The argument that one pronunciation of Theotokos is better than the other is a difficult one for me. I have a similar struggle when thinking about how to label icons. If you use the Greek (or in the case of icons, the typical abbreviation) you can speak to all Orthodox. If you use English, you speak to a particular people and perhaps make it more comprehensible to non-Orthodox English speakers. (I suppose I should be more specific lest you think I’m saying don’t translate. I believe in using English in icons for here in Ky, but struggle with the well-known abbreviations for the Theotokos and Christ.) At some point words are translated or acquired and become part of the language and culture. In the case of Theotokos, Basil has made a good case for the Anglicized pronunciation that has been around for a while. One big point in its favor is that it makes English more consistent, not less. We need all the help we can get.

  22. Gideon Says:

    For some reason this conversation brings the following story to mind.

    I had been Orthodox for less than a year and I was having lunch with a Priest during a lenten period. I ordered a salad with Ranch dressing. Later, when I remembered that I should be fasting from dairy I said, “Forgive me Father. I am eating dairy.” (paraphrased) Father’s respose was, “Praise God that you have so few sins that you can worry about what dressing you are eating on your salad.” (again paraphrased)

    Take it for what it’s worth.

  23. Basil Says:

    Gideon, cute.

    Praise God, also, that Ss. Cyril and Methodius didn’t wait until they were free from all sin to create the Cyrillic alphabet and translate the faith into Slavonic. Thank God they continued to repent as they were making the choices that eventually led to you and I being Orthodox.

    Praise God, also, that St. Paul did not wait until he was free from sin to take Christ to the Roman Empire. Thank God he and his companions continued to repent as they preached the good news of our salvation to the Greco-Latin world.

    You imply a false dilemma between repentance and having strong opinions about how to translate Christianity in a post-Christian cultural context. I reject your false dilemma; I will continue to repent and hope for a recognition that English-speaking culture has been Christian since Ss. Columban, Patrick, Caedmon, Kevin, Bede and Augustine first preached Christianity to the Isles.

  24. Gideon Says:

    I am not trying to present a dilemma. I am simply presenting the idea that there seems to be many important issues in the church and in our lives that outweigh pronunciation issues. Especially since we, as a country can’t consistently pronounce words in our own language let alone words that we are adopting.

    No offense ment. Like I said…take it for what it’s worth.

  25. Basil Says:

    What does “dilemma” mean to you? What does the dictionary say? There are are more important issues than translation in the church and in our lives, but not many. I would perhaps put the issue of uncanonical, overlapping episcopal jurisdictions above translation issues. That there are more important issues neither negates the relative importance of proper translation nor shows that focusing on each issue in its place is impossible.

    I categorically reject that my personal life in Christ is incompatible with fighting for proper forms to communicate that life to those around me. I also categorically reject that it is someone else’s business. (Perhaps you are bound by an unconscious clericalism?) The task belongs to everyone, not just religious professionals.

    The problem is that the problem is not at all restricted to words (or how they are pronounced). The whole issue is distinguishing betweeen what is essential to the Gospel and what is inessential, ethnic, external form in Orthodoxy’s strangeness. The more we shrug and just live with the strangeness, the less we are able to understand how strange visitors find it. I will continue to fight for an authentic American expression of Orthodoxy.

    And part of that means pronouncing words and names in a way that doesn’t strike people as strange. (Here’s a hint: evangelicals, who centuries ago forgot how they’re pronounced anyway, are not the canon against which I’m measuring this; they’ll think it’s all strange, whether it’s Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican.)

  26. Covington Says:

    How does one pronounce Didache? Cannot find in my dictionaries or in anything here.

  27. Basil Says:

    Covington: Didache is normally pronounced DEE duh kay or DID uh kay, the CH being like the CH in Christ or chrism.