It is hard to believe that an article on this subject is worthy of such a discussion, but, believe it or not, this is common question we get on the subject of Babel. Online Webster gives both pronunciations. I’m going call these two bay-bel and bah-bel. Specifically the second can be heard at www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/audio.pl?babel001=Babel. My print version and Thorndike-Barnhart have both as well.
Dictionary.com listed both pronunciations under their entry: dictionary.reference.com/browse/babel, while Random House dictionary only listed “bab-uhl (bah-bel)” (similar to the second Webster’s listing). The American Heritage had two variations [bā'bəl, bāb'əl] (two slight variations of bay-bel). With the exception of stresses, these would both agree with Oxford’s dictionary.
The etymology of how the British English arrived at bay-bel comes allegedly from Middle English and a slightly faulty transliteration of the Hebrew, which we will discuss below. I did further research on the origin of the English word and its pronunciation and found that it was in use in older English, so the Middle English reference to its origin may not be entirely correct (from Webster’s online). This makes sense since the Bible was also translated into Middle English from the Latin Vulgate by Wycliffe, so the word Babel already existed in English and had a particular pronunciation prior to this.
As many know, Old English was Germanic in its origin. In fact, it was in the style of West Germanic, which is where Northern Germanic languages (Norse) also arose. This is because the Jutes and Angles (where we get the name English/England come from) were well settled in the British Isles (with Germanic languages), and later the Saxons conquered and spread throughout Britain (also Germanic), though much of the timings and details herewith are shrouded in history as this took the Britains back into paganism.
Old English changed as a result of later Norman (French/Latin) roots changing the language to Middle English (beginning in 1066), and then this gave rise to more modern forms of English and even several variants of Middle English. Modern English is still sub-classed in the German language family.
This led me to wanting to see how Germans pronounced Babel. The German pronunciation is in our laymen sense baw-bul, which is closer to our second pronunciation in American English. Listen here down through verse 9: www.sermon-online.de/search.pl?lang=de&id=2747 (this pronunciation is from Luther’s day by the way). So far, I’ve not been able to find where variant Germanic dialects deviate from this pronunciation.
I also checked the French language to see if the long “a” (bay-bel) sound came from the French root. Turns out they say “baw-bel’” with a stress on bel. This is almost identical to the Hebrew, as we will see. To double-check on Latin-based roots, I looked at Babel in Spanish, another Latin-based language; it is bah-bael (note the different second syllable) with a soft “a” too.
So both German and French/Latin roots say Babel with a softer “a” like Hebrew (not bay-bel), and this is closer to the second pronunciation listed in Webster’s (bah-bel). So it seems that the Queen’s English is the only one that has bay-bel, and that is a carry-over to the States (and presumably other former British possessions). At some point in English history, there was a corruption from the soft “a” (bah-bel or baw-bel) in Babel to the long “a” (bay-bel), because it doesn’t come from German or French (or Hebrew or Greek). It is possible that it is due to accents or a previous language family, but this is beyond the scope here. Aaron Profitt of God's Bible School and College pointed out:
English's Great Vowel Shift (GVS) may explain the “long-a” pronunciation of Babel, at least in part: in Old and Middle English, a “long a” was pronounced roughly as <a>, as in father. In the Great Vowel Shift—which took place over a number of years with intermediate pronunciations—vowel pronunciation (but not spelling) shifted “up” in the mouth. Essentially, this meant that the old “long a” ended up with the sound formerly assigned to e, which is the “ay” sound we now have in babe or cave.1 (Previously babe would have been pronounced something like “BAHB-uh.”) Assuming Babel to have been pronounced “BAHB-uhl” before the GVS, after the shift its a would likely have acquired the ”ay” sound, making it “BAYB-uhl.”
As a “big picture” point, this is revealing too. Some quickly assume there was a corruption from bay-bel in American English to bah-bel because of presumed influence of words like babble or babbling.2 But this may not be the case. It may not be a corruption at all, but was more likely a carry-over from European settlers with French or Germanic languages when they originally settled in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. was largely dominated by Western European settlers from largely Germanic language family nations (Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, etc.) and France up until 1970, and, as they learned English, the American Language deviated more and more from British English3
From here, I decided to check the source. I looked at the Hebrew pronunciation and both Strong’s and The Hebrew-English Dictionary give it as baw-bel’. The stress is on the second syllable with the softer “a” sound. It is the same Hebrew word for both Babel and Babylon, the latter empire. The Greek equivalent is Babulwn bab-oo-lone’. The Greek yields a soft “a” sound similar to the second Webster pronunciation (bah-bel), and this Greek influence may be why the second pronunciation gained popularity.
When you listen in Hebrew to Genesis chapters 10 (mp3) and 11 (mp3), where it mentions Babel in verse 10 and verse 9 respectively, it is pronounced the way Strong’s and The Hebrew-English Dictionary indicate (baw-bel’).
So both English pronunciations are slightly off from the Hebrew, but the second pronunciation (bah-bel) is actually a bit closer. In American English, we would normally say either bay-bel or bah-bel, since Webster’s is one of the primary standards for the American English language. If you are in England though, bay-bel is the Oxford standard. To be truly proper to the Hebrew, it is baw-bel’. Perhaps the best point that can be made on this is that people are still affected by the event of language division at Babel, and this is obviously still even the case, to a lesser degree, with the word Babel.
And this is significant. Man’s thoughts of rebellion have been in effect since the Fall of mankind (Genesis 3). Babel was no different. God said to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1), but man’s rebellious heart was again disobedient so soon after the Flood that these men tried to defy God’s command by building a tower so they would not be scattered (Genesis 11:4).
Often today we get caught up in the details of something like how to pronounce Babel and, yet, we don’t reflect that due to rebellion against a Holy God, this scattering of languages and people occurred. As we study Scripture, we need to keep in mind the big picture of sin, rebellion . . . and of course Christ’s sacrificial work to save us from God's righteous judgment.
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Want to learn more about Babel? See the Answers magazine issue dedicated to the subject.