In my regional language (Tamil) biblical names vary from the actual names. I'm sure this is not only in my regional language only but also in other languages too. For instance Jesus' name is Yesu and John's name is Yovan and so on. But in my regional language it doesn't mean anything; rather it's confusing.

In our prayers also we used the regional names and I think, would we mean Jesus' name or something else?

I can understand it'd be necessary to translate the Bible as it'd help the people to understand the Bible better. But what was the reason to change the names?

  • 1
    During his lifetime, Jesus' name wouldn't be written in English, Tamil, or any other language. It would have been written in Aramaic or Hebrew, or maybe Koine Greek. The English transliteration is Yeshua, and the English equivalent is Joshua.
    – Wad Cheber
    Aug 24, 2015 at 21:16
  • Closely related: Jesus and Mary / Joshua and Miriam Nov 8, 2016 at 13:51

4 Answers 4


One of the reasons for the variance in names is that languages often don't share the same sounds as Greek or Hebrew. For instance, Russian has no "th" sound. Consequently, the sound of that name cannot be reproduced in Russian. In Greek, it is ματθαιος, or /Mat-thaios/. Russian translates this as Матфей, or Matfay. So, the "th" becomes an "f".

Also, the ending of the name changes in Greek depending upon which part of speech it is. We don't do that in English, so we just have to select an ending and stick with it.

There is also a difference whether or not the Greek or Hebrew is being translated. The Greek for the Hebrew Name of Jesus (Yeshua) is Ἰησοῦς, or Yay-soos. The Hebrew name of Yeshua is translated into Joshua, while the name Yay-soos is translated Jesus.

So, sometimes a word's sounds are not matched in the receiving language. Other times, there is variance on whether it is coming from Hebrew or Greek. This accounts for some of the issues.

  • 3
    The Greek name is Ἰησοῦς, or Iesous (although it does sound like Yay-soos).
    – user72
    Feb 14, 2012 at 15:14
  • @MarkTrapp yeah, I know... I just put it in English. Should've included the Greek.
    – Narnian
    Feb 14, 2012 at 15:18
  • not to mention that hebrews do not have vowels?
    – user4951
    May 9, 2013 at 3:53
  • 3
    @JimThio: Every spoken languge has vowels. Written hebrew ommits them, leaving them up to guess work of sorts.
    – Flimzy
    May 9, 2013 at 7:54

That is simply the nature of language. Here's how things got from Yeshua (Hebrew) to Jesus (English).

  1. Greeks changed it to Yeshu (drop the final "a")
  2. Romans changed it to Iesu (sh changes to s, Y->I) and, in certain grammars, a final "s" was added.
  3. Over time, as the J came into common use, this changed to Jesu/Jesus (pronounced yay-soos).
  4. The letter J in English warped and gained its modern pronunciation.

Interestingly enough, the hymn "O come all ye faithful" has the line "Jesu to thee be all glory giv'n". In England (and in fussy choirs here), this is pronounced with the French "J" (as in Jean) as the first consonant.

Or, there is Yochanan, which became Ian, Sean, and John.

  1. Yochanan becomes Yohana (final n dropped in Greek? not sure if this is a Latinism.)
  2. It was then changed to Iohannes (that extra "s" added in Latin again (This is one of the final forms in Germany, the alternate simply missing "es", thus Johan Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms))
  3. In Italian the "h" becomes a "v" (there is no aspirate H in proper Italian, meaning that "Yohan" is technically unpronounceable) and the "es" becomes an "i".
  4. In France the "ha" and the "es" are dropped and, when the i becomes a j, it becomes "Jean" (ea is a better spelling of the aw sound in John).
  5. In English the "es" and the "a" are missing (but the H is still there!) because they were deemphasized over time to the point of obscurity.
  6. In Irish Gaelic (Irish John = Sean) it actually was the same process as found in France, only they took the extra step of "unvoicing" the first consonant (the French J is the voiced version of the English SH)
  7. In Scotch Gaelic (Scottish John = Ian), it kept much of the original English pronunciation (remember J and initial I's used to be pronounced Y), but as time went on, the sound of that initial I changed into the "ee" sound.
  8. "Juan" in Spanish kept the same sounds that English, both Gaelics, and French did, but then the "J" changed into the "w" sound.
  • 7
    This is right in the major premise (the names are different because of changes due to borrowing and natural language change over time) though most of the specific details are wrong (e.g. the Greeks didn't have a 'sh'; the Romans had 'Iesus' but dropped the s in certain grammatical circumstances; 'ea' in French 'Jean' is not meant to indicate the original vowel sound - that's just a coincidence (the 'o' changed into the 'e', and the h dropped); "J" is not a "w" sound in Spanish (it's an h or kh sound, depending on the dialect, it's just that 'hw' sounds like 'w' to English speakers), etc.
    – Muke Tever
    Feb 15, 2012 at 13:06
  • 1
    Irish also has Eoin and Eoghan (both names pronounced the same as the Welsh name Owen, which is spelled more intuitively for English speakers) as forms of John.
    – TRiG
    Feb 26, 2012 at 18:12
  • 1
    James=Jacob=Jaques=Santiago is another fun one to study variation of. Oct 10, 2016 at 4:41

Part of this, too, has to do with the language spoken by the first missionaries to visit a particular area. Different languages transliterate sounds form other languages in different ways, even within the same area. So to render the name "John", an Italian would use Giovanni, a Spaniard would use Juan, a Portugese would use John, a Dutchman would use Jan, a Saxon might have used Johann, and a Dane might use Hans. For a more complete list of alternatives to the name rendered in English as "James".

That fact that the Tamil name for John is Yovan suggests more to me that the Tamil language picked up the name of John from missionaries of Italian origin, than anything else. The "y" in place of the "j" in both the Tamil name for John, and the Tamil name for Jesus suggests to the that the Tamil language may not, at least at the time those spellings were standardized on, had a sound for "J", and that the "Y" was used instead.

  • 1
    Correction, in Portuguese it's João, pronounced /ʒʊɐ̃w̃/. Although the Medieval patronymic form is Eanes, which probably derives from an alternate form I haven't seen anywhere else.
    – Wtrmute
    Feb 3, 2017 at 15:22

Names should be transliterated where possible, not translated. The Hebrew alphabet could not be transliterated into the Greek alphabet, so the Koine Greek texts used a phonetic spelling to mimic the Hebrew sound of Yeshua (ya shua). The Iesous spelling was most likely pronounced "ya shu" without the last "ah" of Yeshua.

The Latin Vulgate translated the sound "ya su" into the Latin alphabet with Iesu or Iesus (case definitive) as the "I" before the "e" rendered the "ya" sound.

The translation into the English from the Latin used the "Ie" but added a hook onto the "I" to signal the "y" sound with the long "a" sound for "ya su".

After some time, the French influence on the English "J" slurred it into a soft "g" sound and eventually "ya sous" began to be said as "ge sus"... and now we are stuck with Jesus in the English.

It was a progression of phonetic spellings in different alphabets trying to keep the Yeshua from the original Hebrew pronunciation. Tracing back through the progression we can be fairly certain because of the sound of the Koine Greek "ya sou" that the Hebrew pronunciation of the first syllable was originally a long "a" sound in Yeshua.


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