Interesting Hebrew class today. So far we’ve gone through the alphabet (which is just consonants), the vowels and syllabification and today she explained why the word translated “Jehovah” in the King James Version and as exists in numerous Christian hymns is not actually a Hebrew word and is not, technically, found in the Hebrew Bible. I had heard this before, but I never knew why such a mix up ever occurred.
Originally written Hebrew did not have vowels. It was just a series of consonants and the vowels would be filled in naturally by hearers, much like you cld rd th rst f ths sntnc wtht th vwls (“could read the rest of this sentence without the vowels”). Around 700 A.D. the Masoretes, in an effort to preserve the Hebrew language both written and spoken, invented an elaborate system of indicating the vowels sounds in the Hebrew language. This system consists of combinations of dots and dashes usually below, but sometimes above and inside the consonants. Because the text was (and is) considered holy, they did this without changing the text as written originally (hence the dots and dashes around the text).
God’s name in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is YHWH. The name of God is very holy, so out of respect for God’s name, the Israelites instead said (and still say) “Adonai”–which means “Lord”–when they came across the word YHWH in the written text. In fact, modern English translations continue to show this sort of respect for The Name: it is translated THE LORD, in all caps, in English texts.
By way of reminder to say “Adonia” instead of “YHWH”, the Masoretes added around “YHWH” the vowel dashes and dots that belong to the Hebrew for “Adonai”. Early translators were not aware of this, so they read YHWH by taking into account the vowels that did not, in fact, belong with The Name. When reading YHWH with those vowel indicators, you get “Yehovah” (I guess the “J” sound for the “Y” comes from the German reading), which is incorrect, a word which does not exist in Hebrew.
So, wherever modern English translations say “THE LORD”, the King James Version (or Authorized Version) will read “Jehovah”. And since the KJV was a text extremely influential to modern English, we have many hymns which refer to “Jehovah”, rather than THE LORD or Adonai or some such variation.
Now you know. Fascinating stuff, eh?