Lord Have Mercy

On Language

By Philologos

Published August 07, 2008, issue of August 15, 2008.
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Reader Alan Margolis wants to know whether the English name John comes from the biblical name Yohanan — which, he writes, “sounds like Hebrew for ‘God has had mercy.’”

Margolis is right on both counts. John does ultimately come from Yohanan, and Yohanan indeed means “God has had mercy” or “God has forgiven.” It’s a contraction of yeho h.anan, Yeho being itself a contraction of God’s sacred name of Yahweh (as Bible critics conjecture the Tetragrammaton or Hebrew consonants YHWH were pronounced). In the Bible we find both forms, Yohanan and Yehohanan (in both the accent is on the last syllable), just as we find Yoshafat and Yehoshafat (“God has judged”), Yonatan and Yehonatan (“God has given”) and so on.

But Margolis’s question set me thinking. Why is it, I wondered, that Hebrew Yohanan resulted in such different-sounding names in different languages: John in English, Iannis in modern Greek, Giovanni in Italian, Ivan in Russian, Hans in German and Dutch, Sean in Gaelic, etc.? And secondly, why has it traditionally been such a popular name in all these languages? I don’t know if any such study exists, but I would guess that if a statistical survey of European men’s first names throughout the centuries were undertaken, the many descendants of Yohanan would head the list.

This has nothing to do with the Hebrew Bible, in which there are no prominent Yohanans. There are, on the other hand, three important Johns in the New Testament: John the Baptist (Yohanan ha-matbil in Hebrew), John the disciple of Jesus (whose Hebrew name, the Gospels tell us, was Yohanan ben Zvidi or Tsvidi) and John the author of the Book of Revelation. Of course, there were 11 other disciples, too, and the names of several, such as Peter, Andrew, Philip, James, and Thomas, also became common in Christian Europe. But John’s place among Jesus’ disciples was a special one. Not only is he mentioned in several passages in the Gospels, along with Peter and James, as one of the three disciples to whom Jesus felt closest, but he himself, in the Gospel attributed to him, also tells us that he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and clearly considered himself to have been Jesus’ favorite. In all likelihood, this is the original reason that his name, too, became such a favorite in Christian countries.

And why are there so many diverse forms of this name? Let’s try to trace how they developed. To begin with, in Greek, the language of the New Testament, Hebrew Yohanan became Ioannes (yo-hah-NES or yo-ah-NES). Greek lacked the throaty “h”-sound of the Hebrew consonant H.et in Yohanan’s second syllable and either changed it to an ordinary “h” or elided it completely. It also changed the final “n” of the Hebrew name to “s” to make it conform to the Greek nominative case.

Next, we proceed to Latin. In the Latin Bible, the name is spelled Joannes. Yet the final “-es,” which was taken to be a Latin case marker, eventually disappeared like all Latin case markers, while the initial “j,” originally a “y” sound, became like the “j” of “juice” or the “g” of “gem” in late Latin and in most of the Romance languages that sprang from it; hence, for example, French Jean and its derivative, English John. And in Gaelic, which did not have a “j” sound, the latter changed to a “sh” sound, giving us the Irish name Sean.

In Italian, there was yet another development. Classical Latin had a “w” sound, represented by the letter “v,” but no “v” sound, and, as sometimes happens between two vowels (think of how we English speakers tend to pronounce a word like “coagulate” as “cowagulate’), this “w,” in parts of the Roman Empire, slipped in between the “o” and “a” of Joannes to eliminate the need for a glottal stop, thus making the name sound like “Yowannes.” (We still hear this “w” in Spanish Juan, which was pronounced “jwan” until the Spanish “j” became a soft “kh” sound in the late Middle Ages.) Then, as this “w” sound changed to a “v” sound in late Latin, “Yowannes” became Giovanni in Italian.

As for the Germanic languages, they did not (except for English) have a “w” sound. They did, however, have an “h” sound, which served as a similar bridge between the “o” and “a” of Joannes and turned it back into Johannes (Yo-HAH-nes); in Holland and Scandinavia, this, in turn, was shortened first to Johann and then to Jan. In colloquial Dutch and German, on the other hand, it was the first syllable that fell away, producing Hans, while Russian, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian Ivan (as well as Welsh Ifan, which gives us English Evan) was formed by a process like that which led to Giovanni in Italian.

That’s probably more than you or Alan Margolis ever wanted to know about the name John, which has so declined in popularity in contemporary America that it placed only 20th in the Social Security Administration’s list of popular baby names in the United States in 2006, well behind such leaders (all biblical, too, interestingly) as Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Ethan, Matthew and Daniel. But 100 years ago it was still first — and since these things tend to be cyclical, don’t be surprised if it makes a comeback during Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Ethan, Matthew and Daniel’s lifetimes.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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