Moses is one of those names that everyone knows, even though only few people have it. According to the Meertens Instituut’s highly addictive Corpus of First Names in the Netherlands, fewer than 450 people in the Netherlands had its Dutch spelling, Mozes, as their first or middle name in 2014 (out of a total population of 16.9 million); contrast this with more than 3,000 Aarons, more than 18,000 Mirjams, over 27,000 Benjamins, and a whopping 1.9 million Marias. Looking at this name in other European languages, we see something funny. German Mose, Italian Mosè, or Hungarian Mózes don’t look so different, but French Moïse, Spanish and Portuguese Moisés, and Russian Moisey all have oi in the first syllable, where other languages just have o. What’s going on here?
Although the name comes from Hebrew, Moses entered most European languages through Greek. Around the third century BCE, Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, made the oldest preserved Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint. As the Septuagint became the Old Testament version of choice in early European Christianity, it gained widespread popularity, and many Biblical names in European languages were taken from Septuagint Greek rather than directly from the original Hebrew. In the case of Moses, the Septuagint attests two ways of ‘Greekifying’ Hebrew Mōšē (Hebrew names in this post are given in my reconstruction of their pronunciation at the time): both Mōsēs, with the normal Greek -s ending for the masculine nominative singular and with the Hebrew sound š, which did not occur in Greek, replaced by a sigma; and Mōusēs, with an unexpected extra upsilon. Modern names like English Moses come from Greek Mōsēs, while Greek Mōusēs was transcribed into Latin as Moyses, eventually giving us the modern names like French Moïse.
Recently, I was wondering how that upsilon found its way into Mōusēs. Normally, the Hebrew names in the Septuagint just transcribe Hebrew ō with ōmega, as in Hebrew Yaˁqōb, Greek Iakōb (English Jacob); we don’t normally find Hebrew ō transcribed as Greek ōu. Another unexpected upsilon appearing in Hebrew Šemˁōn, Greek Sumeōn (English Simon), gave me an idea. Like Mōšē, Šemˁōn has a š sound appearing right next to where we find the u in Greek. As mentioned above, while Hebrew had both a ‘hissing’ s sound and a ‘hushing’ š sound, like English, Greek only had s. Now, in many languages, this hushing š is accompanied by some lip rounding – again, as in English. Could the added rounded vowel u in Mōusēs be meant to represent this lip rounding?
In order to test my hypothesis, I consulted Erhard Lisowski’s Die Transliteration der hebräischen Eigennamen des Pentateuch in der Septuaginta. This 1940 dissertation discusses how the Hebrew names occurring in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, are rendered in the Greek of the Septuagint. Now, of the 131 Hebrew names containing š occurring in the Pentateuch, only about 15 have an unexpected upsilon in the Greek, depending on how you count. So adding an upsilon to show that Greek sigma represented Hebrew š does not seem to have been a regular rule. Perhaps Moses was so important that his name was transcribed extra carefully, but Yēšūˁ (a byform of the original Hebrew Yahōšūˁ that gives us English Joshua) is transcribed into Greek as Iēsous, without upsilon next to the sigma. It would be hard to argue that Joshua, Moses’s successor, was that much less important that the translators would try to capture all the phonetic details of the one name but not of the other. (Incidentally, another person called Yēšūˁ would later go on to give the name even more cultural significance in the Christian world; in this case, English did adopt the Greek version of the name, giving us Jesus.) Thus, the š-rounding hypothesis doesn’t stand up.
Luckily, Lisowski himself also discusses the anomalous u in Mōusēs (p. 140). He considers the possibility of a play on words, citing Flavius Josephus’s explanation of the name: “for the Egyptians call water mō, and those that are saved from the water usēs”. This seems to be an updated version of the etymology given in Exodus 2:10, and without independent confirmation of an Egyptian word usēs, it remains doubtful. But there’s another option. In some parts of Egypt, the sound ō seems to have changed into ōu. Lisowski cites Eusebius, who says of the deity Taautos that “the Egyptians called him Thōuth, the Alexandrians Thōth”, and there are more examples. It would appear, then, that the ōu spelling was based on phonetics: Mōusēs is the same name as Mōsēs, only with a particular Egyptian accent. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Egypt, but you can’t take dialectal Egyptian influence out of one version of the boy’s Hebrew name as transcribed into Greek and eventually borrowed into Latin, various Romance languages, and Russian, centuries later.