Galilee and Galileo


I don’t usually watch or listen to the First Night of the Proms, but as yesterday evening’s concert was Elgar’s “The Kingdom”, an oratorio I have never heard, I decided to make an exception. Part way through, when the disciples are touched by the Holy Spirit and start speaking languages of which they had no previous knowledge, they are referred to as “Galileans”. Why not? they come from Galilee. The only pronunciation given for this adjective in the standard pronunciation dictionaries, is /gælɪˈliːən/, as one might expect. However, the word was sung twice by the choirs (the BBC Singers and the BBC National Choir of Wales – so they were taught by two separate chorus masters) as /gælɪˈleɪən/. To me this is the adjective one might form from the name of the Italian astronomer Galileo.

Some years ago, when I was still supposedly influential as the BBC’s Pronunciation Adviser, Radio Drama produced Ibsen’s “Emperor and Galilean”, for which my office provided (at their request) assistance with the pronunciation of proper names and other problematic words. The reason they gave for ignoring our recommendation for “Galilean”, and using the same anti-etymological version as the one I heard last night, was that “it sounded better”!

Clearly, the pronunciation dictionaries are out of date, and we must now accept that the “Galilean heresy”, pronounced identically, can refer both to Christianity seen from the point of view of 1st century Judaism, and the heliocentric ideas promulgated by Galileo and Copernicus, as criticized by the Roman Catholic Church.


  1. I concur with your conclusion that we have to accept that /galɪ`leɪən/ has become one of two recognised pronunciations corresponding to the spelling ‘Galilean’ whether referring to the Italian astronomer or the Middle-Eastern geographical region. The phenomenon involved is a consequence of the English speaker’s increasing awareness of the better known Continental languages beginning towards the middle of the last century before which an ‘educated’ person would’ve been more likely to’ve been influenced by an acquaintance with Latin or Ancient Greek than from Italian or Spanish etc. We see this in the way Los Angeles was at one time exclusively was, and still usually is in the UK, pronounced /lɒs `anʤəˌliːz/. The later tendency is seen in the way Chilean is tending to be pronounced, at least in the USA, as /ʧɪ`liːən/ or even /ʧɪ`leɪən/. Compare the two forms of ‘trauma’.

  2. Sounding better is not as important as the producers seem to think it is. It is more important to have it pronounced correctly. It is like the in the US where the word Celtic is pronounced with an /s/ sound instead of a /k/ sound.

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