Bekkos, or Vekkos?

November 10, 2007

The question, “How do you spell the name ‘Bekkos’?” may sound like a superfluous and silly question to ask, since, if the person asking it asks it in writing, he attests that he already has a knowledge of how it is spelled. If only things were that simple. I confess that the question of how to spell Bekkos’s name is something I have spent long hours pondering over, and it would be well for me to clarify this issue and get it out of the way so that I could then move on to matters of perhaps greater theological importance.

There is, unfortunately, no single, commonly accepted way of spelling John Bekkos’s name in English. Reasons for this are complicated. John Bekkos, as readers of this blog by now probably know, did not write in English, but in Greek, and the Greek language uses a different alphabet than the Latin one on which English writing has been based since English began to be written. Moreover, the sounds of the Greek language shifted over time, as, apparently, the sounds of all languages do; this produced a certain lack of correspondence between the Latin and Greek alphabets and a confusion in representing Greek words in Latin dress: did one opt for historical continuity, representing, e.g., the Greek B (beta) by the Latin B, or did one attempt, instead, to represent the Greek word by the closest equivalent Latin sounds? Since probably the early middle ages, the Greek letter beta has taken on a sound that we now represent by the letter V (bear in mind that V earlier had a “W” sound — the letter W, and the differentiation between V and U, are later inventions).

For the name “Bekkos,” there are other complications. The Romans, in their alphabet, used two different letters to indicate the gutteral “K” sound: both C and K. (The letter C originally had a “G” sound, e.g., the name spelled “Caius” was originally pronounced “Gaius.” By the late third century B.C. a sound shift had occurred, C took on the sound of the Greek K (kappa), and, since the “G” sound had not actually disappeared, people felt the need for a new letter to represent it. Hence the letter G was invented, and Latin was left with two ways of representing the “K” sound, namely, the letters C and K. The letter K was employed almost exclusively in Latin words of Greek origin.)

Furthermore, the Greek name Βέκκος is a second declension Greek noun, and it was represented in Latin as a second declension Latin noun, with the nominative ending -us.

Add to this the fact that “Bekkos” is a relatively short name, with only five different letters. Of these, three of them, B, K, and O, have variants. It is only the letters E and S that are unambiguous, i.e., that show a simple, one-to-one correspondence between Greek and Latin.

β -> b, v
ε -> e
κ -> c, k
ο -> u, o
ς -> s

Thus, you begin to get a sense of why spelling Bekkos’s name becomes a headache.

(Note that, for the name “Palamas,” there is no such ambiguity: all five letters of his name have a simple, one-to-one correspondence between Greek and Latin:

π -> p
α -> a
λ -> l
μ -> m
ς -> s.)

(In Russian, there is no such confusion. Because the Cyrillic alphabet is based on the Greek one, there is a simple Russian spelling of the name which both looks right and sounds right, Иоанн Векк, pronounced “Vekk.” Веккос, pronounced “Vekkos,” is given as a variant.)

In medieval Latin texts and inscriptions, both the forms “Beccus” and “Veccus” occur. This variability is reflected later on in published Latin texts: e.g., in J.-P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, vol. 141, which reprints the Greek texts of most of Bekkos’s works together with the Latin translations of Leo Allatius, the form “Veccus” is used; in volume 142 of the same series, both “Beccus” and “Veccus” are found. Fr. Martin Jugie, in his Theologia Dogmatica Christianorum Orientalium, published in the early 1930’s, uses “Veccus”; Fr. Jacek Benedykt Huculak, in a Latin dissertation published in 1989 (Graeca indoles doctrinae Constantini Meliteniotae de processione Spiritus Sancti ex Patre Filioque), uses “Beccus.”

Originally, English writers adopted both of these forms directly from the Latin. Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. LXII, uses the form “Veccus” (he describes him, fairly, as “an ecclesiastic of learning and moderation”). Through much of the twentieth century, “Beccus” was the usual English form: it is what one finds, for instance, in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, and (I think), in the first edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1967; it is also the way the name was spelled by Fr. Joseph Gill, S.J. in his various studies (including the only substantial article ever written on Bekkos in the English language), and by Prof. Aristeides Papadakis in his book Crisis in Byzantium. And, in fact, when I began my own studies of Bekkos, that is how I generally spelled his name, “Beccus.”

Why then the new spelling?

Beginning perhaps in the late 1950’s or early 60’s, and acquiring greater force thereafter, there came about, in various academic disciplines, a movement to de-latinize the English spelling of Greek names. People are by now probably used to hearing “Odysseus” instead of “Ulysses”; they are probably less comfortable with “Akhilleus” instead of “Achilles,” or “Sokrates” instead of “Socrates,” and, although “Vasilios” is a perfectly good Modern Greek name, few people would say that that is how one ought to pronounce the name of St. Basil when speaking of him in English. That is probably because “Basil” is already a fairly common English name. Those Greeks whose names are not widely known in English are seen as fair game for linguistic revision.

Perhaps behind this linguistic revision there is a philosophical stance. Heidegger famously thought that medieval Latin philosophy had covered up the real meanings of Greek philosophical terms, turning concrete realities into abstractions, and that it was the task of modern philosophy to uncover the original meanings of words and their attendent experiences, that philosophy, in other words, at least at the present time, is a project of “desedimentation.” (In keeping with this project, there are translations of Aristotle entirely devoted to removing the traditional, latinate ontological language in which Aristotle’s thought has hitherto been rendered into English. See, e.g., the translations of Joe Sachs.) This philosophical background may have had something to do with the movement to make English look less like Latin when representing Greek names.

It is also possible, of course, that the pressures of identity politics have had some effect. A person demanding that the names “Maximus,” “Photius,” and “Ignatius” be represented as “Maximos,” “Photios,” “Ignatios” seems to be engaged in simply a different version of the project of him who would represent “Isaac” as “Yitzaak” when speaking of the biblical patriarch: he is asserting, through linguistic means, a form of ownership of the history.

(I should add that the name has been consistently spelled “Bekkos” in German since at least the late nineteenth century.)

For whatever reasons, the forms “Bekkos” and “Vekkos” have become more prominent in English, and indeed in other languages, since the 1960’s, to the point where it does seem that “Bekkos” is now the commonest English spelling. It is the spelling, for instance, used by Henry Chadwick in the passage I quoted a few days ago; and it is the spelling one finds in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, as well as in many other scholarly articles. For this reason, and because someone who read my translations expressed to me a worry that “Beccus” might be taken as too latinate, I began using the more common recent form around the middle of last year. Since there are no other translations of Bekkos available in English, my guess is that the spelling I employ in the book will have some impact upon how his name is spelled in the future. That is why I am puzzling over this.

One of the ironies is that, of all people, John Bekkos would no doubt be supremely unconcerned about how one spelled his name. His constant theological refrain is that it is the underlying reality that matters, not the words used to express it.

Incidentally, in an earlier draft of this posting, I mistakenly assumed that “Bekkos” is not a common Greek name. I was wrong. Through the wonders of internet search engines, I find that there is, at this time, a podiatrist named Vekkos who practices in Naperville, Illinois, and a botanist named Vekkos in Greece; there are also many Vekkoses in the Athens telephone directory. Still, the name is not based upon any evident Greek roots, which raises for me the question of its etymology.

There is a word “beccus,” found in late Latin, meaning “beak”; it is a borrowing from the French “bec.” Although it is possible that some ancestor of Bekkos’s could have been called “Mr. Beak” from the shape of his nose, it seems to me unlikely that that is the source of the Bekkos/Vekkos family name: for one thing, if there had been this French origin to the family, Bekkos’s detractors would certainly have made much of the fact; secondly, the French “B” would probably not have been represented by the Greek beta, which had already taken on the “V” sound.

Another etymology seems to me more likely. Tertullian, in his work Ad nationes, relates the story of a curious experiment, made by a man named Psammetichus.

“Psammetichus thought that he had hit upon the ingenious discovery of the primeval man. He is said to have removed certain new-born infants from all human intercourse, and to have entrusted them to a nurse, whom he had previously deprived of her tongue, in order that, being completely exiled from all sound of the human voice, they might form their speech without hearing it; and thus, deriving it from themselves alone, might indicate what that first nation was whose speech was dictated by nature. Their first utterance was BEKKOS, a word which means ‘bread’ in the language of Phrygia: the Phrygians, therefore, are supposed to be the first of the human race.” (Ad nationes 8.15.)

Compare the Albanian word for bread, “bukë,” apparently cognate with the English “bake.”

So far as anyone knows, Bekkos’s family had its roots in Asia Minor; they owned some property near Nicaea, and the way Bekkos speaks of himself, and others speak about him, suggests that, while not a family of the greatest wealth, they had lived in Constantinople for quite some time. Given these Anatolian connections, the Phrygian etymology seems to me to make the most sense. In other words, the Bekkos/Vekkos family is probably descended from someone in Asia Minor whom his neighbors referred to, in their own language, as “Mr. Baker.”

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One Response to “Bekkos, or Vekkos?”

  1. diane Says:

    Wow! This is a much bigger topic that I dreamed it was. Thanks so much, Dr. Gilbert.


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