Does Gav Prove the Vav?

So called Hebrew scholar Nehemiah Gordon claims that the Hebrew word “gav” holds the key that unlocks the true pronunciation of the sixth letter waw, which almost all Hebrew linguists (including those at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem) believe anciently had a “w” sound. If he can prove that the sixth letter, also known as the vav was pronounced anciently as a “v,” then his claim that Yehovah, (Jehovah) holds more weight over the traditional scholarly consensus of the pronunciation Yahweh. His claim is that these two Hebrew words, one spelled with the soft bet “gav,” and the other spelled with waw “gaw,” clearly prove that this sixth letter had the original sound of “v.” He believes these two words are interchangeable, so according to him this is a major discovery that should rock the scholarly word to its core. Gordon has a history of speaking in hyperbole but in this case does he have validity?

According to Gordon: “The word for back in Hebrew is gav and gav can be written with a soft bet or with a vav, and the only way that can happen is if the soft bet and the vav have the same pronunciation.” So Gordon believes that this is proof of two variant spellings of the same word, back, and not two variant spellings of two different words.

The word Gav גַּב 1354  spelled with the soft bet (without the dagesh) occurs 13 times in the Hebrew Bible and only translates to mean “back” one time, in Ezekiel 10:12.  The 12 other various translations of gav are mound, rim of a wheel, embossed shield, arch of eye, dome roof, and various meanings of something “rounded.” It would make sense that this word could be used used for back as well, since the human back can curve and be round.

The other Hebrew word Gaw גַּו 1458 spelled with the “waw” or commonly called “vav” in modern Hebrew, occurs three times, 1 Kings 14:9, Nehemiah 9:26, and Ezekiel 23:35. In every occurrence of this word it means just “back.” It seems pretty clear from the translations that gav and gaw are two distinct words with two distinct meanings, as well as two distinct roots.

We reached out to the Hebrew University language department regarding Gordon’s claims regarding the Gav-Gaw connection since he claims this is such an amazing and earth shaking discovery. Professor Adina Moshavi commented:

“I completely agree that the גב/גו alternation is not an adequate proof to the contrary. I have not looked into this issue, but I see that the lexicons derive the two words from different roots, implying that the phonetic identity of the two words in Tiberian Hebrew is not significant,” Adina Moshavi, PhD, Hebrew Language Department, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

We also reached out to Steven Fassberg, PhD, professor at the Hebrew University and one of the world’s foremost experts in the Hebrew language and the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel. Regarding the gav-gaw question he replied: “gb (gav) is from the root gbb and gw (gaw) is from the root gww. Both are well attested roots in Semitic.” He continues…“There is no doubt whatsoever that vav was pronounced w in the Hebrew of the First Temple period and in Semitic languages.”

We also asked Professor Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal of the Hebrew University the same question and here was his response:

“Thank you for your question. There is no doubt that the original pronunciation was w There is some evidence that in some early Hebrew dialects there was a sound shift of w>v. There are two different prepositions go – inside and gab > on top.” Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal, PhD, Department of Hebrew Language, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

So if both of these words are from different roots according to the lexicon and to some of the best Hebrew experts in the world, then how can Gordon claim that they are a variation of the same word? Is Gordon ignorant of these Hebrew word roots? Is he willingly misleading people? To make these outlandish claims one can only assume one or the other.

We could also use such flawed reasoning, let me give you an example. Lets look at the Hebrew words שָׂחַק sachaq “to laugh” 7832 and צְחַק 6711 tzchaq “to Laugh.” Both have different roots but similar sounds. So with the same logic used by Gordon, does this mean that the letters Sin (s) and the Tzade (ts) have the same pronunciation just because the sounds of these letters are similar? Is this some cutting-edge find that should implode Biblical Hebrew as we know it? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Now that we have clearly debunked his ridiculous Gav-Gaw argument, Gordon had made the challenge to prove the waw sound has a “w” sound. He said: “Can you please show me your manuscripts with the “w” pronunciation?” This is not hard to do. If you understand how the language works and how contractions work, we can easily prove the waw sound as a “w” literally hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible through contraction. When a word contracts, as happens with many words, it gets easier to say as fewer letters and sounds are typically used.

Let’s look at the Hebrew word, Avihu אָבִ֖יהוּ which means “his father” in Judges 14:10. It contracts to Aviw אָבִ֣יו “his father,” as found in in Judges 14:3. Notice in the contracted form the heh (h sound) has been dropped and the Shureq vowel letter וּ (which has the sound of “u” as in ruler) contracts to a consonantal waw ו and loses the niqqud dot. Now pronounce Avihu in it’s contracted form without the “h” Aviu. The softer sound of w is now vocalized. You could phonetically spell it Aviw with the double u. This occurs 220 times from Genesis to Chronicles and clearly proves the sound of the “waw” anciently is tied to the “w” or “double u” sound of the וּ Shureq. The use of the letter waw in connection with the “o” vowel sound as in Shalom שָׁלוֹם is no accident. When pronounced fast you can hear that “w” sound in the word—try it, say Shalom several times rapidly (shalom, shalom, shalom, shalom)…hear that “w” sound? The lips are in the same position when making an “O” (וֹ‎)   “U” (וּ)‎  or “W” (ו‎) sound but not with the “v” fricative sound which needs the upper teeth and lower lip engaged. The v in Hebrew is not tied to the waw letter ו‎ at all in biblical Hebrew but to the letter bet in Hebrew. The Bet has the sound of B with the dagesh dot בּ and V sound ב without the dagesh. The sounds B and V are very similar.

We can also see this with the word for brother, Akihu אָחִ֖יהוּ found in Jeremiah 34:9, contracted down to Akhiyw אָחִ֨יו where the heh is removed contracting the “hu” sound to the simple double U “w” sound in Jeremiah 34:14. This contraction also is seen hundreds of times in the Masoretic text. Now try saying Akihu several times really fast and you will hear the W sound in Akhiyw.

In our correspondence Professor Moshavi goes into greater detail regarding the connection to the “U” sound and why the waw could only be a semivowel, not a consonant like the v. “I believe there are many ways to demonstrate that the waw was not originally pronounced as a bilabial ‘v’ as it is in Tiberian Hebrew. The fact that the waw is frequently used as a mater lectionis for a long u sound would be impossible to explain if it was pronounced v, like the bet rafeh, rather as the semivowel w. Furthermore, there are many Hebrew words where a historical dipthong aw, as evidenced from Semitic cognates, has been reduced to a long vowel, e.g., in hiphil perfect of w-initial verbs hawrid > horid ‘he brought down,’ or in the word yawm > yom ‘day.’ and alternations between a dipthong and a long vowel, e.g.,absolute , awwet vs. construct mot ‘death.’  Such correspondences are only understandable if the phonetic value of the waw was a semivowel,” Adina Moshavi, PhD.

With so much evidence at our fingertips it is hard to comprehend how so many can believe Gordon’s false claims regarding the Waw vs. Vav debate. The information discussed is just another proof that the name Yahweh is not just ancient, but it also fits the rules of Hebrew grammar and cutting-edge linguistics.

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Posted in Sacred Name, Q&A - Misnomers.
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