The Sixth Letter, Waw or Vav?

Modern Hebrew uses a “vav” (v) for the sixth letter of its alphabet but anciently this wasn’t the case. Originally it had a “w” (double “u”) sound. This is a big deal when determining the proper pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. The only “v” sound in classical or biblical Hebrew is made from the second letter, the “bet” (for you Hebrew students this is the Hebrew letter “bet” without the dot called the dagesh lene, which indicates the harder pronunciation “b”).

It is known from antiquity the Tetragrammaton letters yod, heh, and waw are vowels. Vowels are spoken with the open mouth. The “v” is a consonant, not a vowel, and is spoken with the upper teeth and lower lip together. The historian Josephus (37 CE) said of the high priest, “A mitre also of fine linen encompassed his head, which was tied by a blue ribbon, about which there was another golden crown, in which was engraven the sacred name [of the Almighty]: it consists of four vowels.” (War of the Jews, Book 5. 5. 7.)

Consisting of four vowels, the name Yahweh is pronounced with the open mouth, i.e.,  ee – ah- oo – eh. You cannot have or inject a consonant v as in Yahveh or Yehovah i.e.,  ee – ah – vv – eh. The two-syllable name Yahweh can be breathed when you deeply inhale and exhale.

The Masoretic vowel pointing backs up Josephus’ claims about the yod, heh and waw. In biblical Hebrew there are six unchangeable vowels (see chart above).

In his biblical Hebrew lecture series, Dr. Bill Barrick makes this interesting observation: “Sometimes actually in the transcription of ancient Hebrew such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a ‘waw’ is sometimes given as a vowel letter for the qibbuts, which really represents a shureq and that also indicates the sounds of them were very, very close, even in ancient times.” (Biblical Hebrew Grammar I, Lesson 12). youtu.be/qb6DzN875y4?t=386 The qibbuts is a short vowel and has a “u” sound like in the word “ruler,” which equates to the “w” or double u. (See Basics of Biblical Hebrew Chapter 2.4)

J.D. Wijnkoop, literary candidate at the University of Leyden and rabbi of the Jewish Congregation in Amsterdam, states in his book, Manual of Hebrew Grammar, “Waw is a softly, scarcely audible pronounced w, which is produced by a quick opening of the lips,” (Forgotten Books, Classic Reprint Series, 2015, p. 3, original publication 1898).

Dr. Steven E. Fassberg, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a professor in the Hebrew language department and who headed the University’s Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and has contributed to numerous  works such as The Encyclopedia Judaica, stated: “There is no doubt that the original sound was w and not v. Sometime during the history of the Hebrew language there was a shift from w > v in pronunciation, probably already during the Mishnaic Period [70 CE-200 CE]” (email correspondence).

We posed the  V vs. W question to the Hebrew language Department at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. The Department Chair, Professor Adina Moshavi, responded in great detail: “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 mawwet vs. construct mot “death.”  Such correspondences are only understandable if the phonetic value of the waw was a semivowel.”

The Aramaic language became the common language throughout the Middle East, eventually displacing Assyrian cuneiform as the predominant writing system. Aramaic is still spoken today in parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. “An Aramaic institute was established in 2007 by Damascus University that teaches courses to keep the language alive. The institute’s activities were suspended in 2010 amidst fears that the square Aramaic alphabet used in the program too closely resembled the square script of the Hebrew alphabet and all the signs with the square Aramaic script were taken down.” Wikipedia “The Persians adopted Aramaic. The Babylonians adopted it and so did the Jews. It then prevailed as the language of the Middle East until 700 AD.” (Easter Sunday: A Syrian bid to resurrect Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ)

Another interesting fact is found in the Aramaic alphabet. The Hebrew square script used today derived its letters from Aramaic around the time of the Babylonian exile. Being the language the Messiah spoke as well as the biblical patriarch Jacob, it uses a “w” for the sixth letter. We read in Deuteronomy 26:5, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.”

Ugaritic and later Semitic languages like Arabic, Maltese, and Ge’ez, all use a double “u” comparatively for the letter. This fact dynamites any possibility that the sixth letter had the sound of a “v” anciently as these languages all derive from older Semitic languages through Aramaic and as far  back as Phoenician, i.e. ancient Hebrew.

Another substantiation is the linguistic study of the Yemenite Jews of Arabia. These Jews were never displaced from the region. Edward Horowitz writes: “The sound of waw a long time ago wasn’t ‘vav’ at all but ‘w’ and ‘w’ is weak. The Yemenite Jews of Arabia who retain an ancient, correct, and pure pronunciation of Hebrew still pronounce the waw as ‘w,’ as does Arabic, the close sister language of Hebrew,” How the Hebrew Language Grew, pp. 29-30.

From this and other incontrovertible evidence, we see that any name for Yahweh like Yehovah, Yahvah, Yahveh, etc., has no basis in historical and linguistic fact.

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Posted in Hebrew Roots and Pure Worship, Common Misnomers, Hebrew Roots, Sacred Name.
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Tides and Tidings
4 months ago

Wonderful. Loved reading this

Manuscripts 📜
Manuscripts 📜
1 month ago

Awesome!

Scott Leber
30 days ago

If the 6th letter W is pronounced waw, and it is, why is the Hebrew name spelled YaHWeH in this article? It shouldn’t, but correctly, YaHWaH, the TRUE name above all names, Isaiah 42:8…