Many individuals in the Messianic and Hebrew Roots sects of Judeo-Christianity are interested in the original pronunciation of the Hebrew letter Vav because they want to accurately pronounce God’s sacred name (commonly written as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh”), which contains this particular Hebrew letter. While it is true that the modern Hebrew pronunciation of the letter Vav sounds like the English letter “v” (a labio-dental), the consensus among Hebrew linguists is that this consonant was initially pronounced like the English “w” (a labio-velar).
This blog post shows 5 pieces of evidence that, when taken together, conclusively demonstrate that the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter Vav was /w/, not /v/.
The Argument That the Hebrew Letter Vav was Pronounced “V”
I was recently made aware of a Hebrew Roots teacher named Nehemia Gordon, who claims that the book of Ezekiel contains linguistic evidence that the letter Vav was pronounced /v/ during the biblical period. Below is a YouTube video where he makes this case:
Gordon begins his argument by showing that the Hebrew letter Vav was pronounced as /v/ by the medieval period, a point which I do not dispute. However, the idea that the /v/ pronunciation dates to biblical times is untenable when subjected to historical linguistics analysis.
Evidence That the Hebrew Letter Vav was Pronounced /W/
1. The Two Hebrew Words for ‘Back’ in Ezekiel Are Not Related
Gordon’s exclusive evidence for an ancient /v/ pronunciation is that there appears to be a word meaning “back” that is spelled both with the Vav (גו) and the spirantized Bet (גב), which is pronounced /v/. Both of these words, if we accept /v/ pronunciation of Vav, would be pronounced as “gav.”
Gav with a Vav
The Hebrew word “gav” or “gaw” (spelled Gimmel + Vav [גו]) refers to the back side of a person. It occurs 3 times in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 14:9, Nehemiah 9:26, Ezekiel 23:35), and in each occurrence, it refers to God or God’s laws being figuratively cast behind the back.
There is a related word that is spelled the same but with an “e” vowel instead of an “a” vowel, so “gev” or “gew.” This word almost exclusively refers to a person’s back and is even used in the same idiom of casting behind the back in Isaiah 38:17.
Gav with a Bet
The Hebrew word “gav” (spelled Gimmel + Bet) refers to things that are curved/convex. So it can refer to the eyebrow (Leviticus 14:9), the rim of a wheel (1 Kings 7:33), or a person’s back (which often curves; Psalm 129:3). You can see that the semantic overlap is slight; one word (Gaw) refers to the human back proper, while the other word (Gav) refers generally to things that are curved, which happens to include the human back on rare occasions. It is therefore entirely plausible that these words are unrelated.
Why Gaw and Gav are Not the Same Word
Not only is there a semantic distinction between these two words, making it likely that they are not interchangeable or even related at all, but there is also a phonetic distinction. Both words frequently take a pronominal suffix. For comparison, let’s look at how each word looks with a second-person possessive singular suffix (meaning “your”). In 1 Kings 14:9, we see that “your gav” (with a Vav) is pronounced, “gavekh.” However, in Ezekiel 16:31, “your gav” (with a Bet) is pronounced, “gabekh.”
How can we account for this difference? If we assume with Gordon that גו and גב are variant spellings of the same word, we would expect the pronunciation to stay consistent when the suffix is added. However, if גו and גב are two different words (one “gaw,” the other “gav”) then it is no surprise that the word with the letter Bet would preserve the non-spirantized “b” when a suffix is added.
2. The Use of Vav as a ‘Vowel Letter’
The Hebrew alphabet originally consisted exclusively of consonants, with no vowels (this kind of writing system is sometimes referred to as an abjad). However, around the time of the Babylonian exile (c. 586 BCE) Hebrew began to use two consonants to represent vowels, the letters Yod and Vav.
The letter Yod, which is pronounced like the English letter “y” came to represent i-class and e-class vowels. For example, the Hebrew vowel hireq (pronounced like the “ee” in “seen”) is frequently indicated by the letter Yod. The choice to use the letter representing the /y/ consonant to designate i/e-class vowels was not random. The consonant /y/ is sometimes referred to as a semi-vowel and is similar to i/e-class vowels in terms of how it is pronounced. To demonstrate the relationship between /y/ and i/e-class vowels, begin by pronouncing /y/ like you would say the letter “y” in English. Then pronounce the vowel “ee” as in the word “seen.” Notice how the shape of your mouth is almost identical when making these two sounds, and notice how similar the sounds are.
Now consider how the Hebrew letter “Vav” came to represent u-class and o-class vowels. The /v/ sound is not a semi-vowel and is not particularly similar to u/o-class vowels in terms of facial shape or sound. However, a consonant representing the /w/ sound would be a natural choice to represent u/o-class vowels for the same reason that Yod came to represent i/e-class vowels. Again, you can demonstrate this to yourself by pronouncing the /w/ sound like an English “w”, and then pronouncing the vowel “oo” as in the word “moon.” Once again, the sound and shape of your mouth are very similar.
In summary, the use of a letter representing a /v/ consonant to represent u/o-class vowels would have been completely arbitrary and makes no sense linguistically. The use of a letter representing the /w/ sound, on the other hand, is exactly what one would expect, and therefore the fact that the Hebrew letter Vav came to represent u/o-class vowels c. 586 BCE practically rules out the theory that Vav was pronounced /v/ rather than /w/ at that time.
3. The Word ‘Death’
In this section and the next, I give examples of Hebrew words where we see an interchange between consonantal Vav and u/o-vowels, reaffirming the point that Vav was originally pronounced similarly to the u/o-class vowel families. Linguistically, this could only happen if the Vav was a semi-vowel, like /w/.
The Hebrew word for “death” in biblical Hebrew is mavet (מות), or mawet if we recognize the second consonant as /w/. Every Hebrew noun can function as either an absolute or construct, and often the pronunciation of the noun is shortened when the noun is in the construct state via vowel reduction. (It is not necessary for you to know the grammatical difference between absolute and construct states. All you need to know is that a noun in the construct state can have a shorter pronunciation than in the absolute). When the Hebrew word mavet (absolute) is in construct, it shortens to mot. Now, if mavet was originally pronounced with a /v/, this would mean that this word loses an entire consonant when in the construct form—something that simply doesn’t happen with Hebrew nouns. However, if the original pronunciation was with a /w/, it is easy to see how mawet (or mawt prior to segoletization) shortened to mot in light of the relationship between /w/ and u/o-class vowels discussed in section 2 above.
4. The Phrase ‘His Mouth’
Another development that demonstrates the initial /w/ pronunciation pertains to the 3rd person masculine singular (3ms) suffix attached to certain nouns (usually represented by the Hebrew letter Vav). For example, the noun meaning “mouth” with the 3ms suffix (“his mouth”) was originally pronounced “pee-hoo” (פִּיהוּ), as seen in Exodus 4:15. However, the 3ms suffix sometimes drops the letter Hey (pronounced like the English letter “h”) shortening the phrase to be pronounced “pew” (פִּיו), as seen in 1 Samuel 14:26. If the letter Vav was pronounced /v/, then the development would be from “pee-hoo” to “peev“, requiring the inexplicable addition of the /v/ consonant. However, if the letter Vav was pronounced /w/, we can account for the development because /w/ is a semi-vowel and practically identical to the “oo” sound at the end of “pee-hoo” (again, see discussion in section 2 above).
5. Relics of the /W/ Pronunciation in Masoretic Hebrew
One final piece of evidence for the /w/ pronunciation of Vav is the fact that, even after the /v/ pronunciation became the standard in the medieval Masoretic reading tradition, there are occasions where the Masoretes preserved the original /w/ pronunciation in the recitation of the Hebrew scriptures.
Quite a bit is known about the Tiberian Masoretic pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible from medieval sources, including early Hebrew manuscripts, grammatical texts, and transcriptions/transliterations of the Hebrew texts into Arabic. We know from these sources that /v/ had become the standard pronunciation of the letter Vav, with a few exceptions.
According to the British linguist Geoffrey Khan, the /w/ pronunciation was basically restricted to contexts where the Vav is preceded or followed by a u-class vowel. The Masoretic texts of the Hebrew Bible even indicate in these instances that the consonantal Vav is to be read /w/ by placing a dot in the letter (resembling a shureq). If you read Hebrew, just look at Genesis 46:13, where the proper name “Phuvah” (KJV) is actually to be pronounced “Phuwah”, as indicated by the dot in the Vav (וּפֻוָּה). In some manuscripts, Exodus 35:26 is written טָוּוּ, preserving the /w/ pronunciation for the verb “they span” (tawu), although you won’t see it written this way in BHS.
Lest one thinks that these occurrences of the /w/ pronunciation in the Masoretic tradition might have been influenced by Arabic, I should point out that it is highly improbable that the Arabic pronunciation of the letter Waw would have affected the pronunciation of the biblical Hebrew texts in these few exceptional cases. It is clear that the /w/ pronunciation is being preserved in these cases because the Vav is immediately preceded or followed by the u vowel, which is phonetically similar to the /w/ consonant. So there is no doubt that we have here a fossil of the historical /w/ pronunciation.
A lot is known about the historical pronunciations of Hebrew in various periods thanks to inscriptions and comparative linguistics, and I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to study this data at some length during my undergraduate studies. It is safe to conclude, after reviewing the relevant data, that the biblical Hebrew letter Vav was definitely pronounced “Waw.” The four-letter name of God was not pronounced “Jehovah” or “Yahveh” or some such variation with a /v/ consonant—there is no doubt that it contained a consonantal /w/ (hence reconstructions such as “Yahweh”).
Khan, Geoffrey. A Short Introduction to the Tiberian Masoretic Bible and Its Reading Tradition [Second Edition]. Gorgias Press, 2013.
Sáenz-Badillos, Angel. A History of the Hebrew Language, translated by John Elwolde. Cambridge University Press, 1988/1993.