Hebrew Voices #66 – The Historical Pronunciation of Vav

Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon - The Historical Pronunciation of VavIn Hebrew Voices, The Historical Pronunciation of Vav, Nehemia Gordon explains how we know the letter “vav” was historically pronounced as “v”, sets the record straight on the Arabic influence that introduced "w" into the Academic pronunciation of Hebrew, and brings the scribal proof that in the time of Ezekiel they pronounced God’s name as Yehovah.

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Hebrew Voices #66 - The Historical Pronunciation of Vav

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Nehemia: There’s no question whatsoever that 1,500 years ago in the land of Israel, the Jews pronounced that sound as a “v.”

Announcer: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot.

Announcer: You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia’s Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at nehemiaswall.com.

Michael: So much has come into question about the pronunciation of the Name. More than 6,828 times in the Bible, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei appears, and, Nehemia Gordon, we have a number of questions that have come up on this. Let’s handle some of the basics on that.

Nehemia: One of the questions is, they say, “Okay, in the vowels that you have in the Hebrew Bible, the name is “Yehovah”, but that Hebrew letter “Vav” isn’t a “v” it’s a “w.” I get this question about once a week from people. Can I read one?

Michael: Yes.

Nehemia: This is very typical of the type of questions I’ll get on this. Usually, what they’ll say is, “I thought you knew Hebrew. How can you be so stupid? Don’t you know there’s no ‘v’ sound in the Hebrew language?” The ones who are maybe a little bit more respectful here, they’ll say, “This guy says…”

Michael: They start off, “With all due respect,” and then they insult you. [laughing]

Nehemia: Right, they don’t even bother with that. He says, “I’m slightly puzzled with the pronunciation of “wow”. I am admittedly no Hebrew scholar…” I’ll bet, “but for years I have been under the impression that the “wow” is pronounced with a hard ‘v’ because of influences from German translators, and that the “w” is pronounced as a German “w” which is a “v.”

Here’s what the argument is; that somehow the pronunciation of the sound “v” comes from German. Now, where do they get that idea? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds at first, because many Jews coming from Europe spoke a language called Yiddish. Like my grandmother, who was born in Eastern Europe, she spoke Yiddish as her mother tongue, and Yiddish actually means Jewish – Yid is a Jew in German. Yiddish is a dialect of German. I’m told it’s closer to Dutch than it is to German. But it’s mixed in 85 percent German, about 10 percent Hebrew, and 5 percent from other languages, Slavic and things like that.

There were Jews who spoke a Germanic language, Yiddish, and you could argue that they were influenced by the German language to lose the “v” sound in the Hebrew. Let’s back up even before that. How do we know how to pronounce anything in Hebrew? How do I know the Hebrew letter “Mem” is really “m?” Maybe the Hebrew letter Mem is really “k” or “d.” How do I know?

What happened is that scholars went around the Jewish world in the 1800s. This is at the time when there were Jews living all over the world without communication with each other. They documented how they pronounced every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Daled, Hei. All of those were identical. It didn’t matter if you were a Jew from Lithuania or a Jew from Yemen, or a Jew from the mountains of Kurdistan. They all pronounced Hebrew the same.

When they got to the sixth letter of the alphabet, they found two different pronunciation traditions. Some Jews pronounced the letter as “vuh” as a “v” in English. But it was a Hebrew letter. And some pronounced it as a “wuh,” like a “w” in English. I say “like a w” but it was not a W. I’ll get people here, a guy writes to me and he says, “But the ‘w’ only came later. Originally, there was just a v.” That has nothing to do with Hebrew. The Hebrew language has authentically those two sounds in the 1800s, some Jews “v,” some Jews “w”. In fact, most Jews pronounced it “v,” not just the German-speaking, Yiddish-speaking Jews. But for example, the Jews of Syria who had been there since the time of King David, when they read from the Torah, they pronounce the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet as “v.”

That’s very interesting, because when they speak at home to each other they don’t speak Hebrew. When they were at home in Damascus and Aleppo - before they were driven out of there - they would speak Arabic. Arabic doesn’t have a “v” sound. It has that letter - the letter Vav exists in Arabic, and it’s pronounced “wow.” In fact, the pronunciation of “wow” comes from Arabic.

I was sitting recently with a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Languages. This is one of the top people in the world when it comes to the Hebrew language. I asked him… There are five Jewish communities that preserve this ‘w’ pronunciation. One of them is the Yemenite Jews…

Michael: Just five?

Nehemia: Just five small Jewish communities. Of all the Jews in the world, only five preserved the “w” sound.

Michael: That’s probably instructive in itself…

Nehemia: It’s interesting.

Michael: …where they are.

Nehemia: There are Yemenite Jews, Libyan Jews, and a few other places like that, and they’re all Arabic speaking. I said to this professor, “Is it possible that this was influenced by Arabic?” He said, “It’s not possible, it’s 100 percent certain.” This is one of the top experts in the world. He’s got no agenda, no axe to grind. He’s actually an Arabic-speaker himself.

Michael: And he’s not pronouncing the name anyway.

Nehemia: He’s not pronouncing the name anyway.

Michael: It’s not a name issue...

Nehemia: He’s talking about the Hebrew language. He doesn’t even know I’m interested in the name. I’m talking to him about the pronunciation of the Hebrew language. Then he showed me some ancient sources, it’s quite fascinating.

Basically, what he’s saying is, “You can explain why a Yemenite Jew would say ‘w’, because he’s speaking Arabic, and in Arabic they have the same letter and it’s ‘w’. But why would a Jew from Damascus who speaks Arabic as his daily language, why when he all of a sudden reads Hebrew in the synagogue would his daily ‘w’ become ‘v?’ He’s clearly preserving something authentic to the Hebrew language.”

Now, that’s only 150 years ago, 200 years ago. I wanted to go back further. So I scoured the sources with his help, and one of the things I found is that in ancient Hebrew we have a poet named Kalir, in the 6th century in the Land of Israel. Now we’re going back 1,400, 1,500 years. This poet is rhyming, and he rhymes two words, the word “Levi”, Levite, which is with a Vav, and the other word is “navi”, prophet. Now, here’s the really funny thing. I’ll get these emails where they’ll say, “I thought you know Hebrew, Nehemia. How is it you don’t know there’s no ‘v’ sound in the original Hebrew language?” The one thing all Jewish communities agree, whether you’re from Yemen or Damascus or the mountains of Kurdistan, all Jews agreed that the “v” sound, the “vee” sound does exist in the Hebrew language in the letter Bet. The letter Bet with a dot is “buh,” without a dot it’s “vuh”. The example is Yaakov. In English it’s JacoB, but in Hebrew it’s “YaakoV.” It’s a soft Bet. A soft Bet is a “vuh” sound. All Jews agree that that “vuh” sound exists in the Hebrew language. The only dispute is about the “wuh” versus the “vuh” in the Vav, the sixth letter of the alphabet.

So this poet from the 6th century, from the 500s, he rhymes “navi” with a soft Bet, which everyone agrees on, with “LeVi.” Now, according to the Yemenites, they don’t pronounce it “Levi,” they pronounce it “LeWi.” Lewi doesn’t rhyme with “navi”. He has a whole series of words which are “v, v, v, v, v, v – actually vee, vee, vee, vee, vee, vee. One of those is “Levi.” There’s no question whatsoever that 1,500 years ago in the land of Israel, the Jews pronounced that sound as a “vuh”.

The interesting thing is, 700 years later this rabbi comes along named Ibn Ezra. He was a famous poet, and he was criticizing this earlier poet from 700 years before and he said, “How can he be so stupid to rhyme ‘navi’ with ‘Levi’?” Because the Ibn Ezra spoke Arabic, and in his Hebrew, it was “Lewi”. He doesn’t understand how this guy 700 years before in Israel is rhyming “navi” with “Lewi”. There you see the influence of Arabic. You can go back all the way to the time of Ezekiel and show, for example, the word for back in Hebrew is “gav.” 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.

Michael: I need to point out that the reason why you’re seeing all this is that Nehemia’s not reading the Hebrew words translated into English, he’s reading these ancient things in hand-written Hebrew.

Nehemia: Oh yes, these are Hebrew manuscripts.

Michael: They’ll never be translated into English. There’s no point.

Nehemia: You can show me a book from 2016 from a guy who doesn’t know Hebrew who thinks that the Arabs are Hebrews, and that’s your source. If that’s your source, the conversation’s over. I’m showing you ancient Hebrew manuscripts. I’m showing you in manuscripts of the Tanakh where they’re writing the word “gav”, back, both with a Vav and a soft Bet, and clearly, in the time of Ezekiel they’re pronouncing it that way. So there’s no question whatsoever - if you’d asked Ezekiel to pronounce the name of God, he would not have said, “Yehowah.” He would have said, “Yehovah”.

Announcer: You have been listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia’s Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at nehemiaswall.com.

You have been listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon’s Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

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22 thoughts on “Hebrew Voices #66 – The Historical Pronunciation of Vav

  1. Was wondering because I noticed you didn’t mention the Proto Canaanite language influence on Hebrew along with the Phoenician alphabet and the fact that Hebrew vowel system was only created around the 7th century by the Masoretes. Also you didn’t mention the pronouncation differences between Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

  2. My question is similar to Norman Mc Dermid (in this thread). I just watched a video by Jim Staley who claims the name is Yahweh (although I believe the study that you have done and found now 2,000 manuscripts with the full vowels showing Yehovah) but his claim is that the word Torah in Hebrew the 2nd letter of that word is the Vav so he claims that if the Vav is pronounced V then it would be TVrah instead of Torah. Is there some sort of grammar rule in Hebrew (with proof texts) that would make the Vav in Torah pronounced O?

  3. I was under the impression the the letter VAV originally had an oo sound and it was written as U in english, The word shalom has a VAV between the lamed and the mem, but some Yahudim pronounce the word shalum. Yahrushalyim has a VAV but the word is not pronounced Yaroshalyim. So here we have yod hey vav hey. The yod is pronounced as a Y in english. The hey is pronounced as an H. The VAV is pronounced as an O…ie Yeho. So why have you added the V to represent the VAV……..doesn’t make sense man. The O in the name Yeh”o”vah is the VAV, not the V.

  4. Nehemiah, thanks for your scholarly contributions.
    Would you be kind enough to address the pronunciation issue concerning “Yehouah” verses YeHoVaH and any grammatical, textual or historic fallacies supporting that pronunciation?

  5. Nehemia, Yehovah is very close to Jehovah, which the JW’s have said all along. Does this not vindicate them? We say Halleluyah, Praise YAH, should the beginning not be Yahovah? Does not the name Yahavah mean God, or YAH exists? Is it “Hawah, or Havah? I am very interested in the Karaite movement, where are they to be found in Southern California?

    • Nehemia says YEH at the beginning of a word and YAH on the end of a word. And Jehovah is the English pronunciation. But originally the J was pronounced as a Y, as it still is in some languages today. Hebrew speaking JWs say YEHOVAH. So yes. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been right all along. 🙂

      • Linda, it’s the opposite! Jehovah’s witnesses have always claimed that the proper pronuncation is Jahweh, and that they say Jehovah for convenience sake.

        On page 23 of their 1969 edition of The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures they write:

        “While inclining to view the pronunciation ‘Yah-weh” as the more correct way, we have retained the form ‘Jehovah’ because of people’s familiarity with it since the 14th century. Moreover, it preserves , equally with other forms, the four letters of the Tetragrammaton JHVH.”

        • actually that is not the way it is in the 1985 version as it says

          “While many a r e inclined t o view t h e pronunciation “Yah-
          weh” a s the more correct way, we have retained the form
          “Jehovah” because of people’s familiarity with it for centu-
          ries. Moreover, i t preserves, equally with other forms, t h e
          four letters of t h e divine name, YHWH (or, J H V H ) ”

          this is a copy paste from that version, so no they are not saying that they see it as Yahweh but that many do, but they do not

  6. i have used the name Yahweh or10-12 years, but your position makes sense.
    anybody else use Yehovah as well?

    Donald Murphy.

  7. Please site me a scholarly source that I can read that fully documents that arguments made here. I am particularly interested in the poem that Nehemia Gordon referenced.

  8. Shalom Nehemia,

    The argument of a friend of mine about the waw is that the hebrew names where transliterated in the Septuagint as waw for example דָּוִיד in the Septuagint is δαυιδ (dawid) not δαβιδ (david)

    • Firstly, Greek doesn’t have the ‘v’ sound in any of its letters. So Greek has to choose a some letter with a different sound than that. Based upon what you show, they chose upsilon. But that doesn’t mean Hebrew uses a phonetically similar letter for דָּוִיד.

      Secondly, the letter β is beta and is pronounced like the English B. So δαβιδ would be “dabid” not “david”.

      • Yes, that’s my friend’s argument, that “dabid” is phonetically closer to “david” than “dauid”

  9. The problem here is simple. You are running up against scholarly “consensus” which you’ve made outdated and they simply don’t want to admit they might be wrong where their scholarship is concerned. Imagine the corrections that would have to be made to many Bible versions, for just one thing, if what you’ve discovered gais acceptance in the scholarly community and it is easy to see that you have your work cut out for you. Keep it up, though. I enjoy what you find given I am a student of God’s word first who is also a student of its languages.

  10. I think the video was cut short before Nehemia dropped the mic. Always an incredible and well-researched presentation. Thank you for proclaiming our Father’s name, Yehovah!

  11. I have every confidence in Nehemia’s declaration of the ancient pronunciation of YeHoVaH as the name of our Father. The divergent voices are not credible, without Nehemia’s formal education and his incredible experience and research, not to mention Nehemia’s unquenchable thirst for TRUTH. Praise be to YeHoVaH for wanting us to know His holy name!

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