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Ancient Hebrew by Christopher Rollston

Q. About when did the Hebrew ‘waw’ begin to be taken as ‘vav’?

A. The historic pronunciation of this letter (a voiced bilabial) is /waw/, a pronunciation attested in various Semitic languages (ancient and modern).  Moreover, even the Masoretes (600 C.E.–1000 C.E.) arguably pronounced this letter as /waw/ (not /vav/).  The common pronunciation of this letter today as /vav/ (rather than /waw/) is a reflection of conventions in the modern period, primarily those hailing from Germanic language practices (notice, for example, that the German letter /w/ is pronounced as an English /v/, not as an English /w/; thus, the German word "Wasser" [water] is pronounced /vasser/ in German).  In sum, the tradition of pronouncing this letter as /waw/ is historically more accurate (and so it is found in many grammars of biblical Hebrew, including Thomas Lambdin's).  The convention of pronouncing it as /vav/ is also acceptable, but this pronunciation does hail from the modern period. 

Christopher Rollston, "Ancient Hebrew", n.p. [cited 27 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/ancient-hebrew

Contributors

Christopher Rollston

Christopher Rollston
Associate Professor, George Washington University

Christopher Rollston is an associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University.  He is a philologist and epigrapher of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean languages and works in more than a dozen ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, as well as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Ammonite, and Moabite. He is the author of several books, including Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL,  2010).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text and developed the system of vowel markings that eventually were added to the consonantal text.

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