Hebrew Language Blog

Say wow! How to use and read the letter ‘vav’ in Hebrew Posted by on Dec 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

Your first encounter with a Semitic language like Hebrew can bombard you with a lot of new concepts: the root system, new sounds, and a different script, are just a few of them. Once you get over the fact that Hebrew doesn’t usually write out vowels, you realize that some of the letters you painstakingly learned to write are in fact consonant-vowels. 
What on Earth are consonant-vowels?!, you might ask. And it’s a fair question. Some Hebrew letters are clearly confused about their identity unable to chose whether they are vowels or consonants, they opt to stand in the middle, and freely choose when they want to act as one or the other. 
While it’s easy for them, it creates a pain for learners! This post will remedy at least some of this difficulty we’ll investigate one victim of this consonant-vowel identity confusion.

“The Hebrew Letter Vav” by zeevveez on Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Romantic introduction to vav

I remember when I saw her first slim and petite she nearly disappeared among her bulky friends. She was easy to interact with at first, who would have thought she’d cause so many issues later. 
This is not a fragment from a diary of a teenage male, but my first memory of learning to write the letter vav. Similar in print and cursive, who would have thought there are so many things to remember about it! 

Writing sounds

The letter vav represents three sounds
    • when we add a dot in the middle on the left hand side we create a letter surek (וּ) which is read oo”, as in pull;
    • when we add a dot on top the resulting letter, holem (וֹ), is read oh”, as in lock;
    • when nothing is added vav is read v”, as in vegetarian.
At least the names of the vowels make it easier to memorise the sounds to which they refer.

Reading sounds

Indecisive vav
Vav is most known for serving as a conjunction word and. One letter and a whole meaning attached to it! And, a very useful one at that. 

“Falafel” by Lara604 on Flickr.com is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

For example, when you’re ordering a falafel wrap and want to list all the ingredients you would like inside it you can say:
פלאפל וקצת טחינה, ועגבניות, ופלפל, וכרוב אדום…
Falafel and a little tahini, and tomatoes, and pepper, and red cabbage
Now, quick question: how did you read ופלפל? Most people would say it’s pronounced as ve-pilpel, but… here comes the tricky part. 
Technically, if we followed all the pedantic rules of Hebrew grammar, we should read it as oo-filpelWhat?  That’s right, welcome to letter vav which has many more intricacies than meet the eye. 
There is a group of consonants which change the reading of vav, when it’s used as and. Those are so called labial consonants, letters that require closing your lips during pronunciation. Here they go:
When placed in front of these letters vav should be read as oo”. I say should be” as this rule is not always followed. Let’s look at the following phrases: 
is it ve-mekhonit or u-mekhonit?
is it ve-mistakel or u-mistakel?
You will likely hear it said both ways!
Like all languages, Hebrew is in a constant state of flux. The pronunciation standards are formed, quite literally, as we speak. What it means for you, is that you need to keep both of your ears open, and not be surprised if someone indeed says they bought themselves 
פלאפון ומחשב חדש 
pelefon u-makhshev khadash. 
One way to remember that this pronunciation rule applies to letter mem is to imagine yourself thinking very hard before pronouncing a combination of ו + מ . You think so hard you say to yourself: uuuhmmmm…
Impactful vav
What is more, adding a vav in front of words that start with these letters will also impact their pronunciation, by causing a dagesh (the dot inside) to disappear. So, פּ (p) will become פ (f), and בּ (b) will turn into ב (v). Because מ is read the same way whether or not it has a dagesh what a relief, right?  
Why does the pronunciation change? 
A dagesh inside a letter is used in the beginning of a syllable. Read the following words:
Whether the syllable starts in the beginning of a word or in the middle, its first letter will get a dagesh. We usually don’t write it, it only shows up if we add all the dots and dashes to the text (they are called diacritical marks, or diacritics fancy word you can use to impress people at parties!).
Now, when you add a vav in the beginning of a word, the starting letter is no longer the first letter of a syllable this role is taken by the vav. This is why we don’t need the dagesh anymore, and all the beginning פּ’s turn into פ’s and בּ’s into ב’s. So,
וּפִיל (and elephant)
וּפִּלְפֵּל (and pepper)
וּבוֹקֵר(and morning)
Again, this rule will not always be followed. You will probably search far and wide to find people who say u-voker rather than ve-boker. And, seriously who will pronounce ובקבוק מים as u-vakbuk mayim

Avoid vav confusion

Remember that bit when we said vav is both a consonant and a vowel? Well, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish. For example, the word שוק can be read as both shuk (market) and shavak (to market, verb).
How to avoid this confusion? We simply double the vav! Then we have שוק for shuk and שווק for shavak
So, don’t be confused when you see a word with a sudden double vav in the middle. It’s not a sign to read it as a suuuuuuper long oo” , but an indication it should be read as a consonant v”.
Last point, if a word starts with a consonantal vav, the writing standard is not to double it. It should be clear from the context if it’s used as a conjunction and or if it’s a part of the word, so:
ורדה is varda (rose, or a name Varda), not ve-rada, and וידאו is video not ve-ideo. 
However, if a word like this is defined the vav will be doubled again. Why? Because as we define a word we preface it with a ה, it becomes harder to figure out if a vav is a vowel or a consonant. So, we’ll have הוורדה for the rose, and הווידאו for the video.
Oh wow! You might exclaim. Or even oh vav! That’s a lot to learn about a letter that looks like a chocolate sprinkle, or one piece of dried rosemary. 
Now, that you know all of its intricacies, what’s left to do is to keep your ears open and… get practising!

Guest Author: Marta is a language lover, a Hebrew studies graduate, and an adventure seeker. She is also addicted to Quora where she shares her Hebrew knowledge.

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