Saturday, October 29, 2011

Etymology of the Vav

Alice C. Linsley

Last summer I had a fascinating conversation with a very smart lady - Susan Burns - who lives on Hood Canal in Washington. She started me thinking about the VaV or tent peg/hook. Here are some thoughts that came out of that conversation. The ruler's tent was the head tent (oholibamah) and was represented by the ancient Hebrew and Arabic letter Vaw.

Tent peg /sun cradle/marks the ruler's residence

These rulers lived by and exercised terriotorial control over water system, wells, etc. People who needed water went from Y to Y, which is to say, "from water settlement to water settlement." The waw/vav speaks of an ancient world in which settlements near water were ruled by elders and a chief. Travelers moved from settlement to settlement and the ancient water laws were generally generous to those who wa-ndered. Wells were neutral ground for waring parties or enemies, but were fought over, as in the story of Moses driving away the intruder shepherds at the well of the Midianite ruler-priest Reu-el. (Exodus 2:16-19).  It was common for the river, lake, oasis or well to have a shrine over which their was a priest.  So it is not surprising to read that Moses' future father-in-law was a "priest of Midian."  As such, he was a direct descendant of Abraham by Abraham's cousin bride, Keturah.

the tent peg
The vav (waw) is designated by the letter Y in Hebrew. The symbol is much older than Hebrew.  It originated with the ancient Egyptians, Nubians and Nilo-Saharans who moved into Canaan. The Nile Valley is the urheitmat of the Canaanite Y, a lexeme of considerable complexity.  The Phoencians also employed the Y. Among these peoples the Vav was a symbol of a scepter carried by deified rulers and the Y was a solar cradle that represented the divine appointment of the ruler by the overshadowing of the Sun, the Creator's emblem. Many Horite rulers (Horim) have names that begin with the Cananite Y:  Yaqtan (Abraham's first born son), Yishmael, Yitzak, Yacob, Yosef, and Yeshua.

The Greeks introduced the waw/vav to the Latin alphabet:  Ύψιλον (Úpsilon).  In Spanish, the letter Y is called the i griega,  in Romanian i grec, in Polish igrek - all meaning "Greek i". It is derived from the Phoenician waw which the Phoenicians borrowed from the Egyptians.

The waw/vav orignally symbolized the crook/hook of the ruler or the tent peg of the ruler's tent.  As a lexeme this represented a cluster of related ideas including:
  • the ruler himself
  • the ruler's authority
  • the ruler's territory
  • the ruler's clan or tribe
  • the ruler's resources such as his flocks and water sources

Consider the importance of wells in the lives of biblical figures.  Ishmael's life was saved when an angel revealed a well or spring to his mother. Abraham's servant found Isaac a wife at a well.  Moses met Zipporah at a well. Jesus met the Samaritan woman (Photini) at Jacob's Well.

Many words in various languages still reflect this ancient world.  Consider these examples: wa-ter, wa-gon, va-gabond, va-grant, va-gar meaning "to wander" (Spanish), wa-kdar meaning "ruler" (Pashto), and ya-raki meaning "power" (Persian).

Related reading:  The Urheimat of the Canaanite Y; Mother and Son PiercedEgyptian Shrines on the Horus Way; Water Systems Connected the Nile and Central Africa; The Jordan River; Wells and Brides; The Migration of Abraham's Kushite Ancestors; A Woman at a Well; Susan Burns on Hadhramaut of Arabia


  1. I am just discovering your blogs, Sister! What a treasure!

    I am a linguist (English, German, French, Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and in process… Bahasa Indonesia), and especially an 'original languages' bible man. (No, I don't speak ALL those languages I listed, only the first four, with Greek and Hebrew fluently reading and praying, and the others to various degrees reading and translating. Bahasa I am learning because I am going to Indonesia for three weeks at Christmas time.)

    I really appreciated this post, but I want to mention that the 'y' (as it is, the vav or ypsilon) in the words you listed is of course absolutely correct, but the names beginning with 'Y' that you listed are all spelled not with the vav/ypsilon glyph, but rather with the yod/iota. I can't tell from your post if this last list is yours or Susan Burns'. The wonderful thing about Hebrew, words, names, everything, is that it is an intensely meaning-packed language, reminding me in an odd sort of way of classical Chinese.

    Hebrew words are very short as a rule and full of nuance, and even a one or two syllable phoneme can contain what it takes other languages many syllables to express. Here's my usual example… from Matthew 21:9…

    Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. (English, 11 words, 12 syllables)
    Evloghimenos ho erchomenos en onomati Kyriou.
    (Greek, 6 words, 18 syllables)
    Barukh ha-Ba ba-Shem Adonay.
    (Hebrew, 4 words, 9 syllables)

    Even if you split the ha- (the) and the ba- (in the) off the main words, you still have only 6 phonemes and 9 syllables)

    And how much more is implicit and yet close to the surface in each of the Hebrew phonemes!

    Barukh calls to mind a whole range of related concepts formed from the triliteral root BRK (bless), even hinting at another whole set based on a similar root BRQ (lightning shaft).

    ha-Ba calls to mind the acclamation of the new bridegroom and bride as they emerge from their consummation in the bridal chamber in the midst of the wedding feast, and that also gives meaning to the Orthodox kondakia (liturgical poetry) that describe Christ emerging from the tomb as the bridegroom emerging from the bridal chamber… Barukh ha-Ba! Blessed is He who comes!

    This comment has ballooned (forgive me!) into a blog post all of its own, so I will end with these thoughts.

    Thanks for this post and the others I am sure to read and enjoy in the future. Thanks also, Sister, for visiting my blog. I have added your blog Just Genesis to the blog roll in my sidebar, so I can easily return there and here as well.

    Go with God, the faithful and true.

  2. What a joy to read your comment! Thank you. You have given me much to ponder.

    Have you studied the ancient northern and southern Arabian scripts? I'm finding these fertile ground for uncovering some of the more subtle meanings of Hebrew and Arabic words. Here are two resources that I found helpful:

    In all the scripts, except Thamudic D and C, the Y appears as a pole with a sphere on top. Only the Thamudic D has a glyph which clearly represents the Sun and this is associated with the letter S. The W is another curiosity. It is a sphere with an X of a single line. The line is either horizontal or vertical, suggesting the precession of the equinox. What do you make of these symbols?

  3. Your blog relating to Y [vav or waw] is interesting. Am not at all familiar with the Hebrew or other Semitic languages. What I gather from your blog is that Y could be interpreted in English differently if required. Grammatically, we have Y consecutive or Y copulative. And, there are a whole books of the Hebrew Bible that start with Y even though these books are not connected to those that precede them. So, my question to you what does Y at the start of a Hebrew book really stands for? Rather how do we translate it into English?

  4. There is no V in Hebrew. That is why we know certain very old words and phrases are not originally Hebrew. See this:


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