How to Pronounce יהוה (YHVH)

The proper pronunciation of G-d’s name is a source of much debate and contention among religious and academic scholars. Several versions are in use today: Yahweh, Yehovah, Yehowah, Yehuah, Yuwah, Yihweh, Yoah, etc… The reason for this debate is the lack of vowels in ancient Hebrew letters. The vowel “pointing” system in use today was developed by Masoretes, such as Aharon ben Asher, a Karaite scholar who lived during the 10th Century. It is thought that by that time the proper pronunciation had been lost.

Vowels


In the Torah, we are given the consonant letters Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, (יהוה). These consonants, however, could be pronounced with a number of different vowel combinations. The purpose of this article is to explore these letters and try to establish the correct pronunciation. A couple of introductory Hebrew rules will be valuable to the reader in this pursuit:

  • Hebrew words are usually pronounced with an emphasis on the final syllable especially where there are three or fewer syllables. The word Adonai (lord), for example, which is commonly used in lieu of the name, is often mispronounced adOnai, when it should be pronounced adonAI. 
  • Each consonant must relate to a vowel of some form or another, even a silent one; a vowel must either precede or proceed from each consonant letter. While there are occasional exceptions to this rule they are largely due to the loss of knowledge not to grammatical rules. 
If the above rules hold true, and we have every reason to anticipate that they do, then there must be no fewer than three vowels for the four consonants. The Masoretes inform us that the attached vowels are the sh’va (“eh”) (in some places the chateph segol which makes a similar but stronger “eh” sound), cholam (“Oh”), and patach (“ah”) attached to the first three letters respectively.
 
Our first challenge here is whether the the vav is a vowel or a consonant. There is no question in the pronunciation of the name more controversial than that of the vav, as it has not one but two degrees of controversy. First, in modern Hebrew the vav is sometimes used as a vowel to indicate an “oh” (cholam) or “ooh” (shuruk) sound. Although they sound different these two vowels are very similar and interchange with one another as words are used in different contexts. Examples of very ancient Hebrew (the Gezer Calendar and the Siloam Inscription are two examples) are written without any vowels, and do not use the vav as a vowel even in the places where later Hebrew spelling would require it.
 
From this evidence, archaeologists and historians have developed the currently accepted understanding of ancient Hebrew that only the consonants were written, and that the vav was not in use as a vowel in ancient times. Based on this evidence, it may be assumed that  Yuah, Yoah, and similar pronunciations are incorrect, as they rely upon the use the of vav as a vowel.

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The Siloam Inscription in Ancient Hebrew

The presence of the vav as a vowel in modern copies of the scriptures is likely the result of various scribes “correcting” the copies to adjust them to newer rules of Hebrew grammar and spelling. This was not done to tamper with the scriptures, but rather to make them more accessible to Hebrew readers in modern times. These scribes had no way of knowing that the more ancient copies of the scriptures would be lost and we would be left with their corrections and no way to discern them from the original.


The second controversy surrounding the vav arises from whether it originally was a “v” or a “w.” Many scholars and religious thinkers point to the fact that there is no “v” sound present in the languages comprising the Western Semitic Family (Arabic, as an example). They argue that the vav and vet (the two “v” consonants in Hebrew) came to be pronounced as they currently are when the Jews lived in ancient Persia. In Persian, and likewise in modern Farsi, the “w” sound is pronounced as a “v” (much like German), so the Jews may have picked up this way of pronouncing these consonants.


However, proponents of the waw overlook several possibilities: It is possible that some or all of these ancient languages had a “v” sound that ceased to be pronounced that way at some point in history. O
ur modern assumptions regarding the pronunciation of some of their letters may be incorrect. Many academics reject the biblical narrative that holds that the ancient Hebrews? Habirus actually originated in Sumer, now southern Iraq. In this region there were several languages that had or may have had a “v” sound including the Elamites, predecessors of the Persians. Academic scholars often reject much of the Torah’s content as mere legends made up by later Israelites in the Kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehudah (Israel and Judah) in the Ninth Century BCE or after the Babylonian Exile circa the Fifth or Fourth Centuries BCE. As a result they do not consider the possibility that the vav may have been pronounced as a “v” and not as a “w” throughout the biblical age.

The vav/waw controversy may never be completely resolved, but my opinion on the matter is that the Jewish people would not consciously have allowed such a significant change to occur. At the time of Ezra and Nehemia the Jews were eager to reestablish the old traditions as if the Babylonian Exile had never taken place. I am, therefore, distinctly in the vav camp; but again neither I, nor anyone else can offer definitive proof that the vav has always been a vav and has never been a waw. As archeologists like to joke, we will never truly know until we find Avraham’s tape recorder.

Pronunciation 


Now the investigation turns to the pronunciation of the vowels themselves. The first syllable of the name given us by the Masoretes is Ye’. The vowel here is the sh’va, which is often silent, except where it is the first syllable of a word, or when the consonant letter carries a dagesh (a small dot that can effect the letter’s pronunciation). In many Hebrew words the sh’va is used at the beginning to allow for an easier emphasis on the final syllable. Hebrew also has many prefixes that change meaning based upon the vowel attached to the prefix letter. For example, Be’malon means “at a hotel,” and ba’malon means “at THE hotel;” the distinction is subtle but linguistically significant.

As another example: B’ReiSHiYT בראשית (“in the Beginning” and the original Hebrew name of the book of Genesis) starts with a sh’va; it is pronounced: b’reiSHEET, essentially comprising of 2 and a half syllables; where the root reish-sheen רש means “first,” the prefix bet ב means “in” or “at” and the suffix yod-tov ית_ indicates “of” (a mechanical translation is literally “at the first of” or “at the start of”). This example is a good demonstration of the typical Hebrew practice of building a word out of a base root with the addition of prefixes and suffixes to apply the root concept to various specific ideas or things. How might this system apply to the name?

tetra-serpent
The Name of Hashem in the ancient Hebrew script

Meaning of the Name


The name itself is a variation on the verb “to be” in Hebrew: EH’YeH אהיה “I am.” In Shemot (Exodus) 3:14 Hashem describes Himself to Moshe (Moses) as “I Am that I Am:” EH’YeH ASHeR EH’YeH אהיה אשר אהיה. When one examines three other conjugations of the verb, one will find some compelling evidence about the name’s meaning: the future tense, “He will be,” of the verb “to be” is Ye’HiY יהי; the gerund “He is being” is HoVeH הוה; and the past tense “He was” is HaYaH היה. The consonants yod-hei YH יה are found in both the present and future tenses; these also contain the root YaH for “lord.” Ho’V is the next syllable, which is from the gerund and is followed by the “aH” which is at the end of the past tense. This reading based upon the past, present, and future tenses of the verb “to be” (EH’YeH אהיה) renders the pronunciation Ye’Ho’VaH. A translation of the name is more complex. A thorough and accurate translation would be “He is, who will be, is being, and has been.” A translation that offers us a sentence instead of a word. Perhaps the word “eternal” would be most accurate single word translation. Like many Hebrew names this seems to be as much a title as it is a name, given to help man relate to the universal personality.
 
Some variation is still possible, however. The first hei ה in the name can serve two purposes: it could complete the syllable Ye’H or it could commence a new syllable. Hebrew consonants that are intended to end a syllable often have the Sh’va vowel to indicate this (the alef א and ayin ע, Hebrew’s silent consonants, are exceptions to this rule). The name “Yits’chak” יצחק (Isaac) is a good example of syllables in Hebrew. The tsadei צ, the second letter of Yitz’chak, carries a sh’va to indicate that it concludes the first syllable (“yits”) and does not itself begin a second. Otherwise, the name might be pronounced “Yi’tsachak” or “Yitsechak.” The kof ק at the end of the word does not require a sh’va as it ends the word, this is an example of how consonants at the conclusion of a word do not require a sh’va. Typically, when the first letter of or prefix to a word carries the sh’va, it is to indicate that the next letter begins the first full syllable. It seems clear from this evidence that this hei carries a vowel and commences a syllable. 

Scriptural Usage of the Name


How was the name used in the common Hebrew speaking culture? It is used frequently in names as one example: Kings, princes, ministers, and Prophets like Yehu, Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah), Zedekyahu, Yehoyakim, Yehoahaz, and even Netanyahu. When the root is used as a whole name/title in the case of Yehu (properly pronounced Y’Hu) we see that the first syllable is the sh’va: “eh.” The second is the cholam/shuruk here as a shuruk which is used at the end of words in lieu of the cholam. Like many semitic languages, there are special rules that apply to the concluding syllable of a word. Likewise, as a suffix we find the root employed as -yahu. Again the vowels changes as a suffix. The concluding shuruk is retained while the first vowel is rendered as the patach – “ah.” 

What of the name as a prefix? If used as a prefix several syllables could be included without requiring any change of the vowels because there is no concluding syllable. In the case of Yehoyakim and Yeho’ahaz we see the vowels appear as they seem to appear in the name as rendered elsewhere: the sh’va begins the word Ye’ and then the cholam “Ho” followed by whatever contracting word is to be attached. This seems to render the first two syllables as Y’Ho- as the first two proper syllables of the name. 

This eliminates the version of the name ever popular among academic scholars: YaH’WeH, as this pronunciation relies on the first hei carrying no vowel, but instead acting as the completion of the first syllable. This theory also presupposes that the Masoretes reversed the proper vowels in order to prevent anyone from speaking the name, a preconception that is almost certainly not the case. The supporters of this theory have no explanation to contend with the prefixes and suffixes discussed above.

An early Greek transliteration offers: Ioue (ee-oh-weh). This is the also a basis for the academic transliterations of the name which center on one version or another of YaH’WeH.
Here the “i” sound at the beginning is a Greek attempt to mimic the Hebrew “y” sound. Ancient Greek lacks a “v” sound, as a result this offers us no help on the vav/waw question. This was an attempt by Greek speakers to copy the name into Greek so it could be pronounced by Greeks, it does not give us any definitive answers concerning the original Hebrew.
Some believe that the word adonai, used to as a substitute for the name, carries the same vowels but uses different consonants. This is also misleading and no evidence supports this conclusion. In both cases, however, we have an “oh” as the second vowel. I see this, taken with the evidence regarding the three conjugations of “to be” and the name prefixes as a strong hint that the second vowel is “oh,” rendering Ye’Ho’- for the first two syllables of the name.

Academics hold that the final vowel is “eh.” This is one of those areas where conflict arises between those who learn a tradition from the outside and those who practice that tradition. The Torah is full of poetry and rhymes and uses of the same word root for two different meanings in poetic form, called Hebraisms. It is intended to flow like poetic verse. One section where this is certainly the case is in the Song of the Sea rendered in Shemot (Exodus) 15:1-18. The song is a poem about what YHVH did for the Israelites in preventing the Egyptians from crossing the Yom Suf (Sea of Reeds). The following is a transliteration of a section of the beginning of the song (emphasis is included from the rhythm of the song):

Shemot (Exodus) 15:1-3.
“…ashirAH l’adonAi, kiy gao gaAH, sus vayrochvo ramAH ba’yam aziy vezimrat yAH
vayhi-liy li’shuAH, zeh e’liy v’anveHU, elohey aviy va’arom’menHU
adonAi ish milchamAH, adonAi shemo.”

Notice a poetic pattern? The first stanza is: AH-AI-AH-AH, the second is: AH-AH-HU-HU, and the third: AI-AH-AI. As much as possible the words are arranged to end in the syllable AH. Suppose we make this vowel the final vowel in the name? How does the song sound now?

“…ashirAH l’ayhovAH, kiy gao gaAH, sus vayrochvo ramAH ba’yamaziy vezimrat yAH,
vayhi-liy li’shuAH, zeh e’liy v’anveHU, elohey avid va’arom’menHU
yehovAH ish milchamAH, yehovAH shemo.”,

It looks a little different doesn’t it? The rhymes are stronger, the rhythm more concrete.It is more satisfying. From this example, and there are more like it, I believe the rhymes strongly indicate an “ah” vowel at the end of the name. Academic scholars are simply unaware of this need for rhyme because they do not sing the Song of the Sea in Hebrew every week (on Shabbat) as Karaite Jews do. More examples:

ShemA Yisrael YehovAh Eloheinu YehovAh Echad

Baruch AttA YehovAh… 


It is likely that scholars are simply over thinking it, something that happens with many very important concepts. For the ancient Hebrews there was little room for abstraction. Most frequently, the simplest explanation is the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that the name is a title tied to the verb “to be,” and we can pronounce it based upon that assertion. Moshe (Moses) recorded the name in such a way as to convey G-d’s eternality to the Israelites as quickly and easily as possible.
The vowels proposed herein each fit that mold, rendering a name that combines “He will be,” “He is being,” “He was,” and the root for lord. When used as a prefix the name is YeHo, is YeHu as a stand alone word, and adjusts to YaHu as a suffix indicating a probable YeHo pronunciation. 

Having examined this evidence I believe the strongest case can be made for the use of the vowels described in this article. As a result I believe the name is either: Ye’HoVaH or Ye’HoWaH. Naturally, I fall in the Ye’HoVaH camp because tradition has left us the vav as a “v,” and there is enough historical evidence from the cultures in and around ancient Sumer to substantiate the probable presence of a “v” consonant in ancient Hebrew.

For more scholarship please view this article the modern Hebrew scholar Nehemiah Gordon, or watch this video.

Tradition of Non-Pronunciation


In Rabbinical Tradition it is understood that the name is not to be pronounced for several reasons. While Karaite Tradition does not rely upon Rabbinical rules or understandings, we likewise do not pronounce the name. Why? When the Karaite Sage (Hakham – wise man) Jakub Al-Qirqisani wrote his works over 1000 years ago, there was a great deal of variation surrounding the name and its usage in the many disparate Karaite synagogues of the time. There were congregations which forbade its use and there were those which chose to pronounce it. Among those congregations that pronounced the name, several different versions of the name were in use. As a result, modern Karaite Tradition concurs with our Rabbinical brethren that we generally do not pronounce the name. We understand that the name/title is how Hashem wishes to be addressed and that this is proper, but that we are uncertain as to the proper pronunciation. Out of our high regard and respect for Him, we simply do not use the name. Like our Rabbinical brethren we use Adonai, Hashem, and Elohim as substitutes. In recent years, there has been a growing movement to return to the usage of the name, especially when reading from the Torah. Perhaps our tradition will evolve further on this matter in the near future.

5 thoughts on “How to Pronounce יהוה (YHVH)

  1. Eu acho que sei a pronúncia, eu creio que seja assim: יַהוָה yah’vâh em português, que o Deus verdadeiro nos abençoe, que o Criador da terra perdoe se algum servo escreveu ou pronunciou o seu nome em vão sem intenção. Aleluia!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Greeting, what about “Yahve” as that is mostly pronounced in Spanish ,of which is closely related to the language structure of which was being used in the “Spanish inquisition” any thoughts on that one…thanks so much….

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  2. Three syllables for sure. Not 2.
    But I vote for Yehiyah, following the proposal by Robert Alter. Your Song of the Sea example is excellent and can be extended to the psalms and the songs inside the prophets.

    Another point is that the surrogate itself (Adonai) is three syllables. It makes no sense to destroy the quantitative meter of the whole corpus of Hebrew poetry by replacing a 2 syllable Name with a 3 syllable name. The original must have been 3.

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