Tuesday, December 11, 2007

579. The reversing vav

This was not entirely news to me. At the final class of a Hebrew tutorial I took three years ago, the teacher casually mentioned that some words switch tenses when you add a letter "vav" (which also means "and") at their very beginnings. So a past tense verb miraculously becomes future, and vice-versa. (Modern Hebrew has no such weirdness.) Since I hadn't yet learned any tense beyond the past, I filed it away for future (no pun intended) reference. I subsequently noticed a preponderance of initial vavs in my Torah portions, and wondered if they were this weird thing. Translations shed little light on the phenomenon.

But last night at my wonderful and very serious Biblical Hebrew grammar class, my head practically exploded when the teacher explained that the majority of verbs in the Bible employ reversing vavs. And sometimes the initial vav also means "and" in addition to its role as time-shifter--or it doesn't. We can never know for certain. So a sentence that seems to say

"She sat and walked and stood."

might really mean

"She sat, will walk, and will stand."


"She will sit, and walked and stood."

The teacher offered one theory about this grammatical strangeness: In pre-Biblical times and often for reasons of poetic euphony, verb tenses were fluid. But the word "and" (the letter vav) always appeared in a sequence, and in a sequence there was a clear beginning and ending. Eventually the vav itself came to to signify a change of time in either direction. (Apologies to scholars. I am simplifying drastically and probably incorrectly. My brain was swimming in a sea of incredulity last night as this was explained at rapid pace.)

All I could think during class was that clever and sneaky God, by giving a us Torah written in Hebrew and full of vavs, made quite sure we would never stop trying to interpret it.


richardatf said...

Help me out here, I am trying to understand the reversing vav. Tell me if this is correct please. The vav, when used before a noun, simply means "and", but when used before a verb, it has the property of changing the tense from completed to incomplete. What about prepositions? Like the word "in" or "from"? I know that it could mean "and in", or "and from", but could it also mean "will be in", or "will be from"? Thank you for the post !

alto artist said...


Thank you for reading this (somewhat dormant at the moment, but not permanently!) blog. I unfortunately don't know very much about this topic--if anyone reading this does, I'd love your expertise. To the best of my knowledge, though, it's always the vav that causes the change, not the preposition (I think that's what you're asking?). The preposition goes along with whatever the tense is of the rest of the sentence.