§ 1. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew
I would argue that the consonant V by itself was never pronounced as a W, and that something near to the W sound only occurred depending on the position of the letter within a word, of which V [ U ] would then act as a semi-vowel.
Speaking of consonantal V, Walter Blair says:
...the evidence which we have to adduce points to a normal sound for this consonant, which is a medium between English v and w. It is soft like w when, after s, g, and q, in the same syllable, it is followed by a vowel; hard like v in other situations. Thus, suetus, sanguis, quisquam, sounded swetus, sangwis, qwisqwam, and seruus, uulgus, servus, vulgus.
Blair, Walter. Latin Pronunciation: An Inquriy into the Proper Sounds of the Latin Language During the Classical Period. New York and Chicago: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1873. Page 40.
This is comparable to the English words queen and suite, which are pronounced “qween” and “sweet”, respectively.
Blair also points out how the Roman grammarians state that V as a consonant is quite different from V as a vowel:
...Nigidius (ap. Gell. XIX, 14, 6): “V in Valerius, Volusius, etc., is not a vowel at all.” Quintilian (I, 7, 26) says that the writing ceruum with the sign which belongs to the vowel u, does not represent the sound that is heard.
Blair goes on for several pages, pointing out how the Roman grammarians compare V directly to the Greek digamma, and then concludes:
In view of all that has been said, therefore, we infer, that in Latin the consonant V sounded like English V when it began a word or a syllable (unless in combination with preceding s, g, or q). When, after s, g, and q, it began a syllable, the intonation of the vowel u was partially supplied to it, yielding a sound like English w.
Ibid, Page 48.
The Latin consonantal V corresponded to the Greek digamma. The Greek alphabet descends from the Hebrew / Phoenician, with the ancient Greek digamma Ϝ corresponding directly with the Hebrew Vav:
Though the proponents of the W sound will argue otherwise, evidence for the pronunciation of the digamma points more to the sound of the English V:
In addition to the smooth and aspirated breathings, the ancient [Greek] language had another, which remained longest among the Æolians. This is most commonly called, from the appearance of the character Ϝ, used to denote it, Digamma, that is a double Γ [Gamma]. It was a true consonant, and appears to have had the force of f or v. [...] The whole doctrine, however, of the Digamma, for want of literary monuments remaining from the period when it was most in use, is exceedingly obscure.
Buttman, Philip[p]. Greek Grammar For The Use Of Schools. Second Edition. Translated by Edward Everett. Boston: Cummings, Hillard, and Company, 1826. Page 328.
The sounds that the letters F and V make are very close to each other. Say the following syllables and notice how your lips and mouth assume almost the same positions for each:
- fa, va
- fe, ve
- fi, vi
- fo, vo
- fu, vu
Philip Buttman's son, Alexander Buttman, who revised and enlarged his father's work, eschews the “f or v” option and sides solely with a V sound for the digamma:
Note 3. Along with these two breathings the earliest language had still another aspirate, which was longest retained by the Æolians. This is commonly called Digamma, from its shape Ϝ, i. e. a double Γ; [...] It was strictly a real consonant with the sound of v....
Buttman, Philip, and Alexander Buttman. Greek Grammar For The Use Of Schools And Universities. Translated by Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872. Page 11.
See also Appendix B of the aforementioned work starting on page 463, where he talks about the history of the Greek alphabet, how it originally descended from the Hebrew / Phoenician, and how the digamma's ancient name was Ϝαυ (which is the same as the Hebrew ו Vau—Vau being an alternate spelling of Vav), and was later known as Βαυ. That the digamma was later called Βαυ shows the close relation of the V and B sounds. But more on this in a moment.
Frances Ellen Lord addresses the Cicero anecdote commonly used to promote the W sound of the Latin V:
[Dic. de Div. XL. 84.] Dum M. Crassus exercitum Brundisii imponeret, quidam in portu caricas Cauno advectas vendens “Cauneas!” clamitabat. Dicamus, si placet, monitum ab eo Crassum caveret ne iret, non fuisse periturum si omini paruisset.
[When Marcus Crassus was embarking his army at Brundisium a man who was selling Caunian figs at the harbour, repeatedly cried out 'Cauneas, Cauneas.'231 Let us say, if you will, that this was a warning to Crassus to bid him 'Beware of going,' and that if he had obeyed the omen he would not have perished.
231 i.e. "Caunian figs," but might be heard as cave ne eas. This illustration of the identity of sound between cavneas, i.e. cave ne eas, and cauneas has been the subject of some interesting discussion in Latin phonetics. Cf. Moser, Div., ad loc.
(English translation by Bill Thayer)]
Now when we remember that Caunos, whence these particular figs came, was a Greek town; that the fig-seller was very likely a Greek himself (Brundisium being a Greek port so to speak), but at any rate probably pronounced the name as it was doubtless always heard; and that u in such a connection is at present pronounced like our f or v,[*] and we know of no time when it was pronounced like our u, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the fig-seller was crying “Cafneas!”—a sound far more suggestive of Cave-ne-eas! than “Cauneas!” of Cawe ne eas!
But beyond the testimony, direct or indirect, of grammarians and classic writers, an argument against the w sound appears in the fact that this sound is not found in Greek (from which the vau [digamma] is borrowed), nor in Italian or kindred Romance languages.
Lord, Frances Ellen. The Roman Pronunciation of Latin: Why We Use It and How to Use It. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1894. Page 35.
[* The modern Greek diphthong alpha upsilon
αυ has an “af” or “av” sound, depending on which letter follows the diphthong. See any modern Greek grammar about this, such as Essential Modern Greek Grammar by Douglas Q. Adams, page 7 (if you get a message saying the page is unavailable for viewing, reload the page and it should display).]
Additionally the Hebrew words גַּו gav and גַּב gab (transliterated as “gab”, but pronounced somewhat softer as to sound more like ‘gav’) are both used to mean “back” in several places (“gav” 1 Kings 14:9 / Nehemiah 9:26 / Ezekiel 23:35; “gab” Psalm 129:3 / Ezekiel 10:12). The letter ב without a dagesh, or dot (such as בּ), having a somewhat softer pronunciation that tends sounds more like V instead of its normal B sound (this is a simplified explanation).
And as Gesenius shows, they are “of the same sense” as each other:
Gesenius, Wilheim. Gesenius's Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Translated by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. New York: John Wiley & Sons; London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1893.
This is very strong evidence for the Hebrew ו vav, the Greek Ϝ digamma, and the Latin consonantal V having the English V sound.
§ 2. Sanskrit
The interchange of B and V occurs in Latin as well, such as ferveo, ferbui and bovile, bubile. This close relation of B and V can also seen in Sanskrit, with even the shape of the letters closely resembling each other:
While the orthography of Sanskrit bears no resemblance to Latin, Sanskrit and Latin are actually very similar in many ways, so much so that Sir William Jones said:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
Jones, William, Sir. Discourses Delivered Before the Asiatic Society: and Miscelleneous Papers, on the Religion, Poetry, Literature, etc. of the Nations of India. Edited by James Elmes. London, 1824. Page 28.
Here are a few examples of similar words (note that the “a” in the words below have the sound of ‘a’ as in “father”):
Sanskrit: देव “devá”, दैव “daíva or daivá”1 ; Latin: “divus”, “divinus” ; English: “divine” (Greek: δῖος “dios” from the more ancient δῖϝος “divos”2)
Sanskrit: पितृ “pitṛí”3 ; Latin: “pater” ; English: “father” (Greek: πατήρ “pater”)
Sanskrit: मातृ “mātṛí”3 ; Latin: “mater” ; English: “mother” (Greek: μήτηρ “meter”)
Sanskrit: सामि “sāmí” ; Latin: “semi”, “semis” ; English: “semi” or “half”, e.g. semicircle
Sanskrit: सर्प “sarpá” ; Latin: “serpens” ; English: “serpent”
Sanskrit: नव “náva” ; Latin: “novus” ; English: “new” (Greek: νέος “neos” from the more ancient νέϝος “nevos”4)
Sanskrit: नस् “nás or nās” (for nās see “नास् 2. nā́s”5) ; Latin: “nasus” ; English: “nose”
Sanskrit: दम् “Dám”, also “Dáma” ( दम ) ; Latin: “domus”6 ; English: “a house” (Greek: δόμος “domos”)
Sanskrit: नौ “naú”, also नाव “nāva” ; Latin: “navis”7 ; English: “a ship (or boat)” (Greek: ναῦς “naus”)
Sanskrit: जानु “jā́nu” ; Latin: “genu” ; English: “knee” (Greek: γόνυ “gonu”)
Sanskrit: वाच् “vā́c” ; Latin: “vox” ; English: “voice, sound, speech”
1 “dai-” sounds like dye, and rhymes with sky and why.
2 Note that δῖος “dios” originally had the digamma as δῖϝος, which with the digamma sounding like V would be “divos”.
3 “pitṛí” and “mātṛí” will also be seen as “pitṛ” and “mātṛ”, depending on who is transliterating and how strictly you are abiding by the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) scheme. See the second paragraph on page xxix for his reasons for transliterating this way.
4 Note that νέος “neos” originally had the digamma as νέϝος, which with the digamma sounding like V would be “nevos”.
5 नास् “nās” will sometimes be seen more loosely transliterated as “naas” to signify the slightly longer ‘a’ sound (as in “father”), as compared to the very short ‘a’ in नस् “nas” (which sounds almost like the vowel sound in “Tom” if said quickly).
6 Other words such as domestic and domicile come from this.
7 Other words such as naval and navy come from this. Compare also the Latin words “navigo” and “navigatio”; “nauticus” and “nauta”, and also the English word “nautical”.
And there are many more.
The Sanskrit letter व Va is very similar to the Latin V, being pronounced as the English V when it begins a syllable unless it comes directly after another consonant in the same syllable with no vowel between them—called a conjunct consonant—where it is then pronounced more like the English W. Thus for ऋग्वेद “Rigveda”, the व् v of वेद veda is pronounced as V since it begins the second syllable. Note that Sanskrit letters inherently have a short ‘a’ sound after a consonant (‘a’ as in father), so that if you only want to specify the consonant letter itself, a diagonal line, called Virama, is written underneath the letter. Thus व Va and व् V :
When व् v is the last member of a conjunct consonant it is pronounced like w, as द्वार[*] is pronounced dwára; but not after r, as सर्व sarva.
Williams, Monier. A Practical Grammar of the Sanskrit Language, Arranged with Reference to the Classical Languages of Europe, for the use of English Students. Fourth Edition. Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1877. Page 13.
[* This word contains a conjunct consonant and is written in a special way. I am currently not able to type this word as it is printed in the book, and have instead typed each letter sequentially. See section 5 beginning on page 4 to learn more about conjunct consonants.]
Another example of this is स्वद् “svad” or स्वाद् “svād”, pronounced as “swad” and meaning
- to taste well, be sweet or pleasant to;
- to taste with pleasure, enjoy, like, delight in;
- to make palatable, season;
- to make sweet or pleasant or agreeable;
- to be pleasant or wholesome;
- to propitiate, conciliate
Compare the Latin “suavis”, meaning ‘sweet, pleasant, agreeable, grateful, delightful’ or otherwise pleasant to the senses in one or more ways, pronounced as “swavis” and being originally written as “svavis”. See also “suadeo”, ‘to persuade’, pronounced as “swadeo” and originally written as “svadeo”; and “Suada” / “Suadela”, the goddess of persuasion (persuading you with her sweet words and pleasing appearance), pronounced “Swada / Swadela” and originally written as “Svada / Svadela”.
The Latin root “vid”, which helps form Latin words such as “video”, meaning ‘to see, discern, perceive’, is linked with the Sanskrit root विद् “vid”, which also means ‘to know, understand, perceive, learn, (etc.)’. Both of these are linked with the Greek root ἰδ “id”, which originally had the digamma and was ϝιδ, which with the digamma sounding like V would be “vid”. From these come the English “wit”, which is the later sound. You can see this to a certain extent in Hindi as well, where the “व Va” is often pronounced as “Wa”, though this is regional and there are still Hindi speakers that pronounce it as “Va”. Hindi is a descendant of Sanskrit, and the later sound of the Sanskrit “व Va” has in many areas become “Wa”.
In his Vedic Grammar, Arthur Macdonell brings out how B is interchanged with V in some very early Vedic writings:
a. [...] 3. In a few examples it takes the place of or interchanges with v; thus páḍbīśa- (RV.), beside páḍvīśa- (VS.); bāṇá- beside vāṇá- ‘arrow’; -blīna- (AV.) ‘crushed’, beside -vlīna_- (B.). [...]
Macdonell, A. A. Vedic Grammar. Strassburg, 1910. Page 36.
The Vedic period was before the classical Sanskrit period, and in this period the occasional interchange of B and V again shows the close relation between the two sounds in ancient times, similar to the Hebrew גַּו gav and גַּב gab examples above.
§ 3. Vox Graeca and Vox Latina
William Sidney Allen, who promotes the W sound for the digamma in his Vox Graeca, says:
[w] (Ϝ, ‘digamma’). In early Greek this sound existed as an independent phoneme; in the Cyprian and Mycenaean (Linear B) syllabaries there are signs for wa, we, wi, wo, and most of the dialects show epigraphic evidence in the form of a special letter, of which the most common shape is of the type Ϝ. This was a differentiated form of the Semitic ‘waw’, [...]
Allen, W. Sidney. Vox Graeca. Third Edition. Cambridge University Press, 1987. Page 47.
This is what all the proponents of the W sound inherently rely on: the “Semitic ‘waw’”. But as shown above in § 1, there is strong evidence it is a vav and not a waw. William Sidney Allen appeals to Sanskrit on page 48 of his Vox Graeca for additional support of the W sound, but only does so with the Sanskrit sva- combination, which as shown above in § 2, only has a W sound because the व Va is part of a conjunct consonant. The normal V sound of the व Va is weakened into a W sound by an adjacent strong consonant.
In his Vox Latina, William Sidney Allen references Nigidius Figulus in support of the W sound for the Latin V:
In the first century B.C. Nigidius Figulus (†Gellius, ⅹ, 4, 4) evidently referred to the consonant sound, like that of the vowel, in terms of lip-protrusion, which can only indicate a bilabial, semivocalic articulation (in a discussion of the origins of language, he points out that in the words tu and uos the lips are protruded in the direction of the person addressed, whereas this is not the case in ego and nos).
Allen, W. Sidney. Vox Latina. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 1978. Page 41.
This does not prove a W sound for “uos” (as he spells it, instead of the more proper “vos”), it only proves the long ‘o’ sound for the vowel, as in snow, no, and so. Here is the actual quote:
“When we say vos, or ‘you,’” says Nigidius, “we make a movement of the mouth suitable to the meaning of the word; for we gradually protrude the tips of our lips and direct the impulse of the breath towards those with whom we are speaking. But on the other hand, when we say nos, or ‘us,’ we do not pronounce the word with a powerful forward impulse of the voice, nor with the lips protruded, but we restrain our breath and our lips, so to speak, within ourselves. The same thing happens in the words tu or ‘thou,’ ego or ‘I,’ tibi ‘to thee,’ and mihi ‘to me.’ For just as when we assent or dissent, a movement of the head or eyes corresponds with the nature of the expression, so too in the pronunciation of these words there is a kind of natural gesture made with the mouth and breath. The same principle that we have noted in our own speech applies also to Greek words.”
Aurlus Gellius. Attic Nights. Book X, 4, 4.
English Translation by John C. Rolfe in his: The Attic Nights of Aurlus Gellius. Volume 2. 1927. Reprint, Harvard University Press, 1984. Page 229.
Pronounce “vos” with a long ‘o’ sound and notice how your lips still protrude, whether you pronounce it as ‘vos’ or ‘wos’. So this particular point can't be used to prove a V or W sound, as ‘vos’ and ‘wos’ are too close to each other in their pronunciation. Also, William Sidney Allen leaves out the part where Nigidius refers to “a powerful forward impulse of the voice,” which is a description that would much more likely be used to illustrate a long ‘o’ sound. Say the following words and notice how the long ‘o’ has a much more powerful forward impulse of the voice than does the short ‘o’:
- vōs & wōs (long ‘o’) , rhymes with boast and coast
- vŏs & wŏs (short ‘o’), rhymes with floss and toss
William Sidney Allen appeals to Sanskrit for many other Latin letters in his Vox Latina, but when it comes to the Latin consonant V, he is completely silent on the matter. He even tries to compare the Indo-European root “wid-” (as he spells it, instead of “vid”) of the Latin “uideo” (as he spells it, instead of “video”) to the English “wit” in the first paragraph of page 41. But this ignores the Sanskrit root विद् “vid” of which I have already talked about above in § 2, and there is no evidence that the Sanskrit व Va was ever pronounced as anything other than with a V sound.
As of December 24, 2018, there is a comment on this post that says, “Based on etymological considerations, it seems pretty clear that Latin V was originally [w]”, to which I must say au contraire! Evidence of the etymology of the Latin consonantal V favors a V sound. This is especially so with the witness of Sanskrit.
The proponents of the W sound are always unable to explain the interchange of B and V (at least not that I have yet come across). There are inscriptions that show this, such as this one that has “REBOCA” for “REVOCA”, and “IN BIA LATA” for “IN VIA LATA”:
Muratori, Lodovico Antonio. Novus Thesaurus Veterum Inscriptionum. Ex Aedibus Palatinis, 1739. Page 479.
There are two other inscriptions on the same page that also spell “REBOCA” for “REVOCA” (see inscriptions 4 and 5).
Nor can they explain the affinity of F and V, as can be found in other inscriptions:
“FICTORIO” for “VICTORIO”, and “FICTORIA” for “VICTORIA”
Guter, Janus. Inscriptiones Antiquae. Ex Officina Commeliniana, 1603. Page 643.
“FICTORIAN” twice for for “VICTORIAN”
Ibid. Page 886.
This is comparable to the relation of F and V in English, as can been seen in the plural forms of certain words:
- wolf, wolves
- hoof, hooves
- leaf, leaves
- half, halves
- yourself, yourselves
- life, lives
- knife, knives
- shelf, shelves
There is also circumstantial evidence for the sound of V. During his reign, Emperor Claudius introduced three new letters into the Latin alphabet, with one of the new letters representing the consonantal V. Out of all the symbols and glyphs he could have used, Emperor Claudius chose Ⅎ, an upside-down reversed F. This could also be called the inverse of F. The sound of V is the inverse of the sound of F, since a large force of air is expelled from your mouth when pronouncing syllables of F, whereas very little air is expelled when pronouncing syllables of V:
- fa, va
- fe, ve
- fi, vi
- fo, vo
- fu, vu
The fact that the Latin V was represented in Greek by ου and β during the same time period shows that ου and β were only approximations to the Latin V. This can be seen most clearly where both ου and β are used in a Greek transliteration of Mevianus as Μηουβιανός (see page 62 in Leonhard Tafel's Latin Pronunciation and the Latin Alphabet. Philadelphia: I. Kohler; New York: B. Westermann & Co., 1860.).
The relation of V as a consonant and its cooresponding vowel sound of U goes back all the way to Hebrew, where the ו Vav can act as the vowel U, and also O. Note the varying position of the dot, beside and above the Vav:
ו = V
וּ = U, also וֹ = O
This can also be seen most clearly in the Sanskrit and Latin words for boat or ship, or of pertaining to a boat or ship:
Sanskrit: नौ “naú” and नाव “nāva”
Latin: “nauticus” and “navis”
The evidence for a V sound for the Latin consonantal V is very great. So great that perhaps only an audio recording could prove otherwise.
But an audio recording is not needed, because the most definitive evidence of all, that is completely absolute and irrefutable, is Julius Caeser's famous line of “Veni, vidi, vici” (vay-nee, vee-dee, vee-kee), I came, I saw, I conquered. No world conqueror would ever say something so dumb-sounding as way-nee, wee-dee, wee-kee.*
*Just a joke for anyone who managed to read to the end. 😛