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The waw-consecutive or vav-consecutive is a grammatical construction in Classical Hebrew. It involves prefixing a verb form with the letter waw in order to change its tense or aspect.

Waw/Vav is the sixth letter of the Semitic abjads, including Phoenician wāw, Aramaic waw, Hebrew vavו, Syriac waw ܘ and Arabic wāw و.

In grammar, tense is a category that expresses time reference with reference to the moment of speaking. Tenses are usually manifested by the use of specific forms of verbs, particularly in their conjugation patterns.

The lexical aspect or aktionsart of a verb is a part of the way in which that verb is structured in relation to time. Any event, state, process, or action which a verb expresses—collectively, any eventuality—may also be said to have the same lexical aspect. Lexical aspect is distinguished from grammatical aspect: lexical aspect is an inherent property of a (semantic) eventuality, whereas grammatical aspect is a property of a realization. Lexical aspect is invariant, while grammatical aspect can be changed according to the whims of the speaker.


Prefix vs. suffix conjugations

Biblical Hebrew has two main ways that each verb can be conjugated. The suffix conjugation takes suffixes indicating the person, number and gender of the subject, and normally indicates past tense (or alternatively, perfective aspect). The so-called prefix conjugation takes both prefixes and suffixes, with the prefixes primarily indicating person (and sometimes number or gender), while the suffixes (which are completely different from those used in the suffix conjugation) indicate number and gender whenever the prefix does not mark this. The prefix conjugation in Biblical Hebrew normally indicates non-past tense (or alternatively, imperfective aspect).

The perfective aspect, sometimes called the aoristic aspect is a grammatical aspect that describes an action viewed as a simple whole, i.e. a unit without interior composition. The perfective aspect is distinguished from the imperfective aspect, which presents an event as having internal structure. The term perfective should be distinguished from perfect.

The imperfective is a grammatical aspect used to describe a situation viewed with interior composition. The imperfective is used in language to describe ongoing, habitual, repeated, or similar semantic roles, whether that situation occurs in the past, present, or future. Although many languages have a general imperfective, others have distinct aspects for one or more of its various roles, such as progressive, habitual, and iterative aspects. The imperfective contrasts with the perfective aspect, which is used to describe actions viewed as a complete whole. In logical terms, the imperfective is generally defined as having the subinterval property; that is, a predicate φ is imperfective if and only if it follows from the truth of φ at an interval i that φ is true at all subintervals of i. Perfective aspect, on the other hand, is defined as having the "anti-subinterval" property; that is, a predicate φ is perfective if and only if it follows from the truth of φ at an interval i that φ is false at all subintervals of i.

However, early Biblical Hebrew has two additional conjugations, both of which have an extra prefixed letter waw, with meanings more or less reversed from the normal meanings. That is, "waw + prefix conjugation" has the meaning of a past (particularly in a narrative context), and "waw + suffix conjugation" has the meaning of a non-past, opposite from normal (non-waw) usage. This apparent reversal of meaning triggered by the waw prefix led to the early term waw-conversive (in Hebrew waw hahipuch, literally "the waw of reversal"). The modern understanding, however, is somewhat more nuanced, and the term waw-consecutive is now used.

Waw prefix

This Hebrew prefix, spelled with the letter ו (waw), is normally a conjunction with the meaning of "and" or "and the". Although always appearing in unpointed texts as a simple waw, it has various pronunciations depending on meaning and phonetic context. Specifically:

  1. When meaning "and", it is pronounced (and vocalized) as /wə-/ in most contexts, but as /u-/ either when the next consonant is a labial consonant (e.g. /b/, /p/, /m/, /w/) or when the vowel after the next consonant is a schwa.
  2. When meaning "and the", it is always pronounced as /wa-/, and triggers gemination of the next consonant (marked with a dagesh, or dot in the center of the letter, in vocalized text). Additional complications arise when the following consonant is in the class of consonants that cannot be geminated. /wa-/ is thought to be a contraction of /wǝ-ha-/ "and-the-" (note that the definite article /ha-/ likewise triggers gemination and similar complications).


When the waw prefix appears as part of a waw-consecutive form, it appears as /wǝ-/ (or /u-/) before the suffix conjugation, but /wa-/ + gemination before the prefix conjugation. Furthermore, the form of the prefix conjugation in the waw-consecutive form is sometimes different from that of the plain form, with stress retraction and concomitant weakening of the final vowel, e.g. in the hip̄ʿīl and nip̄ʿāl lexical conjugations.


Suffix conjugation Prefix conjugation
Normal Waw-consecutive Normal Waw-consecutive
"he entered" "(and) he will enter" "he will enter" "(and) he entered"

Consecutive verb syntax

Used with verbs, the prefix has a double function. It is still conjunctive, but also has the effect of altering the tense and aspect of the verb. Weingreen gives the following example. [1] If one considers two simple past narrative statements, one expects to find them in the perfect tense:

Šāmar ("kept") and šāp̄aṭ ("judged") are simple perfect qal forms, and they are the citation forms (lemmas) of these verbs. If however these two sentences are not separate but in one continuous narrative then only the first verb is in the perfect, whereas the following verb ("and he judged") is in the imperfect (yišpôṭ) with a prefixed waw:

In Hebrew grammar, the qal is the simple paradigm of the verb.

In morphology and lexicography, a lemma is the canonical form, dictionary form, or citation form of a set of words (headword). In English, for example, run, runs, ran and running are forms of the same lexeme, with run as the lemma. Lexeme, in this context, refers to the set of all the forms that have the same meaning, and lemma refers to the particular form that is chosen by convention to represent the lexeme. In lexicography, this unit is usually also the citation form or headword by which it is indexed. Lemmas have special significance in highly inflected languages such as Arabic, Turkish and Russian. The process of determining the lemma for a given word is called lemmatisation. The lemma can be viewed as the chief of the principal parts, although lemmatisation is at least partly arbitrary.

Conversely, in a continuous narrative referring to the future, the narrative tense will be the imperfect, but this becomes a perfect after the conjunction:

יִשְׁמֹר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת דְּבַר יְהֹוָה וְשָׁפַט אֶת הַעַם בְּצֶדֶק
The king will keep the word of the LORD and he will judge the people in righteousness.


The origin of this construction is usually placed in a shift in the meanings of certain verbal forms between Proto-Semitic and the Central Semitic languages. In Proto-Semitic, still largely reflected in East Semitic, prefix conjugations are used both for the past and the non-past, with different vocalizations. Cf. Akkadian niprus "we decided" (preterite), niptaras "we have decided" (perfect), niparras "we decide" (non-past), vs. suffix-conjugated parsānu "we are/were/will be deciding" (stative). According to Hetzron, [2] Proto-Semitic had an additional form, the jussive, which was distinguished from the preterite only by the position of stress: the jussive had final stress while the preterite had non-final (retracted) stress.

The Central Semitic languages are a proposed intermediate group of Semitic languages, comprising Arabic, and Northwest Semitic languages. In this reckoning, Central Semitic itself is one of three divisions of Semitic along with East Semitic and South Semitic.

East Semitic languages language family

The East Semitic languages are one of six divisions of the Semitic languages. The East Semitic group is attested by two distinct languages, Akkadian and Eblaite, both of which have been long extinct. They stand apart from other Semitic languages, traditionally called West Semitic, in a number of respects. Historically, it is believed that this linguistic situation came about as speakers of East Semitic languages wandered further east, settling in Mesopotamia during the third millennium BCE, as attested by Akkadian texts from this period. By the beginning of the second millennium BCE, East Semitic languages, in particular Akkadian, had come to dominate the region. They were influenced by the non-Semitic Sumerian language and adopted cuneiform writing.

Akkadian language extinct Semitic language

Akkadian is an extinct East Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia from the 30th century BC until its gradual replacement by Akkadian-influenced Old Aramaic among Mesopotamians by the eighth century BC.

Central Semitic significantly reshaped the system:

Form (Akkadian) Proto-Semitic meaning Waw-consecutive meaning Central-Semitic meaning
ní-prus preterite past (esp. narrative)
ni-prús jussive non-past
ni-p-taras perfect made part of lexical conjugation system (cf. Form VIII -t- conjugation in Arabic)
ni-parras non-past
parsānu stative (tenseless) future past

Essentially, the old prefix-conjugated jussive broadened to cover the non-past in general, while the stative switched from a non-tense-specific form to something specifically indicating a past action; meanwhile, the old prefix-conjugated non-past was discarded, as was the prefix-conjugated past (which increasingly came to sound the same as the prefix-conjugated jussive). New suffixes were added to distinguish different grammatical moods (e.g. indicative mood vs. subjunctive vs. jussive).

However, in Hebrew, elements of the old system survived alongside the new system for a while. Hetzron [2] suggests that the uses of the prefix-conjugated past were prefixed with */hawaya/ "it was" to clearly distinguish it from the often-homophonous prefix-conjugated non-past, and this evolved into /wa-/. This in turn was confused with /wa-/ "and the", causing it to take on the same phonological properties (e.g. the gemination of the following consonant). The non-past "/wǝ-/ + suffix-conjugation" was created by analogy, quite possibly influenced by the survival of the suffix conjugation as a stative form with nonspecific tense. Because the /wa-/ or /wǝ-/ was naturally interpreted as meaning "and" in addition to a signal for a different tensal interpretation of the forms, the waw-consecutive forms tended to be used in narrative, particularly in continuing rather than starting a story—precisely the places where the use of "and" would make sense.

Older explanations tended to posit that Hebrew was a "mixed language" derived from multiple Semitic sources, and that the two different tense systems reflect this mixed heritage. G. R. Driver writes: [3] "All attempts to explain this at first sight strange phenomenon, whereby two tenses apparently exchange functions, on logical grounds, have failed, but the historical development of the Hebrew language readily accounts for it. When it is remembered that this is a composite language containing elements drawn from all the Semitic languages, it is at once seen why it has two pronouns for the first person... [n 1] So there are two different systems, drawn from different sources, merged in the Hebrew scheme of tenses." On this view, the consecutive constructions are connected with the verb systems of East Semitic (Driver makes a comparison with Akkadian), whereas the ordinary verb construction reflects the usage in Northwest Semitic (Aramaic). The two have survived side-by-side in the Hebrew verb paradigm.

Modern Hebrew

Modern Hebrew makes little use of waw-consecutive constructions, but they are still found in classical allusions and references, and are readily understood.[ citation needed ]


  1. Hebrew has two words for "I": אֲנִי (ʾănî), which Driver explains as a West Semitic form, and אָנֹכִי (ʾānōḵî), which is East Semitic.

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  1. Weingreen, Practical Grammar p. 90.
  2. 1 2 Robert Hetzron. "Biblical Hebrew" in The World's Major Languages.
  3. G. R. Driver, in a letter to J. Weingreen, printed on p. 252 of Weingreen's Practical Grammar