(long) HEBREW ASPECTS
furuli at online.no
Mon Feb 14 03:45:42 EST 2000
Not long ago we had a discussion with the subject "YIQTOL with past
meaning". I did not have time to continue this discussion. But because of
the comments in your last post and because some have asked questions off
list, I would like to
elucidate somewhat my definition of aspect.
Alviero is right when he time an again has stressed that there is no
one-to-one relationship between an action and the expression of it by the
writer. Words just help our imagination so we get a mental picture of
something that is concrete or abstract. Just think of modality which we
define by a reference to this world (indicative) and to possible worlds
(subjunctive). But what do we mean by "possible worlds"? In a way it is a
picture or a metaphor or a comparison that helps us to get a notion of
something. When we have this notion in mind and we work with different
expressions that are modal (and see their use), we get a clearer picture of
modality. But still modality is quite elusive. We can also illustrate this
by pointing out that an English child is able to use modal and other
expressions in a correct way without ever having heard of modality or
grammar. This is because s/he is a native speaker and have intuition. My
point here is that it is possible to "know" a language without ever having
tried to define its different parts, and some parts of the language are so
elusive that they can only be defined by comparisons or illustrations.
When I say that the imperfective aspect is a closeup view of a part of an
event with details visible and the perfective aspect is a broad view from
some distance with details not visible - this is a picture, a metaphor -
which should help the reader to get a glimpse of the notion "aspect". The
picture is based on the principle that actions and states can be viewed
exactly as things are viewed. We can see a thing close by and view the
details of a small part of it, or we can see the whole thing without clear
details from some distance. So let me try to help you get some more
understanding of the relationship between aspect and the metaphor used to
illustrate it. This can be done by elucidating what is meant by "a closeup
view with details visible."
I think the infinite forms can help us in this respect, particularly the
difference between the infinitive construct and the participle.
If we look at the use of the infinitives, we find that they do not have any
*scope*, but they portray events much the same way QATAL does. The
difference is that QATAL has a broad aspectual scope where the end of an
event plays a role while the infinitive simply reveal the action as such
without any particular scope. Let us use MWT, which is telic (or telic and
dynamic) as an example. Consider (1) below:
(1) 1Kings 13:31 And after he had buried him, he said to his sons, "When I
die (INFINITIVE), bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried;
lay my bones beside his bones.
The infinitive is used in the normal way. the preposition signals a
temporal clause, the suffix is subject, and what is made visible, simply is
the death event without any focus on the internal structure of the event.
It is possible to make this internal structure visible by using an
infinitive, but then other elements have to be used in combination with the
infinitive (the rule is that the internal structure is not visible when an
infinitive is used) An example where the internal structure is made visible
by pragmatic means is (2)
(2) 2Chr. 24:22 Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness which
Jehoiada, Zechariah's father, had shown him, but killed his son. And when
he was dying (INFINITIVE), he said, "May the LORD see and avenge!"
The reason for the rendering "when he was dying" is pragmatic. The phrase
is literally "and as he to die", but because our knowledge of the world
tells us that a person does not speak after he has died, we interpret the
infinitive to refer to the point before he died. But this can not be
gathered from the infinitive *alone*.
Let us then reason a little about participles and see how they in a
completely different way make a part of the internal structure visible. We
can demonstrate this if we vary number and definiteness of the verbal
arguments (subject and object)
(3) (a) They had to TO REACH the tops.
(b) They had to TO REACH the top.
(c) She had to TO REACH the tops.
(d) She had TO REACH the top.
By considering (3) we learn that an infinitive in English is not effected
(does not signal different nuances of the action) by the
singularity/plurality or definiteness/indefiniteness of the verbal
arguments. The same is true with English perfect which is used to express
the perfective aspect. We can see this from (4)
(4) (a) They have REACHED the tops.
(b) They have REACHED the top.
(c) She has REACHED the tops.
(d) She has REACHED the top.
While the infinitive and perfect in English (and I claim the same is true
for infinitive construct and QATAL and WEQATAL in Hebrew) only reveal the
action as such (not as a point, but rather as a blob, as Comrie says)
without revealing any of its structure, this is not true with the English
participle. Please consider (5).
(5) (a) They were REACHING the tops.
(b) They were REACHING the top.
(c) She was REACHING the tops.
(d) She was REACHING the top.
The participle reveals progressive action, and that is the reason why it
seldom is used to describe states (We say; "Peter loved Mary" and not
#"Peter was loving Mary"). The participle focuses on a small part of the
progressive action and makes it visible, and that is what I mean by "a
closeup view with details visible". The force of the participle can be
described as (5) (e) below:
xxxx = focus of the progressive action of the English and Hebrew participle
B = beginning
E = end
The force of the participle can be compared with the second law of
thermodynamics (the law of entropy). The first law ( which can be expressed
by E=mc2) states that the mass/energy in the universe is constant, energy
can be changed to mass vice verca, but it cannot be destroyed. The second
law states that the amount of energy in the universe that is useful for
work, decreases through time. This means that the order of the universe is
decreasing and it is going toward equilibrium or a "heat death". While
entropy (which is a measure for disorder) increases in the universe as a
whole, there can be parts of the universe where entropy decreases and order
increases. But-and this is what is important-an decrease in entropy one
place must be accounted for by an increase in entropy some other place
inside the closed system which the universe is believed to be.
And here we find our illustration. Just as in the universe, there is a
"balance" in the clauses with participles between the participles and the
arguments (subject/object). Because the participle reveals progressive
action (makes details visible), this progressive action must be accounted
Consider the four clauses of (5).
Regarding 5a. The progressive action in this clause with plural/definite
subject and object leads to the interpretation that the group climbed top
Regarding 5b. The progressive action in this clause with plural definite
subject and singular definite object make two interpretations possible. (1)
The group (they) were on the point of reaching the top but had not reached
it, or (2) several persons were reaching the top one after another, but the
last person had not reached the top at the point that is focussed upon.
Regarding 5c. The progressive action in the clause with singular definite
subject and plural definite object leads to the interpretation that she
reached one top and then another and so forth. But she had not reached the
Regarding 5d. The progressive action in this clause with singular definite
subject and object leads to just one possible interpretation: She was on
the point of reaching the top, but had not yet reached it.
Several of the interpretations above are based on the necessity to account
for the progressive action somewhere. The English participle shuns
beginning and end, so its progressive nature must be accounted for between
these points, or it can be accounted for by several actions being
accomplished, but not the last one, as in (5) (a). I have not studied all
occurrences of the Hebrew participle but it seems that it behaves exactly
as its English counterpart as far as progressive action is concerned.
We can illustrate the Hebrew use by MWT, NKH.
2Kings 17:26 So the king of Assyria was told, "The nations which you have
carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the
god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they
are killing (PLURAL PARTICIPLE) them, because they do not know the law of
the god of the land."
(6) (b) 2Chr. 28:23 For he sacrificed to the gods of Damascus which had
defeated (PARTICIPLE) him, and said, "Because the gods of
the kings of Syria helped them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help
me." But they were the ruin of him, and of all Israel.
(6) (c) Psa. 136:10 to him who smote (PARTICIPLE) the first-born of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures for ever;
(6) (d) Gen. 48:21 Then Israel said to Joseph, "Behold, I am about to die
(PARTICIPLE), but God will be with you, and will bring you again to the
land of your fathers.
The examples (6) (a), (b), (c), and (d) are similar to (5) (a), (b), (c)
and (d). The most interesting example is of course (6) (d) where the
subject is singular and definite and the verb is transitive and
dynamic/telic. The focus is on a point imediately before the event, just as
in the clause "she was reaching the top". While the nature of the English
and Hebrew participles are similar, there is also a difference. Please
(7) 2Sam. 14:7 And now the whole family has risen against your handmaid,
and they say, 'Give up the man who struck (PARTICIPLE) his brother, that
we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he slew (QATAL)';
How shall we interpret the participle in (7)? In truth-conditional
linguistics. a literal translation of the participle in (7) would be
problematic in English. A sentence like (8) would be strange or impossible.
(8) #Last january Rick was killing his wife, and He was sentenced to 20
years in prison because of the murder.
Because a QATAL is parallel with the participle in (7), it cannot mean that
the man "was on the point of killing his brother", but the case was that
the killing actually had taken place. One alternative could be to say that
the participle is punctual (as some do), but I would strongly object to
such an interpretation, because this is against the progressive nature of
the participle (and would be ad hoc explanation)- and I assume that Hebrew
is a coherent language where one meaning of a form cannot be the diametral
opposite of its essence. Therefore the progressive nature of the participle
must be accounted for somwhere. I see two alternative views: (a) The action
is resultative, i.e. we are led through the end of the striking and the
result is focused upon.(b) The striking is viewed as something durative;
i.e. the Aktionsart of NKH is not punctual but durative, and the focus is
on the progression of the striking, and the end is ignored, because it is
implied (by to the Aktionsart of the verb).I see no indications of
resultativity here in this Hiphil participle, and because the participle
tends to shun both beginning and end, I exclude (a). Then only (b) remains,
and this explanation is theoretically logical because punctuality is not a
semantic property; i.e. any verb that is viewed as punctual can have a
durative interpretation as well. A similar example where a part of the
action expressing progression is focused upon while the end is ignored even
though the action is past, is "smote" ("was smiting") of Psalm 136:10
(Example (6) (c)).
The present participle in English is viewed as an expression of the
imperfective aspect, but it is hardly a *grammaticalized* aspect because it
can be used attributively as well. The same is true with the Hebrew
participle, which has a function that is quite similar to its English
counterpart. In Hebrew, however, the aspects are grammaticalized, the
prefix form represents the imperfective aspect and the suffix-form
represents the perfective aspect. The fact that Hebrew has grammaticalized
aspects while English has not, suggests that English and Hebrew aspects are
different. In fact, while most of the functions of the English and Hebrew
participles are similar, a great difference is that the English participle
cannot portray past situations of telic and dynamic/telic verbs (example
(8)) while the Hebrew can portray such situations (examples (6) (c) and
(7). It is important to note that the Hebrew participle is *not* an aspect
because it is not concerned with beginning and end; it is only a verbal
noun. The reason why the Hebrew participle by some is viewed as an aspect
(the imperfective one), is that it focuses on a small part of the action
and makes visible the progression of this action just as the imperfective
aspect does. This similarity is important, because, just as the progression
of the participle must be accounted for *somewhere*, the same is true for
the progression revealed by the imperfective aspect. Thus the law of
entropy is a good illustration for the imperfective aspect as well. The
difference between the participle and the imperfective aspect, is, as
already stated, that the imperfective aspect is concerned with beginning
and end while the participle is not. Fig (9) illustrates the difference:
The scope of the participle
The scope of the imperfective aspect
(e)---Bxxx---------E (beginning included)
(g)---B-----------xExx (end included)
In order to avoid confusion by following too many paths at the same time, I
only discuss YIQTOL and QATAL which most students of Hebrew view as
representing the imperfective and perfective aspect respectively. My task
is particularly to illustrate the difference between the participle and the
imperfective aspect and between the perfective and imperfective aspects.
I still stick to the view that the difference between the three can be
expressed by the parameters *distance*, *scope*, *beginning*, and *end* in
A. The participle and the imperfective aspect are similar as regards
distance but they differ in scope. The imperfective aspect is concerned
with beginning and end but the participle is not.
B. The perfective and the imperfective aspect differ both in distance and
scope, and while their relationship to the beginning of an event or a state
can be the same, their relationship to the end is different. This means
that both aspects can include the beginning, but only the perfective aspect
can include the end.
/In resultative situations the imperfective aspect includes the end of the
event, but it is still open because it does not include the end of the
resulting state. Thus "it does not include the end"./
While I in the past have not found any *semantic* properties (uncancelable
characteristics) in the two aspects, because the criteria for such are so
strict, I now see the possibility that they may have semantic properties
(using the same criteria). I have to work more on this. But let us now take
a look at the imperfective aspect, and we start with its important
progressive nature (or better: progression is revealed through the
peep-hole, the imperfective aspect), the area where it is similar with the
participle. The important point is that this progressive nature must be
accounted for *somewhere*.
Because I will use passages as linguistic *examples*, I will use Greek
passages in order to keep the focus on principle rather than on semantics.
Let us look at (9)(d) which is a conative situation.
(9) (d) Heb. 11:17 (NRSV) By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered
up (perfect) Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up
(imperfect) his only son,
The Greek imperfect represents past meaning and the imperfective aspect. We
know that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac. But because of (1) the
meaning of the verb, (2) that subject and object are singular and definite,
and (3) the verb is telic (or dynamic/telic), the progression must be
accounted for *before* its beginning. So the force must be conative. The
use of an aorist (the perfective aspect) would not have signaled a conative
interpretation. /BTW. The only translation of which I am aware that really
gives justice to the Greek perfect/imperfect is The New World Translation
which renders the verse thus: "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, as
good as offered up Isaac, and the man that had gladly received the promises
attempted to offer up his only-begotten son."/
Let us then look at (9) (e) where the beginning is included.
(9) (e) Luke 5:6 (NRSV) When they had done this, they caught so many fish
that their nets were beginning to break (imperfect).
Consider (9) (f) which is egressive.
Mark 4:38 (NRSV) But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they
woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are
Consider (9) (g) which is resultative/factitive.
(9) (g) Mark 2:5 (NRSV) When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the
paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven (present)."
Because the imperfective aspect is a "peephole" (this is my explanation)
through which a small part of the progressive action is focused upon, this
aspect is used to signal conative, ingressive, egressive, and
resultative/factitive situations. Being "peepholes" the aspects do not have
any characteristics of their own, but their way of making things visible
are different. Because the imperfective aspect is a closeup view of the
details of progressive action, this progressive action must be accounted
for somewhere. And this is the reason why the imperfective aspect can
signal the situations mentioned above. The perfective aspect is not used to
signal such situations, but if such situations are described with the
perfective aspect, the nature of the situation must be explained by the
The scope of the perfective aspect makes it fit to signal other situations
than the imperfective one. One important use of this aspect is to signal
the entrance into a state. The imperfective aspect can signal the beginning
and continuance of an action, because it reveals progressiveness. The
perfective aspect which take a distance perspective without details being
made visible,thus not being concerned with progressiveness, is naturally
used with states which by definition are not progressive, only durative.
(10) (a) 1Kings 15:1 (NRSV) Now in the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam son
of Nebat, Abijam began to reign (QATAL) over Judah.
(10) (b) 1Kings 15:2 He reigned (QATAL) for three years in Jerusalem. His
mother's name was Maacah daughter of Abishalom.
10a has an inceptive interpretation while 10b covers the whole period. What
is interesting with 10a, is that the end is not included as it is in 10b.
There are hundreds of similar examples where the end is not included in
verbs where QATAL is used. From this I see no other possibility than to
conclude that the Hebrew perfective aspect (QATAL) is different from the
English perfective aspect (perfect) where the end *allways* is included.
The common denominator for QATAL, therefore, is not the inclusion of the
end, although the inclusion of the end is very common. QATAL is used for
past, present and future, and the end is included and not included. What is
common in all this, is that a big chunk of the situation is focused upon,
so big that it often includes beginning and end. There is no need to
account for progressiveness or anything similar in the perfective aspect,
but as in the case of the infinitive construct the event as such is made
In this rather long post I hope I have been able to convey the following
two points quite clearly:
(1) The Hebrew forms QATAL and YIQTOL *are aspects* and not strange species
that are not found in other languages.
(2) The Hebrew QATAL and YIQTOL have characteristics making them similar to
the English perfective and imperfective aspect. But there are also
differences, the chief one being that while the end is an absolute
distinguishing point between the English aspects, this is not the case in
Hebrew. The Hebrew imperfective aspect never includes the end (except in
resultative cases where the end of the resulting state is not included).
The Hebrew perfective aspect often includes the end but not allways. A
generalization based upon distance and scope, rather than on the end,
better accounts for the Hebrew data than the usual explanations.
In addition to the two points above I would like to add that the
traditional explanation of the problematic WAYYIQTOL is based upon two
(a) Hebrew aspects function exactly as English aspects.
(b) Narrative accounts where terminated events occur in consecution can
only be described by an aspect or tense where the end is included.
If these premises are discarded, there is nothing that prevents us from
vieweing WAYYIQTOLs as normal YIQTOLs + WAW, that is, as imperfective
aspects where the end is not included.
Allow me a last word on method. Because informants are lacking, we should
strive to find situations that are as close as possible to
"minimal-pair"-situations. To use the parameters singularity/plurality and
definiteness/indefiniteness in connection with the verbal arguments
(subject/object) where the verbs are telic or telic/dynamic can give
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