The "times" of Isaiah

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Fri Aug 13 07:27:20 EDT 1999

Dear Peter,

Thank you, your post cleared up several points. My comments follow below.

>Dear Rolf,
>To answer your questions in reverse:
>2) I don't know. I wish I did and hope to look into this. Perhaps
>WEQATAL as a separate conjugation developed from "future perfect" WE-
>plus QATAL under the influence of analogy with WAYYIQTOL. In passages
>like Exodus 25-30 it seems to me clearly distinct from WE- plus QATAL
>and analogous to WAYYIQTOL, i.e. sequential, but with non-past and/or
>modal meaning. It may not be possible to make a definite distinction
>between two conjugations, rather there may be a range of meanings. So
>I would accept a broad range of meanings for WEQATAL, more so than for
>other conjugations, while maintaining the distinction (at least in
>principle though occasionally blurred in the Masoretic text) between

Your answer reveals the weaknesses in the view that WEQATAL is a distinct
conjugation and separated from QATAL and WE-QATAL. How can we believe in
something which can not be substantiated? How do you know that the future
meaning of WEQATAL in Exodus 25-30 is not conversational pragmatic
implicature? Is there anyone else believing in WEQATAL as a separate
conjugation who can show how we can distinguish  it from QATAL  and

>1) This is a tricky one to answer as I am not sure how to deal with
>the concept of reference time in cases like this of general (gnomic)
>and/or habitual actions. The writer clearly has in mind the idea that
>these events have taken place in the past, continue at present (as a
>generalisation, i.e. there is not necessarily an ironsmith hammering
>at the very minute that the prophet is writing), and will doubtless
>continue in the future.

I would not use the word "gnomic" (=a maxime with universal validity) for
the verses in question. Throughout the book of Isaiah the people are
condemned for their sinful actions, which they are aware of, and which they
practice, without necessarily doing them in the front of the speaking
>I am also not convinced of the value of such an analysis by reference
>time and deictic point for biblical Hebrew. If such an analysis simply
>defines whether an event is past, present or future with reference to
>the time of writing, it is clear that all verb forms can (at least in
>unusual circumstances) be any one of these three, and that the
>distinction (if made at all - in this instance it is not) is largely a
>pragmatic one. One might therefore conclude that Hebrew is "tenseless"
>(though that may depend on definitions). But that result merely
>confirms that this analysis has got us precisely nowhere in terms of
>understanding the Hebrew verb forms.

>(This tenseless analysis depends on an understanding of YIQTOL and
>WEQATAL forms as modal or habitual rather than non-past. Well, at
>least this explains the "prophetic perfect": in general future actions
>were considered uncertain and so "modal", but for the prophets God's
>future actions were certain and so not "modal". But I remain to be
>convinced that there is no time element involved.)

Here you seem to be at odds with general linguistics. A study of the
relationship between the deictic point (C), the reference time (RT) and the
event time (ET) is elementary for linguistic studies of languages. It is
correct that if we systematically apply such an analysis to Hebrew, the
result will be that we find that YIQTOL, WAYYIQTOL, WEYIQTOL, QATAL,  and
WEQATAL represent past, present, and future; thus forcing us to conclude
that tense is not grammaticalized in Hebrew. To discard the fundamental
linguistic method because we do not like this conclusion is not wise, to
say the least.
>To me the relevant point here for analysis of Hebrew verbs is not the
>relationship of the deictic point to the time of writing but rather
>the relationship between the deictic points or event times of the
>successive clauses within the passage. For example, in Isaiah 44:12,
>let us look at a single instance of this habitual action i.e. one
>ironsmith making one idol. In this case I would see the event time as
>advancing in lines 2,3,4 below (as regularly with WAYYIQTOL), but in 5
>(as regularly with X-QATAL) the new deictic point is before the
>previously established event time, and it establishes a new event
>time, which advances in 6; again at 7 a new event time is established
>(equivalent to that in 5) which advances again in 8.
>1 The ironsmith fashions it:              verbless
>2 FIRST he works it over the coals;       WEQATAL
>3 THEN he shapes it with hammers,         X-YIQTOL
>4 I.E. he forges it with his strong arm;  WAYYIQTOL
>5 MEANWHILE he becomes hungry             X-QATAL
>6 SO THAT his strength fails,             verbless
>7 ALSO he drinks no water                 X-QATAL
>8 and AS A RESULT is faint.               WAYYIQTOL

However, I have problems with your words "the deictic points or event times
of the clauses within a passage".
I suggest that you read "Tense" (1985) by Bernard Comrie. This book is an
elementary introduction to the linguistic view of time and tense.  Comrie
shows that the deictic point (C) can be established on the basis of the
relationship both in space and time between the speaker/writer and his
audience. If the context does not show anything else,  C is speech time. In
Isaiah 44, C is undoubtedly connected with the speaking of the prophet. If
someone relates an account, C does not change for each verb but it is the
same throughout the account if not the context does not explicitly show a
difference in one or more cases.

In my view, your angle of approach does not explain anything regarding the
meaning of the verb forms, it only addresses the question of coordination
and subordination of sentences, a question which is related to the use of
conjunctions and syntax rather than to verb forms. We can see this if we
use a past or a future setting instead of a present one:

The ironsmith fashioned it:              verbless
FIRST he worked it over the coals;       WEQATAL
THEN he shaped it with hammers,         X-YIQTOL
I.E. he forgot it with his strong arm;  WAYYIQTOL
MEANWHILE he became hungry             X-QATAL
SO THAT his strength failed,             verbless
ALSO he drank no water                 X-QATAL
and AS A RESULT was faint.               WAYYIQTOL

The nuances are not affected whether RT is before C or contemporaneous with
C, and the same is true if RF comes after C (try to change the whole
sequence into future meaning.)

To speak of a new "deictic point", is strange. Take Mark's use of historic
present as an example. He speaks of Jesus coming to a certain place, saying
this or that and doing this or that. Each verb has its event time (ET)
(from the  beginning to the end), but there is hardly a new C. The
definition of " present tense" according to Comrie is not punctual (the
present moment) but events starting before and/or continuing after, but
including the present moment. When C is the same as speech time, which in
most instances is the case, it can include a host of expressions (verbs)
each with its own ET, but C is related to the speaker and his audience and
not to single verbs.

I do not dispute the nuances you find in the verses, although it is
possible to make a different scheme of nuances. I have several times argued
that the combination of aspect (QATAL/WEQATAL-YIQTOL/WAYYIQTOL) and the
three semantic properties of the Vendlerian categories (dynamicity,
durativity, and telicity) and the singularity/plurality and
definiteness/indefiniteness of the verbal arguments can signal different
subtleties or nuances. The methodological problem in your approach,
however, as I see it, is that particular syntactic roles are ascribed to
conjunction+verb form on the basis of theory, and the fact that the force
of the conjunction *alone* and/or the syntax may equally well account for
what you call "flashback" and "background clause". For example, in a
narrative with WAYYIQTOLs, there is no wonder when a QATAL or WEQATAL
represent a break or a background information or of some kind or a
pluperfect; not necessarily because the form has a particular semantic
meaning, but because it "breaks" the "semantic convention", and similarly
in a future account with YIQTOLs where other forms occur inbetween.
Regarding WEQATAL, about 10% are imperatives (many follow an imperative, cf
Isaiah 6:9 "Go and tell"). In these cases the conjunction is required and
has only a syntactic function. Another 10% occur as protasis/apodosis in a
conditional (or temporal) clause. Again the WAW is strictly syntactic. We
also have many examples where the WAW is adversative ("but"). About 50% of
the 	WEQATALs have future meaning, the WAWs of many of these signal
simple coordination: the prophetic words says that this will happen, and
this and that. I am not aware of a single instance where the WE- in WEQATAL
does not have the force of a conjunction.

So, the "strange" forms of Isaiah 44:12-17, as far as their semantic
meaning is concernced, remain unexplained; and remember, there are hosts of
similar "strange" forms in this book alone.

>I hope this helps you to understand how I am viewing this passage and
>its potential usefulness in understanding the Hebrew verb system. I
>expect that from such a starting point we can get past the rather
>negative "everything is pragmatic" arguments and start to make real
>progress on understanding the subtle semantic distinctions between
>various verb forms.
>Peter Kirk

I do not claim that "everything is pragmatic" but rather that "everything
is not semantic". Therefore we need a method which in a systematic way can
pinpoint the elements of the verbal system which are semantic and which are
pragmatic. But if you refuse to use fundamental linguistic methods, such as
the realtionship between C, RT and ET, our work is not more than guesswork.

I will conclude with an interesting quote from "Tense" (p 61) regarding
narrative accounts:

"In looking for examples of relative time reference,it is essential to
ensure that the relative time reference interpretation is part of the
meaning of the form in question, rather than an implicature deriverd from,
in part, the meaning of the context. One area which is particularly
confusing in this respect is narrative, where one gains the impression of a
sequence of events which ar located temporally one almost immediately after
the other, the chronological sequence miorrored in the linear order of
clauses.  Thus one might be tempted to think that this sequencing is part
of the meaning of the verb form used, thus introducing a meaning of
'immediate past' or 'immediate future' relative time reference (depending
on whether one defined the time  reference of the preceding verb in terms
of the following verb, or vice verca). However, as was shown in section
1.8, this sequency of events is a property of narrative itself, quite
independent of the verb form used to encode narrative, so that the mere
fact that verb forms receive this interpretation in narrative is not
sufficient evidence for assigning this meaning to those verb forms."


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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