The "times" of Isaiah

peter_kirk at peter_kirk at
Fri Aug 13 18:14:28 EDT 1999

Dear Rolf,

It seems that I have confused "deictic point" with "event time". You 
are right, I should read Comrie's "Tense". However, I do not dispute 
your conclusion that, according to your definitions, tense is not 
grammaticalised in Hebrew. What I continue to dispute is your apparent 
conclusion that there is no distinction of meaning between different 
Hebrew verb forms.

You say that my "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." Well, I would dispute that. Consider the sentences:

1) I am excited because my friend has come home.
2) I am excited because my friend will be coming home.

These sentences are distinguished not by conjunctions or syntax but 
only by the verb forms in the subordinate clause. The relationship 
between RT and C is presumably the same. Yet surely you would not 
dispute that there is a difference in meaning between these sentences, 
and that this is more than a "subtlety" or a "nuance" but is 
fundamental. These are the sorts of distinctions which, in my view, 
are signalled in Hebrew also by different verb forms, rather than (or 
sometimes in conjunction with) different conjunctions and syntax.

As for theories of how the different temporal and logical 
relationships between clauses, what you call "nuances", are related to 
the combination of verb forms, syntax and conjunctions, this is 
clearly a field for further study, and I would not expect that the 
distinction is made by the verb form alone. On the other hand, the 
English examples quoted above make it clear to me that we cannot rule 
out a priori the possibility of the verb form playing an important 
role, and indeed it seems likely since I think we can presume that 
some distinction of meaning is signalled by distinctions between verb 
forms, i.e. YIQTOL and QATAL for example are not totally synonymous.

Finally, I do not "refuse to use fundamental linguistic methods", 
though I may have misunderstood the one in question here. It can 
assume that this particular method of analysis, by the relationship 
between C and RT, has been correctly applied, and it seems to have 
yielded an informative result, but a rather negative one, that the 
distinctions between Hebrew verb forms are not distinctions of tense. 
At that point, if we wish to make progress, we need to use different 
"fundamental linguistic methods", whether established ones or 
experimental ones, to search for the correct understanding of the 
distinctions which we are studying. It is of course possible that we 
will not be able to find any explanation, but that should not be for 
want of searching with whatever tools are at hand, rather than 
assuming that the explanation cannot be found because one particular 
tool has failed to find it. Perhaps we need to read beyond Comrie's 
"Tense" to some of his (and other authors') other works.

Peter Kirk

______________________________ Reply Separator _________________________________
Subject: Re[2]: The "times" of Isaiah
Author:  furuli at at internet
Date:    13/08/1999 06:27

Dear Peter,

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


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.)


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. 


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.


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