The "times" of Isaiah

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Sun Aug 15 07:59:24 EDT 1999

Dear Peter,

>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.

I do not say "that there is no distinction of meaning between different
>Hebrew verb forms". What I say is that all YIQTOLs with and without
>prefixed WAW do not indicate tense and have the same aspectual  meaning;
>and similarly, all QATALs with and without WAW do not signal tense but
>have the same aspectual meaning. However, I see a modal difference in both
>groups- for the QATAL conjugation modality must be construed on the basis
>of the context, for the YIQTOL group modality is either expressed
>morphologically or on the basis of the context. Because Hebrew aspect is
>not concerned with internal event time in an objective way as are the
>English aspects, in many situations can both aspects be used without any
>recognizable difference in meaning (such as may also the the case with an
>active participle and a YIQTOL in a present context). In other situations
>will the combination of a certain aspect with other semantic factors
>signal a particular meaning
>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.

The relationship between RT and C is an important starting point, but there
are other factors to take into consideration as well as you express below
(including discourse analysis). Your example (1) and (2) illustrates your
point in a fine way, but at the same time it can be used to show the basic
weakness in using discourse analysis as *THE method par exellence*. On
which basis do you know there is a difference in meaning between (1) and
(2)? Because of your *knowledge" of English verbs, a knowledge you got from
informants!  Suppose now that we got the following two sentences in
"proto-English" from the 6th century BCE:

>1) I am excited because my friend unddcome home.
>2) I am excited because my friend dcome home.

RT and C coincides, and because the verb forms are different, there
probably is a semantic difference. However, the prefix resembles the
conjunction "und", so perhaps there is just a pragmatic difference? If you
know nothing about the meaning of the forms you cannot know the nature of
the difference!

Many of those who are much engaged in discourse analysis behave as if they
*knew* the meaning of the Hebrew forms (just as you know English), or
rather, they fix the meaning beforehand (of course on the basis of an
inductive study of a part of the Hebrew text), and then they do discourse
analysis on the basis of the meaning they ascribe to each form. This is of
course necessary, for how can we do discourse analysis if we do not *know*
the meaning of each form? However, this kind of exercise tells very little
about the very *meaning* of each form, it only shows patterns where
particular forms tend to occur, and of course, it is circular.  Discourse
analysis should be used as one tool among others, not as "way, the truth,
and the life".

>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


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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