The form of weqatal (really wayyiqtol)

Henry Churchyard churchyh at
Mon Aug 16 02:26:14 EDT 1999

> Subject: Re: The form of weqatal (really wayyiqtol)
> From: "Dave Washburn" <dwashbur at>
> Date: Sun, 15 Aug 1999 18:48:13 -0700

> Henry wrote:

>> No amount of general speculating in the areas of morphology and/or
>> semantics will ever disprove the hypothesis of the original
>> phonological distinctness of the stems of unsuffixed forms of
>> wayyiqtol vs. yiqtol; this is a (diachronic) phonological theory,
>> which will be refuted on specific phonological grounds or not at
>> all.

> I would have to suggest that it is virtually impossible to
> "disprove" most any hypothesis of this type.  The goal, as I see it,
> is to find the approach that best fits the data with the smallest
> number of problems.

Well, there are actually ways in which many shoddy historical-
phonological analyses can be torn to shreds by someone knowledgeable
in the historical phonology of the language(s) involved -- on the
basis of not being in accord with the relevant facts, being logically
inconsistent or incoherent, making wrong predictions, etc.  I like to
think I've been careful and paid close attention to detail, but I'm
not arrogant enough to think that my analysis is totally invulnerable
to scrutiny on historical-phonological grounds.  But someone examining
the synchronic semantics of Biblical Hebrew verb conjugations is
simply working in the wrong area to be able to say much about it

> Perhaps I can contact you off-list when I finish reading the chapter
> and we can discuss whether we have anything to kick around on-list,


>> Hebrew often adds long strings of prefixes to words
>> (ubhk at shemeha'ah.ashdarpanim, to quote a facetious and not entirely
>> Biblical example mentioned once by one of my Hebrew teachers), and
>> this never results in any general observable phonological tendency
>> to shorten the ends of words.

> ????  Can you give a few actual biblical examples?  From what I can
> dig out of that, um, prodigious example, u = conjunction, b =
> preposition, h = article, the rest I won't bother with.

Apparently there's a tradition (I don't know whether true or false),
that the word 'ah.ashdarp at nim (i.e. Satraps of the Persian Empire) --
or some prefixed and/or suffixed form thereof -- is the longest word
in the Hebrew Bible, so there's a language game among some Israeli
speakers to find the "longest Hebrew word" by adding the maximal
number of prefixes and suffixes onto 'ah.ashdarp at nim (generally
according to Israeli rules rather than Biblical rules, I gather).
Here kshe- is "when" (i.e. ka'asher) and me- is "from", so the whole
thing means "and when from the satraps" (not translating the b-, since
I can't figure out what it adds, though I remember it being in there).
This is of course a language game like "disestablishmentarianism"
rather than serious Biblical scholarship.

But there actually can be a fair amount of material of various types
occurring before the first root consonant in Biblical Hebrew forms,
and generally almost none of it except the preposition me-/min can
stand on its own as an independent phonological word -- and prefixing
as such doesn't seem to be a phonological cause of stress-movement.
Against your "balance" explanation is the fact that adding w at - to
qatalta can result in greater _imbalance_ (though I would argue that
w at - in w at qatalta, just like waC- in wayyiqtol, is not a _phonological_
conditioning factor for stress shift).

>>>> I don't know if waC- has "conversive force", but it certainly
>>>> seems to have "conjunctive force" -- or why don't we see
>>>> w at wayyiqtol or uwayyiqtol (whichever form the conjunction w at -
>>>> would take on when attaching to a word already beginning with w-,
>>>> something which doesn't occur in the Bible)?

>>> My approach predicts that this would be the case, because
>>> conjunction/coordination would suggest a syntactic connection.
>>> If, as I submit, the wayyiqtol indicates a syntactic break, it
>>> wouldn't be expected to take a conjunction.

>> So are wayyiqtol-chains sequences of asyndetical clauses?  Forgive
>> the semantic ignorance of a phonologist, but if the main default
>> meaning of simple wayyiqtol chains is "First X happened, then Y,
>> then Z" etc.  (Genesis 25:34), I don't see how this is incompatible
>> with a conjunctive element in the meaning of wayyiqtol.

> I wouldn't say asyndetic, but rather simple declarative clauses.  I
> suggest that the syntactic "meaning" of wayyiqtol chains is "X
> happened.  Y happened.  Z happened."  Syntactically, it gives no
> indications about sequence.  This is derived from semantic and
> pragmatic factors, not from the syntactic force of the wayyiqtol.
> We've seen several examples on this list that show the idea "First
> X, then Y etc." cannot be an uncancellable meaning of the wayyiqtol,
> so I would have to disagree that sequence is the "main default
> meaning" (an expression I haven't seen elsewhere so far).

No doubt I'm mangling the terminology horribly, but when you see a
long chain of short wayyiqtol clauses, the natural interpretation is
that there's some connection between them.  If you translated Gen.
25:34 as "He ate.  He drank.  He got up.  He went away.  He despised
the blessing.", then you'd be capturing the literary style of Albert
Camus' _L'Etranger_, but I don't know how accurately you would be
conveying the nuances of the original Hebrew to an ordinary

>>>> Also, if the waC- prefix of the wayyiqtol has no relationship
>>>> with the conjunction, then why did this waC- escape the
>>>> phonological change of word-initial w- to y- which basically
>>>> affected every word in the Hebrew language except the conjunction
>>>> w at -?

>> the main systematic native exception to this w- -> y- change within
>> the Biblical dialect is the conjunction.  If the waC- prefix of the
>> wayyiqtol has no relationship to the conjunction, then it will be a
>> second and independent exception to the historical Hebrew w- -> y-
>> change, which looks a little coincidental.

> Once again, you're talking words.  I'm talking specified grammatical
> formatives, which obviously don't appear in the lexicon.  I suspect,
> though I'm far over my head here, that the main reason the
> conjunction didn't undergo this change is because it is a one-letter
> word, and the sort of change you describe might have rendered it
> unrecognizable.  But a grammatical formative of the type I describe
> probably wouldn't fall into the kind of sound-change category you
> describe, since it's a fixed form that signals a particular
> syntactic feature as part of the verb's inflection.

Sound changes of this type aren't normally targeted to specific
word-classes, but apply across the board to strings of sounds
regardless of morphemic composition, so that if such a change fails to
apply in certain specific cases, then it's generally assumed that
there must have been some specific explanation (though we might not be
able to discover it).  It's certainly possible that "functional"
pressures played a role in preventing the w- -> -y change from taking
hold in the conjunction -- but that explanation won't apply to waC- of
the wayyiqtol if waC- is a completely separate morpheme from the
conjunction, so that a new explanation would be needed.

I don't particularly see how the conjunction is more "word-like" than
waC- (if that's what you're saying): the conjunction is a bound
morpheme which is completely unable to appear as an independent
phonological word.  It is true that the conjunction is somewhat
promiscous in what it attaches to, while waC- only appears in strictly
limited morphological contexts, but this still doesn't really make the
conjunction a word, according to most linguistic definitions of

Henry Churchyard   churchyh at

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