The "times" of Isaiah

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Fri Aug 27 04:58:39 EDT 1999

Dear Peter,

I will clarify a little more, and you will probably be surprised by what I
say. It has not been my goal with our discussion to find the semantic
meaning of the Hebrew conjugations. The reason?  It seems to me that the
nature of these conjugations is of the kind that it cannot be given a
semantic meaning, i.e. we cannot describe each conjugation by a fixed set
of observations or relationships expressed in linguistic terms, thus
outlining a border of cancelability.

My attempt so far has been to falsify and not to try to verify. For
instance, if past tense is ascribed to WAYYIQTOL, a semantic meaning is
claimed (RT will allways be before C).  My data clearly shows that RT both
coincides with and comes after C in a host of WAYYIQTOLs, so it cannot
signify past tense. And similarly with QATAL which also is said to be a
past tense; there are hundreds of examples falsifying it.
Waltke/O'Connor ascribes an aspectual meaning to the Hebrew conjugations.
They clear away several misundestandings regarding aspect (e.g. "completed"
versus "complete") but they do not give a clear definition of aspect
themselves (most authors of grammars and monopraphs of Hebrew giving the
conjugations an aspectual value,  evidently have not made an in depth study
of what *aspect* really is. You students of Hebrew on this list who have
used the mentioned books, just try to give a definition of aspect for
yourselves without using old clichés!).
Broman Olsen's definition of English aspect is crystal clear. Her aspects
have semantic meaning, because each aspect intersect event time at
different places, the imperfective one at the nucleus and the peerfective
at the coda; this is uncancelable. While this system excellently fits
English, it definitely does not fit Hebrew.

The system of four different conjugations, which is a remnant from the
Middle ages, which is taken for granted, and almost by no worker has been
tested, is another attempt to read semantic meaning into the verbal system.
When I read the Hebrew text, say of Isaiah and Jeremiah, without this
system, I simply get a *revelation* of all the "roundabouts" and "tricks"
that are used by different translations to give a tense in the target
language that accords with the system. Just ry to do a study from this

I am also very much concerned with the system of Harald Weinreich (meaning
found by discourse analysis), and the way it is applied to Hebrew. Once it
was claimed on the list that there always was a conscution in a sequence of
WAYYIQTOLs  used in narratives. However, many linguists, including Comrie
(I recently brought a qoute from him) believe that the consecution is a
function of the narrative and not of the verbs used, and consecution is not
allways the case. What concerns me, is that a very fixed system is built up
(by induction) around the use of verbs in narrative (mainline with this
form, background with that form, this with this and that with that) -a
system which does not actually express semantic meaning but is not far from
it. The problem, as I see it, is that the mere occurrence of a particular
verb (be it  QATAL, WE+QATAL, YIQTOL etc) in narrative causes a particular
interpretation to its environment. By this system it seems to me that a
host of nuances are read into the text, something never intended by the
author. Even a quite evident temporal meaning of particular verbs
(construed from the context without the discourse system) is often denied.

Therefore, both ascribing a semantic meaning (tense or "English" aspect, or
claiming four in number) to the Hebrew conjugations and being on the point
of doing this (the particular system of discourse analysis) may result in
translations which may be far from what the author wanted to convey.  As I
have said before, to try a new approach toward the Hebrew verbal system
inside the frame of modern linguistics, I take the superb system of Broman
Olsen as a point of departure, and test the Hebrew verbs against her
fundamental units having semantic meaning (+past), (+future), (+dynamic),
(+telic), and (+durative), (+perfective) and (+imperfective). By help of
the data I get I try to find the most narrow generalization for each of the
two conjugations that can account for all the data. The conclusion,so far,
is that both have the fundamental characteristics of being aspects, but do
not give an objective description of event time as does English aspects.
The consequence for translation by using this model is that "the context"
is the leading criterion. No property, such as "complete" and "incomplete"
(which may force particular tenses upon the verbs) or particular discourse
meanings (which may create nuances which are not in the text) are ascribed
to particular verbs. But the sum of the context ( including general
discourse analysis and lexical meanings) is what helps the translators.

Let me add that even though a particular "semantic meaning" cannot be
ascribed to each conjugation, it is possible to define them in terms just
as clear as those used to define the infinite forms (participles and
infinitives). It is also possible to describe how the use of one aspect in
connection with the mentioned fundamental properties with "semantic
meaning",  may suggest that certain events are conative, habituative,
frequentative etc. , and the definition can by this even be shown to be


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>Dear Rolf,
>Thank you for your clarification. I had not realised that you were
>distinguishing between "meaning" and "semantic meaning", which I had
>assumed to be synonymous. I accept that the YIQTOL of )MR is used
>mainly in contexts where RT is after C, and perhaps that the QATAL is
>used where RT is before C (though they may coincide in some cases).
>But I don't think this takes us very far in describing the semantic
>meanings of these different forms, which was, I thought, the goal of
>this discussion. I fear we have been wasting our bytes. But sometimes
>hot air clears the air, and it is good if we are understanding one
>another better than before.
>Peter Kirk
>______________________________ Reply Separator
>Subject: Re[3]: The "times" of Isaiah
>Author:  furuli at at internet
>Date:    25/08/1999 00:48
>Dear Peter,
>Our disagreement may be a matter of terminology.  I have on this list
>differentiated between "semantic meaning" ( which signify that the property
>we ascribe to the form is uncancellable, e.g. the semantic meaning of "went"
>is past tense) and "conversational pragmatic implicature" (which signify
>that the property we ascribe to a particular verb is dependent on the
>context, e.g. an English present participle). The epithet "semantic" shows
>that I do not use "meaning" *alone* as signifying uncancellable properties.
>When it comes to the "time" of a verb, I use the term "tense" when the
>particular form *only* signifies an event either before or after the deictic
>point; i.e. the temporal meaning is connected with the form and not with the
>context. I use "past meaning", "present meaning", and "future meaning" when
>I simply say that the RT of a particular verb in this particular context
>comes before or after or coincides with C, without implying whether this is
>connected with the form or with the context.
>I therefore agree that the YIQTOLs of )MR are tenseless, and add that this
>is the case with all other Hebrew verbs as well.

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