Prototype Theory and Hebrew Tense/Aspect

peter_kirk at peter_kirk at
Mon Dec 13 21:16:32 EST 1999

I have just been reading a friend's MA thesis: "Towards a Theory of 
Aspectual Nesting for New Testament Greek", Kimmo Huovila, MA Thesis, 
Department of General Linguistics, University of Helsinki, Spring 1999 
(available from

This thesis (in good clear and simple English) gives a good 
explanation of the theoretical background to study of aspect in NT 
Greek and a review of previous studies. The author also makes a start 
on building his own theory of NT Greek aspect.

So am I sending this to the wrong list? No, because I found in Kimmo 
Huovila's background material some material which may be a great help 
towards understanding the Hebrew tense and aspect system. Here are 
some quotations from this thesis:

<start of quotation>

1.4 Prototype Nature of Linguistic Categories

The main thesis of Taylor (1989) is that the prototype view is central 
to linguistic categorization in general, including grammatical 
categorization (especially Taylor 1989:142-157, 197-221). Dahl 
(1985:3-26) argues that the prototype view is essential also for the 
analysis of aspect, tense, and mood categories. If the prototype 
nature of grammatical categorization is not recognized, there is a 
danger that the resulting grammatical analysis reflects an unnatural 
view of language and not the linguistic intuition of the native 
speakers. In the following section I will explain what I mean by 
prototype categorization.


Dahl (1985:3) discusses impreciseness in categorization. With this he 
means that with respect to category membership there are clear cases 
of inclusion and exclusion, but also difficult cases in between. This 
is illustrated with the word 'bald'. How many hairs can a bald person 
have? He can have some, and still be considered bald. There is no 
precise limit.

A prototype is a typical representative of a category. There are, 
however, less typical category members. This means that all members of 
a category do not have the same status. Thus the category has a focus, 
where the most typical members are, and a periphery, where the 
borderline cases are. There is no precise limit where the periphery 
fades into non-membership.


Some features are more central than others with respect to category 
membership. For example, a typical woman is an adult female human 
being (categorization by prototype would normally involve more 
features, but as they are not necessary for this illustration, I will 
not try to define a prototypical woman further). Adulthood is not as 
central a feature with respect to categorization (in a neutral context 
(if there is such a thing!)) as gender. A relatively young girl could 
be called a woman.

A corollary of the prototype being characterized with respect to 
several features is that describing the invariant meaning of the 
construction does not exhaust its meaning. Frequent associations also 
add their own nuances (less central features) to the semantics of the 
construction, even if they do not change the truth conditions of the 

What this means with respect to tense and aspect is that it is 
possible that a grammatical category in some language codes 
prototypically both tense and aspect, but either is more dominant with 
respect to categorization. For example, a form may prototypically mean 
past tense and perfective aspect, but pastness may be secondary (there 
are far more exceptions to the tense meaning than to the aspectual 
meaning). I will argue this to be the case for the Greek aorist in 
section 6.6.


A category may have several foci. This means that there may be several 
prototypes that have something in common, relative to which the 
category is characterized. ...

A grammatical prototype category with multiple foci may be illustrated 
with the Greek imperfect. It is often used to indicate past tense, 
which is one focus of the category (McKay 1994:42-43). It also has 
another important use, which is to indicate in a conditional protasis 
that the premise is presupposed to be untrue (McKay 1994:75-76, 
173-174). ...


Categorization by prototype is usually regarded as opposed to 
categorization by necessary and sufficient conditions (e.g. Taylor 
1989:21-37). ...

<end of quotation>

Now I was aware of this prototype theory as a way of looking at the 
semantics of lexical items. This is the first time I have seen it 
applied to grammatical categories. But I see this as a good way 
forward towards understanding Hebrew verb forms, especially the 
controversial WAYYIQTOL. Over the last couple of years this list has 
seen many attempts to define "necessary and sufficient conditions" for 
the WAYYIQTOL, most of which have fallen apart into unseemly arguments 
over interpretation of alleged counter-examples, or have evaporated 
into conditions so vague (or vaguely expressed) that none but their 
author seems to understand them.

So perhaps we can have another go at understanding the Hebrew verb 
system on the basis of this prototype theory. We can, for example, 
easily define a prototypical WAYYIQTOL in terms of narrative sequence, 
past time and perfectivity. Yet we have seen that no one of these 
three characteristics applies to all WAYYIQTOLs. With the prototype 
theory we would not expect them to. Similarly we can define the other 
verb forms - some of which, expecially weqatal, might well end up with 
multiple foci. Anyone interested in pursuing this path with me? For 
that matter, has anyone pursued it already? I would be interested in 
any responses.

Peter Kirk


Kimmo Huovila's references, those quoted in the above extracts:

Dahl, ™sten 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems. Basil Blackwell: New York 
& Oxford.

McKay, Kenneth 1994. A New Syntax of the Verb in New Testament Greek: 
An Aspectual Approach. Peter Lang: New York & San Francisco & Bern & 
Baltimore & Frankfurt am Main & Berlin & Wien & Paris.

Taylor, John R. 1989. Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in 
Linguistic Theory. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

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