Prototype Theory and Hebrew Tense/Aspect

Dave Washburn dwashbur at
Mon Dec 13 14:51:22 EST 1999

> 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.

If he means "precise" in mathematical terms, I agree.  However, 
most English speakers intuitively know the difference between 
"bald," "balding" and "not bald."  While these ideas can't be 
quantified in terms of how many hairs are the upper and lower 
limits of each, we know examples of each one when we see them 
(one of my uncles was bald, another was balding, and my father 
was not bald).  This raises the related question of how far we can 
legitimately take mathematical quantification in linguistics.  I tend 
to disagree sharply with most other generative grammarians on this 
point, and it's a big reason why I rejected Government-Binding and 
most everything that has ensued from it.

> 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.

> 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.

I haven't read the thesis yet, but does he give any justification for 
extending prototype theory from semantics into syntax?

[snip - Peter's material now]
> 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.

I resemble that remark :-)  Again, I'd like to see some justification 
for concluding that this theory is applicable to grammatical 
categories (syntax).  It may have possibilities, but I wonder how we 
go about defining prototypes in syntax: see below.

> 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.

I'm interested in pursuing it; I would begin by suggesting that 
narrative sequence doesn't really qualify as a prototypical category 
because it is a discourse-level phenomenon, not a syntactic 
(clause-level) one.  I could go with past tense and perhaps 
perfectivity (though I am inclined to believe that aspect is a 
semantic feature, not a syntactic one) and would throw in realis 
mode, producing a prototype that looks something like 
[+past +perfective +realis -dependence -subordination]

Let the games begin!

Dave Washburn
Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.
                                   Psalm 86:11

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