Prototype Theory and Hebrew Tense/Aspect

Joe A. Friberg JoeFriberg at
Tue Dec 14 13:19:19 EST 1999

----- Original Message -----
From: "Dave Washburn" <dwashbur at>
Sent: Monday, December 13, 1999 1:51 PM

> 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).

Since 'not bald/balding/bald' label positions on a continuum, there are
necessarily examples on the continuum that are hard to categorize, or that
one person will call one and another will call another.

Then there are also those people and cases euphemistically labeled 'receding
hairline' when in fact they are balding or bald!  In these cases, prototype
theory can easily explain how the speaker has adopted a particular
perspective (a view through rose-colored-glasses!) that permits them to
stretch the membership category to an unordinary point due to emotive
factors.  Since the boundary is fuzzy anyway, they take the liberty of
pressing its boundary to suit their need.

> This raises the related question of how far we can
> legitimately take mathematical quantification in linguistics.

I think he is raising mathematical quantification only as a straw man to
shoot down!

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

I likewise haven't read the thesis yet, but offer a few comments.  Prototype
theory is about semantics, and specifically how meaning categories relate to
forms.  The initial forms of application were lexical items.  The extension
is not the from semantics to syntax, but merely from one type of form to
another: from lexical forms to syntactic forms.  The theory is still about
how categories of meaning relate to (syntactic) forms.

As a crossover example, consider that we may speak of 'the present century',
refering to the last 100 years.  Yet it is being made present for
conversation by the phrase, out of respect for its continuity and contiguity
with the present moment.  'The present' is a matter of perspective,
considering what is currently salient to the speaker and what they want to
make salient to the hearer.

Consider further, at a party on Friday night, two individuals are sitting,
talking.  Person A asks 'how are things going' and the person B replies 'O
I'm busier than a one-handed cranberry merchant at Christmas' using the
present tense.  B is considering as present the past week (or so) and the
prospective coming days; this surrounding time is salient to B, not merely
the moment of the party.  Or, Person B could respond 'I've been running
around like a chicken with my head cut off all week', in which case B has
adopted a perspective of leaving the worries of the week behind him,
relegating those activities to the past for at least the present moment.

<from Peter:>
> > 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.
<from Dave:>
> 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]

Discourse is simply another level of *form*, so I'm not sure a discourse
feature should not be included in the discussion!  From lexicon to syntax to
discourse, all these forms relate to certain meaning categories, all of
which may be viewed according to prototype theory.  The only difference I
see between the 'narrative sequence' feature and the other features is that
it implies a larger context for reference.

> Let the games begin!

In the past, I have not had time to follow the discussions of WAYYIQTOLs
etc., but hope I may follow the current thread under this new rubric of
prototype theory more closely!

God Bless!
Joe Friberg

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