Prototype Theory and Hebrew Tense/Aspect

Kimmo Huovila kimmo.huovila at
Tue Dec 14 09:59:01 EST 1999

Dave Washburn wrote:
(KH)>> 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.
(DW)> 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.

The issue is that "bald - not bald" forms a continuum. But language cuts
it into discreet categories. There are borderline cases between the
prototypes of the categories. Most English speaker know intuitively who
is bald and who is not, because they compare the head to a prototype and
judge the distance from the prototype to determine category inclusion or
exclusion. But there are (semi-bald) examples when people might disagree
if the person is bald or not. If the issue were mathematical
quantification, it would be clear cut. But we know it is not. Therefore
prototype theory gives a more adequate solution than counting the hairs.

> 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.

My thesis does not presuppose Government-Binding or any type of
transformational grammar.

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

Taylor (one of my references) argues for prototype approach for lexical
semantics, semantics of syntactic categories, morphology, syntax, and
phonology. Dahl (also my reference) argues for prototype approach with
respect to tense and aspect in particular. By the way, Taylor makes
excellent reading, I recommend it. It is very helpful, I think, for
exegetes. My work does not explicitly argue for this approach any more
than give the references to the arguments, but as a whole, I hope it
demonstrates the usefulness and explanatory power of prototype
categories to the study of tense and aspect.

The issue here is not so much if it is legitimate to expand the
prototype theory from semantics to syntax (I think it is legitimate),
but if it can be expanded from lexical semantics to the semantics of
grammatical constructions.

Furthermore, reading almost any grammar, you get the impression of
prototypical categories as many forms have closely related meanings
listed. This observation argues strongly for prototype approach.
Oftentimes it just has not been explicated.

> 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 doubt the usefulness of cutting up the language into discreet
components, if that means ignoring the essentially continuous nature of
these components. Ultimately a sharp line of distinction between clause
level and discourse level is somewhat arbitrary (eg. which is
topicalization, anaphora, kataphora etc).

Narrative sequence is complicated by its relation to text types. (In
line with prototype theory one may speak of more narrative like text
types and less narrative like text types.)

I doubt that wayyiqtol would apply only to narrative sequence. Maybe
narrative sequence is just an instance of the more abstract prototype of
the meaning of wayyiqtol. Possibly some one has studied its relation to
grounding phenomena. I have seen a reference to Robert Longacre's
Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns), but I
have not read the work. I assume it deals with discourse and grounding
markers in Biblical Hebrew. Perhaps it would be helpful.

Waltke and O'Connor's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax gives
sequence, epexegesis, pluperfect, and "after circumstancial phrases and
clauses" as basic meanings of wayyiqtol (§33.2). They divide sequence
into logical and temporal (which would be an example of a rather typical
metaphorical extension of the prototype). 

> Let the games begin!



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