Prototype Theory and Hebrew Tense/Aspect

Dave Washburn dwashbur at
Wed Dec 15 19:18:15 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.

I'm not totally sure that the decision is made by comparing a head 
to some prototype.  I suspect that simple intuitive decision-making 
has more to do with it, but at this point I suspect I'm just splitting 
hairs (ugh!  Sorry about that! :-)

> > 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.

That's good to know before I read it so I can do my best to take my 
transformational lenses off first...

> > 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.

OK, that makes sense.  For reading purposes I'll go on the 
assumption that the extension is indeed legitimate.

> 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 agree that many grammars give this impression.  My problem is, I 
see them going from there into a jumble of categories that do 
nothing more than describe phenomena rather than try to explain 
how they were generated and what ties them together.

> > 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).

A line of distinction is useful, I find, for setting up an order of 
inquiry.  That is, I begin at the clause level, then move to the 
discourse level, etc.  Ditto for syntax and semantics: I begin with 
the former and from there incorporate the latter.  It doesn't mean 
that they are completely separate brain compartments, but it does 
provide some organization and a pattern to follow in the course of 
inquiry.  That's all the "cutting up" that I do.

> 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.

Perhaps.  I tend to see narrative sequence as an outgrowth (in BH) 
of placing simple clauses one after another in such a way that the 
semantic component of each clause makes it clear this event 
follows the preceding one.  That is, it's encoded at the level of 
semantic interrelations between clauses, not in clause-level syntax.

> 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). 

Yes, and I find their "logical" sequence badly lacking, and in many 
examples, rather forced.  I'm much more interested in discussing 
your approach.

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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