Prototype Theory and Hebrew Tense/Aspect

Dave Washburn dwashbur at
Wed Dec 15 19:32:26 EST 1999

> .. And the set I suggested is hardly what you describe, since it 
> includes [-dependence -subordination] which is definitely not a 
> feature set of ki and asher clauses!
> PK: So, Dave, can you propose a set of features which distinguish 
> prototype QATAL (or perhaps just X-QATAL) from prototype WAYYIQTOL? 
> You need to do better than [+dependence] or [+subordination]. 
> Actually we can't even use [-sequential], as recently demonstrated 
> in some passages quoted re Genesis 1:1. Maybe [-foreground] would 
> be more promising, but again that's a discourse feature. But if we 
> can't get even this far, the prototype approach doesn't look very 
> promising!

Agreed.  It may or may not work, but digging into the question is 
part of the fun.  The most foundational features I would suggest for 
qatal are [+dependent +realis].  Another possible one is 
[+subordinate] though I wouldn't go to the wall for this.  I tend to 
group the features [dependent, subordinate] under the heading of 
"syntactic connection" as used in my 1994 paper, which is to say 
that there is some explicit connection to something that precedes 
(the temporal expression in the case of Gen 1:1, and I suggest that 
the syntactic connection in Gen 1:2 is contrast - "God created the 
heavens and the earth, but the earth was tohu and bohu etc.").  
Weqatal has the features [+irrealis -dependent -subordinate], i.e. a 
syntactically unconnected modal, while yiqtol has the features 
[+irrealis +dependent | +subordinate], which is to say a 
syntactically connected modal.  Grouping the two features that 
constitute syntactic connection, we get something like this:

                          modal       syntactic connection
wayyiqtol                -                      -
qatal                      -                      +
weqatal                  +                     -
yiqtol                     +                     +

Before you ask, I haven't done imperative/jussive/cohortative yet.

> > as for aspect and tense, they are both semantic categories, and to be 
> > distinguished from the lexically bound semantics of 'kind of action'.
> > semantics, of course, must be integrated to syntax and surface structures 
> >  in order to have any linguistic relevancy for a particular language.
> PK: Kimmo Huovila argues at length against any fundamental distinction 
> between aspect and Aktionsart on the basis that neither is clearly 
> semantic or clearly lexical. Meanwhile I think I can demonstrate from 
> Russian both that aspect (perfective/imperfective distinction) is a 
> morphological category inseparable from the force of certain 
> morphemes, and that it is inseparable from lexical semantics (and from 
> Aktionsart) - which causes problems for you who try to separate syntax 
> from semantics. If you are interested, I will send some evidence off 
> list.

I'm aware that aspect is a morphological feature in Russian, but I'm 
not convinced that Hebrew follows suit :-)  And yes, I'd be 
interested in receiving the material off-list.

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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