preterite question again

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Sat Jun 19 04:50:47 EDT 1999

Henry Churchyard wrote:

>> Subject: preterite question again
>> From: "Rodney K. Duke" <dukerk at>
>> Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 09:25:06 -0400

>> I have accepted the preterite theory for explaining wayyiqtol for
>> years.  Now I wonder if a review of the same linguistic evidence
>> from the perspective of the question (Does the form 'grammaticalize'
>> tense, or is time being indicated through pragmatic factors?) and
>> through the observations of discourse grammar would yield the same
>> the results.  Are some of you and our other expert colleagues who
>> work with Akkadian, Ugaritic, et al exploring such questions and
>> re-examining foundational conclusions/assumptions?  Are you/they
>> thoroughly convinced by the evidence that the short prefixed form is
>> marked for tense rather than for "aspect"?

>Not sure whether or not you're implying that wayyiqtol should be
>considered to have the same diachronic origin as yiqtol -- if so, let
>me repeat that in some languages *yaqtul and *yaqtulu are clearly
>morphologically distinct forms, seemingly without any very close basic
>connection (other than a somewhat accidental resemblance in
>phonological form), while in other languages one form appears without
>the other.
>By the way, there seems to be some confusion on the list abolut
>whether a yaqtul-"preterite" form appears in Ugaritic; I'm no expert
>on Ugaritic, but I recently looked at Stanislav Segert's "A basic
>grammar of the Ugaritic language" (which was easily accessible to me),
>and he doesn't seem to think there was such a form (found no mention
>of it).

Dear Henry and Rod,

There is no doubt that Semitic languages have several morphologically
distinct prefix forms. Hebrew has three or four:  The question. however, is
what kind of semantic difference there is between these forms. In Hebrew
the difference is basically modal (short prefix-form and extra long prefix
form (cohortative)= subjunctive/optative, normal prefix form =indicative,
and WAYYIQTOL=?) and such a difference is also possible or likely in
Ugaritic, Phoenician and Accadian. My basic complaint is that because the
short prefix form in these languages often is used in past contexts IT IS
PRESENTED ALMOST AS FACT.  But nobody has ever systematically studied the
difference between the short and long prefix forms in the mentioned
languages from the point of view of past meaning versus past tense
pragmatics versus semantics!

Ugaritic has three morphologically different prefix forms. I quote T.J:
Finley, "The WAW-consecutive with "Imperfect" in Biblical Hebrew:
Theoretical Studies and its Use in Amos", in J.S and P.D. Feinberg, eds,
"Tradition and Testament Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg", Chicago:
Moody, 1981:244:

"Ugaritic has a prefix conjugation (yqtl) and a suffix conjugation (qtl).
The form yqtl is marked for different moods by vocalic endings: -u for
indicative; -a for subjunctive; and no ending (zero ending) for a form that
functions as a jussive in the third person but that occurs in all three

See also M.E.J. Richardson, 1991, "Tense, Aspect and Mood in Ugaritic
yqtl", in Proceedings of the Fifth International Hamito-Semitic congress
1987, Wien 1991.

Regarding a possible semantic difference between the prefix forms of
Ugaritic which may single out a preterite, note Finley's words (op. cit. p
245) "The main difficulty with Meyer's analysis is that both Ugaritic
yaqtul and yaqtulu may express the past narrative in poetic contexts. It is
still unclear for Ugaritic exactly how these forms differ in past context."

To Rod,

Peter criticized you because you made the same mistake as I by assuming
there is such a thing as "the prefix conjugation.  I do not *assume* this,
and I do not think you did either. We both observe that the dividing point
in all the Semitic languages is between prefix forms and suffix forms, and
then it is up to those who claim there is a dramatic semantic difference
between the prefix forms to demonstrate this!
I think the principle in your first approach is better than in the last. It
is my experiance that students get their basic views regarding Semitic
verbs from their professors, and when they themselves become professors
they voice the same views. This is not necessarily bad, because we cannot
personally check all assumptions behind everything. But when particular
assumptions *never* are systematically checked, as in the case with Semitic
"preterite", the situation becomes problematic. Therefore, the opinion of
leading Semitists is of limited importance.

Your suggestion, however, about research regarding semantics versus
pragmatics definitely is the way that will give the best results. To do
such a research we first must isolate the fundamentals, and these are
(+future), (+past), (+durative), (+dynamic), and (+telic). By applying
these to the WHOLE corpus of Classical Hebrew we can draw some reasoned
conclusions regarding the meaning of the parts of the verbal system.


Rolf Furuli
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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