Zevit: The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew

peter_kirk at sil.org peter_kirk at sil.org
Wed Nov 24 00:44:59 EST 1999


I looked through the archives to see if there had been any discussion about 
Ziony Zevit's book _The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew_ and 
could only find Matthew Anstey's post from 9/27/99.  I am wondering if 
anybody has read Zevit's book and would be willing to comment on it, 
specifically his argument that the BH verb system was tensed and that the 
tenses were discerned by the accent.  I am also very curious about a 
question which Matthew Anstey asked in his post:

I am particularly interested in whether Zevit's claim, quoting Bybee, is 
true, that the "anterior does not occur in languages that do not have other 
tense distinctions marked inflectionally." (This is based on Bybee's 
analysis of languages across the world.) If this premiss is true, and if 
Hebrew clearly has grammaticised anterior constructions, then is this not 
an unassailable argument that BH has tensed verb forms?

Finally, I am wondering if anybody knows of any reviews of Zevit's work.  
Thanks in advance for any help which you can provide.


Justin Winger
jwinger at westmont.edu

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Logically, this argument at first sight seems unassailable: if no 
tenseless languages have anterior constructions, and Hebrew has an 
anterior construction, then Hebrew is not tenseless.

But actually the logic is circular and so meaningless. If Bybee has 
indeed analysed a large number of languages including Hebrew and found 
no languages in the category "tenseless with anterior construction", 
it means that he has already determined that Hebrew is not in that 
category. And so Zevit's statement is entirely equivalent to 
"according to Bybee, Hebrew is not in this category" and any 
statements about other languages are irrelevant.

Alternatively, Bybee has not analysed Hebrew and so is making an 
inductive generalisation to all languages from a limited sample. (No 
doubt he is doing that anyway, as he cannot have analysed all 6000+ 
known languages.) Now in this field such generalisations are extremely 
dangerous, as many languages are found to have unique features, or at 
least ones which noone else has clearly described. For example, for 
many years it was considered demonstrated that no languages in the 
world had an object first basic word order - until my SIL colleague 
Des Derbyshire found a tiny tribe in the Amazon jungle speaking such a 
language. (A few more such languages have since been described.) So I 
think it would be safer to suggest that Hebrew is the exception which 
proves Bybee's rule rather than try to force on to Hebrew categories 
for which there is no other good evidence.

Peter Kirk

PS I have not seen Zevit's work, so cannot comment further. If he does 
have good evidence for his hypothesis, I would be interested to see 
it, but this argument is not good evidence.

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