Telic YIQTOLs WITH past meaning

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Thu Sep 30 09:20:41 EDT 1999

Rolf Furuli wrote,

>Dear list-members,
>In Jer 47:1 we find the verb NKH as a YIQTOL with past meaning. This verb
>is either semelfactive with the meaning "strike" or is telic with the
>meaning "kill, conquer etc."  In 41:1 the subject and object are singular
>and the event referred to was objectively completed. This suggests the
>following questions?
>1) If the Hebrew conjugations are viewed as tenses with QATAL/WAYYIQTOL as
>past tense and YIQTOL/WEQATAL as present/future, how can we account for
>this YIQTOL describing a past, completed event?
>2) If the Hebrew conjugations are viewed as aspects with  QATAL/WAYYIQTOL
>as signifying complete(d) events (perfective) and YIQTOL/WEQATAL as
>signifying incomplete events (imperfective), how can we account for this
>YIQTOL describing a past event where the end was reached?
>Other instances of the verb as a YIQTOL/WEYIQTOL with past meaning are:
>Is 57:17 (WEQATAL)
>2 Kings 8:29; 9:15; 15:16 (YIQTOL)
>2 Kings 15:16 is of particular interest because the YIQTOL is parallel to a
>WAYYIQTOL of the same root. Is there any semantic difference (temporal or
>aspectual) between the two, or do they have exactly the same meaning? (If
>you use the conjunction )Z in your answer, please answer the question "why"
>in connection with its use. The grammars use to beg this question.)

Dear Rolf,

Nobody has so far found it pertinent to address your questions, so I would
use this opportunity to throw some light upon them. But look out, to reach
a solution we need to free ourselves from traditional grammatical thinking.

A YIQTOL with past meaning has traditionally been explained as either
iterative or durative. However, Jouon was forced to explain verbs such as
NKH with past reference in the following (*unsatisfactory*) way: "Finally
there are some yiqtols with no iterative or durative aspect, and thus
having the value of qatal, which would be the expected form."
(Jouon/Muraoka II 368,h.) We should, however, to be consistent, seek an
explanation that upholds the semantic difference between the prefix-form
and the suffix-form. Let me try to do that.

The RSV translates Jer. 47:1 this way, "The word of the LORD that came to
Jeremiah the prophet concerning the Philistines, before Pharaoh *smote*
Gaza. " The subject and object are (grammatically) singular. In a semantic
analysis of this clause we find that the subject is agens and the object is
patiens (because the clause is active). As to number, patiens is plural
(the inhabitants of Gaza) and even agens *may* be plural (the soldiers that
Pharaoh used). The number of the arguments (subject and object)  and their
definiteness/indefiniteness may in some cases be important. Because of
singularity (1) is telic, but (2) and (3) is not.

(1) Paul ate an apple.
(2) Paul ate apples
(3) They were eating apples.

The subject and object in Jer 47:1 are definite and singular (plurality
would not matter in this case) and the only possible conclusion to draw is
that the event NKH was finished at speech time, giving the formula R< C
(reference time precedes speech time). Thus the event has past meaning. The
real problem is that the YIQTOL seems to include the end of the event and
that is forbidden both by the view that YIQTOL represenst non-past tense
and that it represents the imperfective aspect.

Bu let us do an experiment, we  compare Jer 47:1 with  2 Sam. 21:12  "on
the day the Philistines *killed* (NKH as YIQTOL) Saul on Gilboa;" The verb
NKH is used, the subject is plural (but that does not matter) and the
object is singular. There can be little doubt that R precedes C also in
this case,  that the event is telic and that its end was reached. It is
interesting, however, that in 2 Sam 21:12 an infinitive construct is used,
and that form is not problematic because it does not have any relationship
with the end of an event. An infinitive construct simply focuses on the
nature of the event, in this case that of *striking/killing*. The telicity
of the event is basically rooted in the Aktionsart of the verb, but the
singularity/plurality and definiteness/indefiniteness of the arguments
together with other contextual factors also do (or can) play a role. The
past meaning of the infinitive in 2 Sam 21:12 is construed on the basis of
Aktionsart and context.

What then, if we deleted the YIQTOL in Jer 47:1 and substituted it with and
infinitive construct, so the clause would read,  B+RM  HKWT PR(H )T (ZH?
How would we then understand it? Exactly in the same way! We would construe
the temporal reference from the context, and the Aktionsart is the same in
an infinitive as in a YIQTOL. A Hebrew reading the words would understand
that the end was included in the clause even though this is not signalled
by the infinitive, and the point is that the temporal reference need not be
coded by the verbal form itself.

But what if we substituted the YIQTOL of Jer 47:1 with a participle?
Neither the participle says anything about the end; it just focuses on an
ongoing action, objectively speaking. Because of this, most persons would
interpret a telic verb expressed by a participle as either frequentative or
habitual. However, this is not necessarily the case in all Semitic thought,
not even in English (A friend of mine recently completed her doctoral
degree, discussing English participles. One clause from her corpus was,
"crossing the floor , he opened the cupboard". In this example the end was
included in the participle.) Let me use an Aramaic example from our class
reading of Daniel this week, namely Dan 4:9-11. Here we find 1 QATAL, 1
compound of QATAL/participle, 1 WE+QATAL, 4 YIQTOLs and 3 participles, all
with past meaning. In all these YIQTOLs and participles the end was
objectively reached, but it was not focussed upon.

The RSV renders the verses this way:
Dan. 4: 8 (11) The tree grew (QATAL) and became strong (WE+QATAL), and its
top reached (YIQTOL) to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole
Dan. 4:9 (12) Its leaves were fair and its fruit abundant, and in it was
food for all. The beasts of the field found shade (YIQTOL) under it, and
the birds of the air dwelt (YIQTOL) in its branches, and all flesh was fed
(YIQTOL) from it.
Dan. 4:10 (13) ¶  "I saw (QATAL/participle)  in the visions of my head as I
lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down (participle) from
Dan. 4:11 (14) He cried (participle) aloud and said (participle) thus,

I would also call attention to the fact that a finite verb in Semitic
languages can be determined by another finite verb, thus *functioning* as
an infinitive (with no end in sight). That two finite verbs occur in *one*
clause, the one determining the other is common in Ge'ez, and is even found
in some examples in Hebrew. One example is Deuteronomium 1:6 where Y)L
determines B)R.  I would also use one example from Accadian where we have a
conjugation called "Stative" (formerly "Permansive") where both stative and
fientive verbs are parsed by "enclitically" adding a pronominal element;
even substantives and adjectives can be parsed this way. The name "Stative"
is hardly very fitting if we define states as situations without any input
of energy. If the verb "to steal" is put into Stative, the characteristics
of beaing a thief is focussed upon, but implicitly the acts of stealing are
there. The point, however, is that in this language, as in Aramaic, it is
possible to focus on the nature/character/a part of a verb without saying
anything about the end.

In the light of the above examples, and of the scores of examples of telic
YIQTOLs with past meaning in Hebrew, I suggest that YIQTOLs (including
WEYIQTOL and WAYYIQTOL) are used in a way (in Hebrew) where a part of the
ongoing action is focussed upon and the end is simply irrelevant.
Whether the end is reached or not is seen from the context. The past
reference and consecution of events seen in narratives, is in the world's
languages, as Bernhard Comrie has pointed out, generally a function of the
narrative itself and not a function of the verb form. This does not mean
that a YIQTOL is identical with an infinitive or a participle in Hebrew,
although they share more characteristics than often is realized, but it
means that in some instances the use of either of them give about the same
meaning, but in other instances will the combination of a YIQTOL (or a
QATAL)  and other factors signal particular nuances.

The easiest way to account for NKH in Jer 47:1 and the other examples is to
take it as a true YIQTOL with its normal meaning, and at the same time see
if it is necessary to change one's thinking regarding aspects and tenses.
If anybody wants to comments on these thoughts, please discuss 2 Kings
15:16 (mentioned in my first post) where we find a YIQTOL and a WAYYIQTOL,
which in my view have identical meaning.


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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