Verb trial thesis

Rodney K. Duke dukerk at
Thu Apr 4 14:18:55 EST 2002

Dear Colleagues,

Here is a “trial balloon.”  I would appreciate your evaluation of a
thesis that I am exploring over the Hebrew verbal system.  I am trying
to think outside of the standard box of tense/aspect/mood and to account
for the patterns of discourse.  In particular my thesis challenges my
former notions of modality.  (One problem is that I do not have the
vocabulary then to express the concepts.)

I am not convinced by the standard paradigms of verb tense/aspect/mood:
whereby wayyiqtol = qatal or a prefixed conjugation preterite, and
weqatal SOMETIMES = yiqtol.  Such equations make no sense of some of the
discourse patterns that we find.  Does a weqatal in a string of
wayyiqtols or a wayyiqtol in a past-tense weqatal sequence present no
meaningful distinction?  Moreover, in these standard paradigms yiqtols
are sometimes modal and sometimes not.  Is there no consistency?

[Please inform me if I am wrong about the points below, but as I
understand the discussion about there originally being 2 prefixed
conjugations, still leaves us with problems:
1) The short prefixed form, yaqtul, is an old Semitic form and the long
prefixed form, yaqtulu, was an innovation that is not found in some
Semitic languages.
2) By late second millennium the loss of word-final short-vowels in
Hebrew led to the short and long prefixed forms becoming phonologically
homophonous in many cases.
3) Based on morphological studies, some scholars (e.g. Churchyard) trace
the Hebrew wayyiqtol back to the short prefixed form and the
non-consecutive yiqtol back to the long prefixed form.
4) Although there has been a propensity to call the short form,
“preterite,” the safest labels agreed on have been “non-volitive” or
“indicative,” because there is a issue about whether or not the short
form has an inherent reference time.  (Furuli has claimed that in more
than one language the short form is used in a variety of time settings
and has argued that he knows of no studies showing whether or not it has
tense.  This is outside of my area of study.)
5) Even the short “non-volitive” yaqtul is morphologically indistinct
from some jussive (volitive!) forms, which are supposedly not derived
from the long form(?)]
What if our notion of modality is foreign to the Semitic mindset?  Could
the notion of volitive versus non-volitive be a concept that we are
forcing on the verbal system?  Also, is it possible that the two
prefixed forms share some similar semantic notion?  (If not, or if their
original distinction was not blurred over time, then the following
thesis probably fails.)

Trial thesis:
Here is a thesis I would like to test further and would appreciate your
feedback as to whether or not it “works” historically and pragmatically:

1) Yiqtols appear to express action in its immediacy in respect to the
moment of the narrator's narrative or the speaker's speech.  That is to
say that they have an inherent reference “time” and “mood” of “nowness”
from the presentation perspective of the speaker.

2) Qatals appear to express action, better “event,” abstracted in a
sense out of the moment, more statively or statically.  They have no
inherent reference time, but being abstracted out of the moment, can be
used to refer to “events” of the past or “events” projected into the

Brief development:
Here is how I see this thesis working consistently in the types of
discourse we find.

A yiqtol as mainline wayyiqtol in what we call “historical narrative”
has a dramatic tone of immediacy like using the “historical present” in
Greek.  (I have no trouble translating them into past tense for English

The mainline yiqtols in speech, which we refer to as “hortatory,” again
are just seen as expressing an immediacy in respect to the speaker's
moment: a command given by one with authority is meant to become “real”
at that moment.
(The notion of yiqtol being modal/volitive in the typical sense is
basically eliminated with this thesis.)

When a series of mainline weqatals are embedded in historical narrative,
they stand “abstractly” (need a better term) outside of the “moment” of
the narrative and serve a procedural or habitual function indicating not
what the narrated character “does” in the narrative moment, but what the
character “would do.”

In speech, a series of weqatals also stand abstracted from the speaker’
moment in predictive and instructional discourse indicating what the
addressee “should do” projected into the future.
(I see the qatal as not standing outside “reality,” just abstracted out
of the moment of reference, as a complete thing.)

This thesis also make sense of how weqatals function in what we call
“hortatory discourse”: yiqtol in hortatory is more “immediate” and
therefore more forceful, but the more abstracted qatal provides a nuance
of mitigation.

Discourse analysts see the “unusual” single weqatal in a string of
wayyiqtols as marking a climatic or pivotal point.  The “abstract”
quality of qatal as “event,” that I am trying to express, makes sense
here as well.  It breaks the flow of the immediacy of action and calls
attention to itself.

This distinction between yiqtols and qatals also seems to fit the kinds
of “couplets” that occur in which a wayyiqtol is complemented or
completed by an x+qatal as in Gen 1:5 before the action is moved on by
another wayyiqtol.

Finally, this distinction helps to explain a wayyiqtol in a series of
“procedural” weqatals (e.g. 1 Sam 17:34-35) as heightening the immediacy
or dramatic intensity of what happened next.

The kind of discourse, which presents a problem of sorts for this
thesis, is expository discourse (e.g. Neh 3:3-32) in which I do not see
consistent patterns that try to play qatals off yiqtols (although
"repaired" [chzq] is always expressed by qatals and the details mainly
by yiqtols in this text).  Again though, my thesis is that the choice
between forms is how immediacy of action versus event is being perceived
and presented from the perspective of the speaker.  In this kind of
discourse, which is more static and descriptive by nature, maybe such a
distinction does not matter for the sake of clear communication.

[Side thought: I am convinced by the discourse argument that: 1)
waw+verb expresses a new point of reference and that these forms have a
mainline function, while 2) X+verb does not establish a new point of
reference and has an “offline” function.  I am wondering as a side
thesis, if the “wa+doubling” in wayyiqtol (whether the yiqtol goes back
to a short prefix form or not) should be seen as a narrative conjunction
that besides expressing a new point of reference also generally implies
an emerging sequentiality.]

If you have time to comment, I would appreciate your evaluation.


Dr. Rodney K. Duke
Dept. of Phil. & Rel., Appalachian State Univ., Boone, NC 28608
(O) 828-262-3091, (FAX) 828-262-6619, dukerk at

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