Hebrew Syntax.

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Wed Apr 10 10:26:55 EDT 2002


Dear Peter (and Rodney),

The "minimal- pair" situation where there is just a one graphic 
difference between two entities is the easiest situation to handle in 
linguistics, because all linguistic differences must be caused by 
this single graphic difference. The  situation that is farthest away 
from that ideal situation is discourse analysis because the one 
working with this has to handle hundreds of factors at once (scores 
of words in sentences and paragraphs, lexical semantics, grammar, 
syntax, linguistic convention, idioms, linguistic convention etc) So 
there is a great danger of circularity and wrong conclusions in the 
attempt to deal with so many words and factors at the same time. I am 
not rejecting the method, to the contrary, I myself use discourse 
analysis. But the method should be used where it belongs and not 
other areas.

In my view the book of Waltke and O'Connor is the best modern 
treatment of Hebrew syntax, and my experience is that it is very 
helpful for studens. Any work has a particular angle of approach, and 
I think that the authors have succeeded very well in achieving their 
goals. I am very happy that the book is not marred with doscourse 
analysis, because it has no place in such a work.

If we approach the Hebrew verbal system in a systematic way, there 
are at least three areas that need to be singled out, and discourse 
analysis will only give results in one of the areas. The areas are 1) 
fundamental assumptions, 2) meaning of the morpho-syntactic forms, 
and 3) linguistic conventions and communication.

The assumptions used in almost all modern studies of Hebrew verbs, 
including W and O'C, stems from the Middle Ages; they were made on 
the basis of a tense view when the nature of aspect was unknown. The 
basic assumptions are that there are four different conjugations 
YIQTOL, WAYYIQTOL, QATAL, and WEQATAL. Discourse analysts and W and 
O'C should not be criticized for usind these assumptions, because any 
study must use some assumptions. We should however keep in mind that 
the results of a study will not be better that its assumptions.

One important approach to the understanding of Hebrew verbs should be 
to question these assumptions and deal with them in a scientific way. 
Discourse analysis is completely impotent in this area, because these 
assumptions are the very axioms of discourse analysis.

Words have meaning, but in the lexicons we find only glosses and not 
the lexical meaning of words. Strictly speaking the lexical meaning 
of a word cannot be defined (only a general outline can be made), it 
must be *known* - by native speakers having the same presupposition 
pool. Polysemy exists, but generally a verb or substantive signals 
one concept in the minds of native speakers. Different sides of this 
concept is made visible in different contexts, and this is understood 
by native speakers. Similarly, groups of words (participles, 
infinitives, YIQTOLs QATALs etc) signal a common concept each, in the 
minds of native speakers, and to try to understand discourse analysis 
is again impotent, because it does not address such meaning.

If I ask: "What is the meaning of an English 'present participle'?" 
you may try to give a definition. But to give a very specific one, 
covering all its functions and uses, is not easy. After some 
thinking, however, you, as a native speaker, would come up with a 
generalization that would answer the question. How would you achieve 
this? Not by the help of discourse analysis, but by the help of your 
knowledge of English sentences where the present participle is used. 
A similar approach is necessary to understand the meaning of Hebrew 
verbs - and this is what W and O'C does in an excellent way. 
Discourse analysis would just cloud the picture.

The third area of study is communication, that is, the study of the 
linguistic conventions used by the people familiar with Classical 
Hebrew, to convey their thoughts to others. In this area discourse 
analysis can be a fine tool, but even here would I prefer to use 
other approaches first. The reason why I view discourse analysis as a 
secondary tool only, is that it cannot pinpoint *meaning*, just 
*patterns*, that it to a great degree is open for circularity, and 
that there are few if any controls that can be used to test the 
conclusions. What I see is that patters of foreground and background 
information X-QATAL  etc are established, and this is good and well 
as a pattern. But then other situations are interpreted in the light 
of these patterns as if the patterns were universal, but this is 
circular reasoning. Often the results seem to be forced as well.

In one chapter of my forthcoming dissertation I discuss how the 
communication of ideas took place in Classical Hebrew. I demonstrate 
by examples that all the finite and infinite forms (the participles, 
the infinitives, the prefix-forms (YIQTOL, WEYIQTOL, and WAYYIQTOL), 
the suffix-forms (QATAL  and WEQATAL) can be used for *any* temporal 
reference (pre-past, past, "perfect", present, and future) and for 
any mood. Then I show *why* there are different patterns when all the 
forms of the verbal system can be used for any temporal reference and 
mood. The answers are not based upon discourse analysis (that never 
can answer any *why*-question). But they are based on an analysis of 
the interplay of lexical semantics, Aktionsart, "procedural traits" 
(the semantic characteristics dynamicity, durativity, and telicity, 
and the pragmatic traits punctiliarity and stativity),"binyan", the 
singularity/plurality, indefinitenes/definitenes, and 
countability/uncountability of subject and object, adverbials etc.

The characteristic stativity may be used as an illustration. It is 
defined as something that continues without an input of energy; thus 
a state is durative but not dynamic. Any part of a state is similar 
to any other part or to the state as a whole. Communication means to 
make something visible to the listener or reader and to make other 
things invisible; verb forms serve as tools to achieve this. Whereas 
there is a difference in opinion regarding the nature of the 
perfective and imperfective aspects, there is common agreement that 
they represent different viewpoints. But what is the combination of 
viewpoint and stativity? Because a part of a state is similar to any 
other part, regardless of whether an infinitive, a participle, a 
WAYYIQTOL,  a YIQTOL, a WEYIQTOL, a QATAL or a WEQATAL  is used, 
exactly the same thing is made visible! Therefore we should not draw 
the conclusion that two forms have similar *meaning* if they have 
similar functions; first we must analyse the other factors. In some 
connections, therefore, any of the forms can be used, in others just 
one form can be used.

The only restrictions I have found after analysing the 60.000 finitie 
and infinite forms of the Tanach is that conative situations 
(something is attempted but not carried out) and situastions where 
one verb intersects another verb (as in "when John entered, Peter was 
reading the paper") can only be expressed by the imperfective aspect 
(YIQTOL, WEYIQTOL and WAYYIQTOL), and not with the perfective aspect 
(QATAL and WEQATAL). (BTW. In most states expressed by a WAYYIQTOL, 
the state is intersected in the middle (imperfective aspect),and not 
at the end, as in (1). The point in (1) is not that the slave "had 
loved" but that he "does" love. Even when the reference of a state is 
past, the intersection is usually in the middle.

(1) Deuteronomy 15:16 And it must occur (WAYYIQTOL) that in the case 
he says (YIQTOL) to you, "I will not go out (YIQTOL) from your 
company" because he does love (QATAL) you and your household


A very important problem with discourse analysis is the assumption 
that YIQTOL, WAYYIQTOL, QATAL, and WEQATAL are four different 
conjugations with different semantic meanings. If there are just two 
conjugations, as I will give very strong evidence in favor of, one is 
in fact analysing WAWs prefixed to verbs when one thinks one is 
analysing different conjugations. As an example of the magnitude of 
evidence against WAYYIQTOL being different from YIQTOL I have a list 
of 86 infinitive absolutes, 760 infinitive constructs, 1.745 
participles (all these are used as finite verbs with past reference), 
and 1.020 YIQTOLs with past reference that fulfill the criteria that 
is the basis for ascribing the perfective aspect to the WAYYIQTOLs. 
In other words, if the WAYYIQTOLs are perfective, the same must all 
these 3.611 forms be. but that is of course nonsense.

To Rodney: My scepticism regarding the axioms of discourse analysis, 
and its usefulness to anything else than describing patterns, is the 
reason that I refrain from giving advise regarding your "trial 
thesis". I simply am not aware of how this method cangive us any 
insights regarding the meaning of the verbal system of Classical 
Hebrew



Regards

Rolf


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo







>Another weakness of Waltke and O'Connor is that it rubbishes then
>ignores discourse analysis, and (in my opinion at least) its treatment
>of Hebrew verbs is thereby seriously flawed.
>
>Peter Kirk
>
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