Hebrew Syntax.

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Wed Apr 10 16:51:41 EDT 2002

Dear Peter,

I see several advantages with discourse analysis. To learn to find 
the theme (topic) and the rheme of clauses and paragraphs (new 
information and information already introduced) is illuminating 
indeed. To look for main-line and background information and how 
these are expressed,is a fine help to understand a text more 
thoroughly. I do not teach introductory courses in Hebrew, but I can 
imagine that a method like the one proposed by Bryan Rocine, the 
frame of which is discourse analysis, will be effective for the 
students of such courses. I also admire Alviero Niccacci for his 
extreme consistency in applying discourse analysis to Hebrew prose, 
he even has a place for WEYIQTOL as an independent conjugation in his 

But I am very much concerned with the application of discourse 
analysis in areas where it does not belong, particularly as respects 
the *meaning* of the parts of the Hebrew verbal system. Discourse 
analysis is a descriptive method and not a normative one. It can tell 
us nothing about the meaning of YIQTOL, QATAL, WAYYIQTOL, and 
WEQATAL. It cannot even tell us if there is a semantic difference 
between WAYYIQTOL and YIQTOL,  between QATAL  and WEQATAL. It can 
only describe the pattern of the *use* of these forms in prose texts. 
This pattern is important, and it is profitable to study it, but we 
should not behave as if these patterns could tell us anything about 
the meaning of verbal forms.

Just make a simple test: Take a part of the book of Samuel or Kings 
or another book, skip the usual assumptions that there are four 
different conjugations, and assume instead that there are just two 
(WAYYIQTOL = YIQTOL and WEQATAL=QATAL) conjugations (and the prefixed 
WAWs are just conjunctions). Make your discourse analysis on this 
basis, and see if your results will be different.

My experiance by doing this is that the *general* picture for 
narratives will be about the same, with WAYYIQTOLs carrying the 
account forward, but on other levels many of the supposed rules 
crumble, and much more variation in forms chosen for the same 
functions will be seen. One may even be able to discover the hundreds 
of WAYYIQTOLs where the focus is not on the end but on the middle, 
which is typical for the imperfective aspect. Just try!

Rather than suggesting that you should use a two-component model 
instead of a four-component one as your point of departure when you 
do discourse analysis, my point is that the results of your discourse 
analysis to a great degree depend on the assumptions you make. 
Therefore it is much more profitable to start with the assumptions 
themselves and scrutinize them, if you are looking for the meaning of 
verb forms, than to reason in a circle by trying to confirm by 
discourse analysis the very results on which your method build.



Rolf Furuli

University of Oslo

>Rolf, thank you for rubbishing discourse analysis more thoroughly 
>than Waltke and O'Connor ever did.
>I agree that discourse analysis is not an easy field and there is 
>danger of subjectivity. But it cannot be ignored. It is well known 
>that in some languages there are words and morphemes whose functions 
>can be understood properly only from a level higher than the 
>sentence level, i.e. they are discourse particles etc. In other 
>languages there are more complex syntactic features which have 
>similar discourse level functions.
>It is the proposal of some scholars of biblical Hebrew that the 
>choice between verb forms (which is not well understood by 
>traditional methods, as is shown by the sharp disagreement between 
>yourself and the majority of scholars including W&O'C concerning 
>WAYYIQTOL) is determined (in part) by discourse level factors. And 
>there is good evidence for this hypothesis, although no one would 
>claim that it answers all the questions. If you disagree with this 
>hypothesis, please give evidence against it rather than ruling it 
>Peter Kirk
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