[b-hebrew] Aspect

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Wed Jun 9 02:06:31 EDT 2004

Dear List-members,

For those who want to come to grips with the term aspect, the sources 
listed by Ken should be included.  But there is one particular fine 
work that should be included as well, namely, Olsen, Mari Broman 
(1997). "A Semantic and Pragmatic model of Lexical and Gramatical 
Aspect". New York: Garland Publishing.  Olsen defines tense a the 
relationship between reference time and the deictic center and aspect 
as the relationship between reference time and event time.  On the 
basis of these three parameters alone she is able to explain the 
whole English verbal system without seeking recourse in the so-called 
relative tenses. Please note that she points out that the perfective 
aspect in English is only expressed by perfect and not by simple 
past; regarding this both Comrie and Cook errs, in my view.  The 
strength of Olsen's system is that she uses a few fundamental 
concepts systematically, but the weakness is that she, as most others 
believe that aspect definitions are universal, so they can be applied 
to any aspectual language.

In contrast with Ken I think that the basic obstacle for 
understanding the verbal system of the Hebrew Bible is how aspect is 
defined.  There are even parts of standard definitions that in my 
view are pure nonsense!   For example, what is a "complete" event? 
Is "complete" applied to the literal event or to the description of 
it?  And regardless of the answer, does the term "complete" make 
sense at all?  And what is "an event in progression" (taken from the 
opposition "progressive/nonprogressive")?  Are not all events, save 
instantaneous ones, in progression?  And if we substitute 
"progression" with "durativity", (as in the misnomer "durative past" 
for YIQTOLs with past reference) are not all events, save 
semelfactive ones, durative?  And is not "durative" an Aktionsart 
term rather than an aspectual term?

Let us apply the term "complete" to real situations portrayed in the 
Hebrew Bible.  There are more than 2,000 QATALs and more than 2,000 
YIQTOLs with present reference.   How can we say that the QATALs are 
"complete" and the YIQTOLs are events "in progression"?  There are a 
little less than 1,000 QATALs with future reference (less than 10 per 
cent of these are future completed (future perfect), according to the 
context). How are these forms with future reference "complete"?  And 
to use a past example:  There are several QATALs of MLK in Kings with 
the meaning "He began to reign" - the entrance into the state is made 
visible.  How are these events "complete"?  And should not 
"complete"+past reference  be "completed"?

There is a methodologically simple way, though requiring much hard 
work, to solve these problems, namely:  Take all the Hebrew verbs, or 
at least a few thousand of them, and follow Olsen's method, by 
applying the parameters "reference time" (when possible), "event 
time", and the "deictic center"  to the verbs.  The result will 
probably be that you discard what standard grammars say about Hebrew 
tense and aspect.  It is quite ironic that most dissertations and 
monographs on Hebrew verbs in the past fifty years basically are 
studies of what other scholars have said about the Hebrew verbal 
system, rather than a study of thousands of verbs of the verbal 
system itself. We should not chew cud on the old definitions of 
aspect which has come to us with a few revisions, through Reichenbach 
and Comrie, as far as general linguistics is concerned, and through 
S. R. Driver and Waltke-O'connor, as far as Hebrew is concerned.
It is time to reject the whole old system and do some qualitatively 
new thinking.

Best regards


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>George wrote:
>>  Thanks for reproducing Comrie's definition of aspect. It
>>  certainly belongs to the old school mentality. I certainly
>>  think aspect is much more than what Comrie describes -- in
>>  Hebrew, anyway.
>Sure, Comrie's classic work on aspect has been criticised as being out of
>date. The fact remains, does it not, that when non-Hebrew linguists speak of
>aspect, this is what they understand by the term unless otherwise specified?
>A book I was reading today on Tense and Aspect issues for Second Language
>Acquisition appealed to Comrie, Dahl, Bybee, and C. Smith when discussing
>grammatical aspect. The others write two decades after Comrie. What do they
>fundamentally change about the definition of Aspect?
>However you define it, Aspect is our word for the difference between Russian
>proãital and ãital, French lut and lisait, Portuguese leu and leia, Greek
>aneginÿske and anegnÿ, English "he read" and "he was reading", etc. It can
>function slightly differently in each language, but the difference usually
>covers habituality or progression.
>You may be thinking this doesn't fit Hebrew very well, and I would agree.
>Garr's forward to Driver's Treatise is a good basic tune-up on aspect for
>Hebrew. John Cook's dissertation, "The Hebrew Verbal System: A
>Grammaticalization Approach" (University of Wisconsin, 2002) is a fuller
>update. But I think the problem is not in the definition of aspect, but in
>thinking that Hebrew primarily or exclusively grammaticalizes aspect. On
>this, I recommend Jan Joosten's recent article, "Do the Finite Verbal Forms
>in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?" JANES 29(2002): 49-70.
>Ken Penner, M.C.S. (Biblical Languages, Greek Focus), M.A. (Hebrew Poetry)
>Ph.D. (cand.), McMaster University
>pennerkm at mcmaster.ca

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