[b-hebrew] Aspect

Eduard C Hanganu eddhanganu at hotmail.com
Wed Jun 9 08:25:00 EDT 2004

Dear Mr. Furuli:

In his 'Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics' defines aspect as 
'a grammatical category which deals with distinctions in the wayin which an 
action  or a situation is regarded as being distributed in time'. He also 
mentions that 'traditional grammar often confused aspect with tense, but the 
two are quite distinct'(p 21).

I have been wondering recently if Hebrew has indeed 'aspect' in the 
classical sense. Are 'perfect' and 'imperfect' indeed the two 'aspects' of 
the Hebrew language? And how are they related to the 'telic/atelic' and 
'bound/unbound' notions?

One of the verbs that have preocupied me in this sense is the NITZDAK of 
Daniel 8:14 ( the niphal waw consec perfect 3rd person masculine singular of 
the verb TZADEIK). NITZDAK appears to have an 'imperfect' aspect. Does this 
mean that the verb describes an 'open' event with beginning but no end? The 
verb phrase 'the sanctuary shall be vindicated' seems to suggest a telic, 
bound event with a relatively short duration indicated by the noun phrase 
'the sanctuary.' How would you personally describe the action of the verb 
NITZDAK in the context of Daniel chapter eight, and especially in reference 
to the discourse fragment  of Daniel 8:9-14?

I am just beginning to find my way through these topics, so forgive me if I 
sound imprecise or confused. I would greatly appreciate your help in this 


Eduard C. Hanganu

From: furuli at online.no
To: b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Aspect
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 2004 08:06:31 +0200

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 
>aspect, this is what they understand by the term unless otherwise 
>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 
>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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