[b-Hebrew] Aspect

Ken Penner pennerkm at mcmaster.ca
Thu Jun 10 11:16:59 EDT 2004

Rolf is correct that Olsen makes a significant contribution to our
understanding of aspect. In fact, I am heavily indebted to Olsen in the
section on aspect in my paper, "Toward a Method of Tagging Hebrew Tense,
Aspect, and Mood," which I will be presenting at SBL San Antonio. But I do
find some of her views unsatisfactory, particularly her failure to
distinguish between attributive and predicative participles (e.g., p. 123),
her 3-time-point model (Deictic Centre, Reference Time, Event Time), which
eliminates one of Speech Time (conflated with Deictic Centre) or Situation
Time (conflated with Reference Time) and her elimination of relative tense.
Perhaps I need to return to her work for another look to see if I can
overcome these obstacles.

Olsen's model is actually helpful for understanding the descriptions
"complete" and "in progress" that Rolf criticized. Using the sentences,
"John read the book. When the postman came, John was reading the book,"  the
first is depicted as a "complete" event, the other, "in progress". Using
Olsen's terminology, in the second sentence, the Reference Time (the
postman's arrival) intersects Event Time (the reading) at the Nucleus of the
event. I take this to mean "while the reading is in progress".

As for Rolf's method, I propose something very similar in my SBL paper. But
I don't assume that the QATAL / YIQTOL opposition is one of aspect. In fact,
I suspect that tense (especially relative tense) or mood would better
explain the Hebrew verb forms than aspect, unless aspect in Hebrew is
something significantly different than aspect in most other languages. And
perhaps that is exactly what Rolf is arguing: that aspect in Hebrew is
different. If so, I wonder: (1) why call it aspect? (2) what exactly IS
aspect in Hebrew? If aspect in Hebrew is not different, is Olsen's work the
key to a universal model of aspect? Is Hebrew aspect still the relation of
Reference Time to Event Time (as defined by Olsen)? I confess I still don't
understand Rolf's model well; I don't see what the angle of intersection
refers to. But the last time I really looked at Rolf's work was over a year
ago. Perhaps this is something else I need go back to again.

Ken Penner, McMaster/DSS
Dead Sea Scrolls scholars' list owner,

> 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.

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list