[b-hebrew] Psa 107:19-21 (was WAYYIQTOL)

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Sat Mar 13 07:00:48 EST 2004

On 12/03/2004 23:51, furuli at online.no wrote:

> Dear Bryan,
> In order to give an adequate answer I need to point out some basic 
> weaknesses in peoples' dealing with aspects. I have already claimed 
> that a basic weakness in modern studies which argue that Semitic verbs 
> represent tenses, is the lack of systematic distinction between past 
> reference and past tense (and future as well). There is a similar 
> basic weakness in studies which argue that Semitic verbs represent 
> aspects, namely the lack of analysis of the concept "aspect". Very 
> often, all that is done, is to use the vague and wrong definition of 
> B. Comrie (He confuses Aktionsart and aspect), and this often leads to 
> the view that the perfective and imperfective aspects are mutually 
> exclusive.

Rolf, I find it methodologically very strange that you attack someone's 
definitions, especially when that someone is generally recognised as the 
leading scholar in the field and author of the definitive work on it. 
Comrie's definition of aspect is not the same as yours, but it does have 
the clear benefit that according to it "the perfective and imperfective 
aspects are mutually exclusive" whereas yours does not have this very 
convenient feature - which makes your definition seem to me "vague" i.e. 
lacking in descriptive and analytical power. Also, Comrie's definition 
is an excellent description of aspect in Russian and one which fits well 
also with observed features of English, Greek and many other languages. 
As such it is a very powerful tool for analysis and understanding of 

Now I accept that a priori this definition is not necessarily going to 
be the most helpful one for analysis of Hebrew, and so we need to study 
Hebrew for what it is and not assume that it fits well with Comrie's 
categories. As a result we may come up with different distinctions which 
are more helpful for Hebrew, and this is what you claim to have done. 
But this is no reason for attacking Comrie as "vague and wrong". Just 
because his definition does not apply to Hebrew, that does not make it 
"vague and wrong". Also, because Comrie's definition of aspect is the 
one accepted and used by most linguists, you simply cause confusion by 
trying to redefine a commonly used term; better to drop the word 
"aspect" completely (having demonstrated that according to Comrie's 
definition it is not useful for Hebrew) and invent a new terminology.

> ...
> The last sentence does not indicate that there is linguistic anarchy 
> in Hebrew, but rather that the aspects are not mutually exclusive, and 
> that there are several areas where both aspects can be used without 
> any distinction in meaning. It is the linguistic conventions that give 
> meaning to the use of verbs. We can illustrate the case with the 
> active participle and infinitive construct. These two forms have 
> different meanings and different uses, but they are not mutually 
> exclusive. Occasionally, therefore, an infinitive is used where we 
> expect a participle, vice versa. But normally linguistic convention 
> causes an orderly use of both.

The problem here is that you have been locked by your linguistic theory 
into an unrealistic dichotomy. On your theory, if I understand it 
correctly, if a distinction between two forms is semantically 
significant, it is uncancellable and so must maintain this distinction 
in 100% of cases. If even in only 0.1% of cases one form is used where 
the other is expected, you take that as proof that there is no semantic 
distinction, and so that the difference between the two forms is merely 
"linguistic convention" with no semantic significance. (Please correct 
me if I have misunderstood your position.)

But this position is unrealistic for the study of real language. 
Firstly, even the strongest semantic distinctions are not maintained 
100%, especially in poetic language. Normal rules may be broken for 
poetic and figurative effect, or just to fit the metre or rhyme. There 
may be dialect and diachronic variation. Authors may simply make 
mistakes (and so may copyists, in the case of an ancient text). 
Secondly, the semantic distinctions may be more subtle than we realise, 
so that there are real reasons why an unexpected form is encountered; 
and in an ancient language like Hebrew, with a limited corpus and no 
native speakers to work with, it may simply be impossible for us to 
recover the truly semantic reasons for an apparently anomalous form. 
Therefore we need to abandon this 100% rule and accept that a few 
counter-examples do not disprove a rule, and specifically that 
distinctions may be truly semantic even if they seem to be ignored in 
some cases.

The consequence of your approach to Hebrew is that, because there are 
almost no rules in Hebrew which are followed 100%, by your method of 
analysis there are no semantic distinctions in Hebrew, but only 
"linguistic convention". This is of course a nonsense, as the Hebrew 
speakers had to have some way to make semantic distinctions in what they 
said. It also leaves the door open for you to interpret the text in an 
entirely subjective way, because you accept no semantic distinctions 
which can be used to control or falsify your understanding. So, it 
seems, the predictions of your theory are unfalsifiable, which in my 
opinion makes them valueless.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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