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

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Sun Mar 14 16:13:23 EST 2004

On 14/03/2004 11:18, furuli at online.no wrote:

> ...
> Dear Peter,
> I would like to clear up one point, which is important:
> In principle a single contra-example is enough to falsify a claim. ...

Thank you for your clarification. But we differ fundamentally on this 
principle. It is of course true of certain types of claims in the 
natural sciences. But I do not accept that it applies even in principle 
in linguistics, and certainly not to the kinds of hypothesis which you 
claim to have falsified. For example, you claim to have falsified 
certain hypotheses of the type that there is a semantic distinction 
between verb forms A and B (to keep this generic) on the basis of a 
number of counter-examples. I may contest many of your counter-examples. 
But the main point is not that, but that a small number of 
counter-examples does not falsify hypotheses of semantic distinctions. 
For, I would argue, even after discounting the kinds of counter-example 
you admit which "are given plausible linguistic explanations" e.g. 
hypothetical conditional clauses and special genres, there are likely to 
remain counter-examples which cannot be explained except by the general 
principle that human language is intrinsically variable and 
inconsistent, at a level such that no linguistic explanation can 
describe every nuance.

You can of course argue that on my position hypotheses of semantic 
distinctions are unfalsifiable and so unscientific. Well, they are 
falsifiable in principle by testing with native speakers - although not 
of course in practice with Hebrew as there are no native speakers. So I 
accept that this is a difficulty with the generally accepted model of 
the Hebrew verb system. But I would respond that in many fields of human 
scholarship, especially in social science but also in many branches of 
physical science, some randomness in data is expected, and a 99% match 
between a hypothesis and the data is considered to more or less prove 
the hypothesis, rather than the existence of 1% counter-examples to 
disprove it. Although I would hope that linguistics can be put on a 
firmer footing than much social science and perhaps more on the level of 
physics and chemistry, it is unreasonable to expect data to match 
hypotheses with the 100% precision which is normally expected only in 
pure mathematics.

> ... arguments such as "the language of poetry is different from that 
> of prose, and therefore a verb form has another meaning in poetry than 
> in prose"   are not acceptable.

I have not attempted to rely on this argument. But let's examine it 
anyway. I accept that the language of poetry is fundamentally the same 
as that of prose. But I would add the following caveats:

1) Poetry, as well as some genres of prose, is typically full of 
figurative and imaginative language, and that language commonly 
stretches the bounds of normal semantics. So, for example, I would not 
be surprised to read "I came tomorrow" in poetry, perhaps in some kind 
of review of one's life from a distant future perspective.

2) In poetry the normal rules of grammar as well as spelling are 
sometimes broken for the sake of metre or rhyme. In modern English 
poetry this is typically signalled e.g. by apostrophes marking 
abbreviations, but one would not expect such marking to survive in 
ancient Hebrew poetry.

3) Use of archaic, colloquial and dialect forms is often acceptable in 
poetry when it is not acceptable in written prose. This is especially 
significant for biblical Hebrew, in which many scholars recognise the 
archaic nature of the poems in the Pentateuch and Judges, and the late 
nature of some Psalms etc. It would seem that most of the prose in the 
Hebrew Bible (excluding the Late Biblical Hebrew parts) was written, and 
perhaps in some cases revised, in a rather standardised form of biblical 
Hebrew; but that much of the poetry was left in less standard forms, in 
some cases archaic ones, and in other cases possibly innovative forms in 
more general colloquial or dialect use which were not yet acceptable in 

Because of these three factors we can expect to see a significantly 
greater variety of use of verb and other forms in poetry compared with 

> As to "a reasonable number" of contra-examples, in my data base there 
> are 956 QATALs with future reference (less than 5 % are equivalent to 
> English future perfect) and 997 WAYYIQTOLs with non-past reference. 
> Your critical mind would of course discard a number of these, but more 
> than enough would remain and show that the traditional views of QATAL 
> and WAYYIQTOL do not hold. So these numbers would in my view be "a 
> reasonable number" of contra-examples.

Well, suppose I am generous and accept 50% or 500 of your supposedly 
non-past WAYYIQTOLs as unambiguously non-past. That is 500 out of over 
15,000 WAYYIQTOLs in the Hebrew Bible, or just over 3%. I do not 
consider that level of counter-examples sufficient to falsify any 
linguistic hypothesis, although it is perhaps enough to suggest that the 
hypothesis needs some refinement. On the other hand, I might find that 
only 15% of your examples are unambiguously non-past, reducing the level 
of counter-examples to 1%. I would take that as something close to 
confirmation of the hypothesis.

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

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