[b-hebrew] Psa 107:19-21 (was WAYYIQTOL)
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
> ... 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 at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
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