[b-hebrew] The perspective of this native speaker of Modern Hebrew of Biblical Hebrew tenses

Naama Zahavi-Ely nxzaha at wm.edu
Fri Nov 26 17:55:11 EST 2004

Shalom!  My mother language is (modern) Hebrew, as is my mother's and my 
father's.  I have been reading the Bible in the original (MT version) since 
2nd grade at the latest, by immersion rather than by rules, and have now 
been teaching Biblical Hebrew to English speakers for a good number of 
years.  No, the usage of the verb forms in Biblical Hebrew is not identical 
with that of Modern Hebrew (or Mishnaic Hebrew for that matter).  In Modern 
Hebrew Yiqtol is future, Qatal is past, and participle is present tense 
(more or less).  Mishnaic Hebrew is largely the same.  It clearly isn't so 
in Biblical Hebrew.  And no, the perfective/imperfective distinction doesn't 
work either.  It works about half the time -- which is what you would expect 
of a coincidence.  My impression is that European scholars, used to 
Indo-European languages with their complex encoding of time/sequencing/modes 
by verb forms, are and have always been baffled by the Hebrew verb forms 
which don't seem to work in the same way, and try to impose some 
non-existent rules by any means possible.  It just doesn't work.

Vav conversive + yiqtol form ("imperfect") is a past event in Biblical 
Hebrew, pretty much always (at any case, I can't think of exceptions).  The 
very same action, though, can be encoded in the qatal form ("perfect") if 
the author chooses to put the subject first, before the verb.  And the 
reason for that choice can be any number of things:  it can be a focus on 
the subject rather than the verb, it can be in order to mention an action 
which is not a part of the same series of actions (which may or may not be 
the equivalent of a perfect verb in English in a particular context), it can 
simply be a signal for the end of a series of actions (as in the last verb 
in Genesis 1:5a, which ends a list of actions of God that starts at 1:4). 
There is a wonderful article by Mirsky (I hope I am spelling his name right 
in English -- I know it in Hebrew) which claims that Hebrew can signal the 
equivalent of punctuation by variants in word order -- I know the article 
has been translated into English, but I don't know where one can find it. 
In the original Hebrew the article itself is written with no punctuation 
marks whatsoever -- and is perfectly legible, in fact very clear.  Try to do 
that in English!  I have since encountered other Hebrew texts with Biblical 
flavor, written by naive writers with no theory to prove, which also use no 
punctuation marks but are very clear.  A translation of the same into 
English with no addition of punctuation marks creates gibberish.

Other than Vav Conversive + yiqtol verbs, and imperative (which of course 
should be translated as imperative), any verb form in Biblical Hebrew can be 
translated as past, present, or future, depending on context.  Modality 
(may, should, might, etc) is usually encoded by yiqtol without vav 
conversive, but not always -- and certainly not all yiqtols without vav 
conversive are modal.  Times, sequencing, and perfect/imperfect aspects of 
action are, in my opinion, encoded in the Bible when necessary by additional 
words (hine, ata, achar, beterem, ka'asher, od, and many others).  Most of 
the time context is enough.  If the action happened in the past, translate 
it as a past tense;  if it hasn't happened yet, translate it as a future 
tense. Usually one has a pretty good idea...  I am told that many languages 
have no clear tenses or perfective/imperfective aspects -- Hebrew is not 
unusual in this respect.

This doesn't mean that the different verb forms in Biblical Hebrew are 
superfluous, or that the Hebrew verb system is either primitive or 
degenerate.  It is simply different.  Biblical Hebrew verbs are much clearer 
than English ones on matters of causation and intention:  in English often 
the same verb can be used for transitive action and intransitive action, 
which never happens in Hebrew (they may be the same root but never the same 
root/stem combination).  In English one can stand on the floor, or stand a 
glass on a table -- the only way to differentiate between the two is by 
context.  In Hebrew the verb itself would tell you whether it means to stand 
(intransitive) or to stand something else (transitive).  As all teachers of 
Biblical Hebrew know, missing this point can lead to pretty funny 

There is clearly a difference between Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew in 
the usage of verb forms like Qatal/Yiktol.  But the difference is such that 
native speakers can take it in stride -- they don't necessarily have to be 
taught the difference, even as children.  I think the situation is rather 
similar to the difference between Shakespearian English and Modern 
English -- they are different, but high schoolers don't get language lessons 
before reading Romeo and Juliet!

Just my 2 pennies' worth,

Naama Zahavi-Ely
College of William and Mary 

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