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

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Sat Nov 27 04:07:02 EST 2004

Dear Naama,

I agree with most of the observations you make in your post.  Yet, a few 
need some comment.

Naama Zahavi-Ely wrote:

>  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. 


It is true that Indo-European scholars have imposed upon classical 
Hebrew their definitions of aspect, but it is my impression that most 
modern Israeli scholars have done exactly the same, not with aspect, 
which they reject, but with tense.  When you say that the 
perfective/imperfective distinction work about half the time, you are 
correct.  But note that this is when you apply English aspectual 
distinctions to classical Hebrew.  And this is a cardinal error in 
Hebrew studies, to assume that aspect is one and the same thing in all 
aspectual languages, namely, the opposition incomplete/completed or 
incomplete/complete!  I am not aware of a singly scholarly study that 
presents a different view.

It is rather easy to stear clear of the mentioned casdinal error, namely 
by using the fundamental concepts "deictic center (C)," "event time 
(ET)," and "reference time (RT)" to define tense and aspect.  Tense can 
be defined as the relationship between C and  RT.  When RT comes  before 
C, the tense is past, when it comes  after C, the tense is future, and 
when it  coincides with C, the reference is present.  Applying this to 
classical Hebrew, we do not find any group of verb with a uniform 
relationship between RT/ET and C, not even WAYYIQTOL (see below).  Thus, 
tense is not grammaticalized in classical Hebrew.

Aspect can be defined as the relationship between ET and RT.  Given that 
the perfective aspect in English is expressed by perfect and the 
imperfective aspect by present participle, there are just two options in 
English for the relationsship between ET and RT.  When the perfective 
aspect is used RT intersects ET and the coda (end), and when the 
imperfective aspect is used RT intersects ET at the nucleus (the two 
aspects can be combines though, as in "Ann has been reading the book".)  
On this basis the distinction incomplete/completed (or, as some prefer: 
incomplete/complete) is made.  If we look at classical Hebrew, there are 
many more options for the intersection of ET by RT.  Thus, the classical 
Hebrew aspects are very different from their English counterparts, and 
must be defined differently.  I have studied this matter thoroughly, and 
the new definition of Hebrew aspects that has emerged from this study 
accounts for the use of *ALL*  the verbs in the Tanakh!

> 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). 


I agree with your comments regarding the use of WAYYIQTOL and QATAL in 
past contexts, with one exception.  There are several examples of 
WAYYIQTOL with non-past reference (at least 998).  And here I would like 
to point out the second cardinal error in the study of classical Hebrew, 
namely the almost total reliance on quantity rather than quality.  Let 
me illustrate the point:  The difference between long and short 
WAYYIQTOLs is being viewed as very important, because it is believed 
that WAYYIQTOL goes back to a short preterit YAQTUL.  However, 73 per 
cent of the WAYYIQTOLs are long.  If quantity were our criterion, we 
could reason that because 10,611 WAYYIQTOLs are long, the form IS long.  
However, realizing that these forms cannot be short because of their 
laryngeals, suffixes and other factors, the smaller group is the 
important one.  Because the members of this smaller group need not be 
long, a quality study of them could reveal whether their shortness is a 
matter of etymology or phonology or other factors.  The same is true 
with the temporal reference of the WAYYIQTOLs, where 93.1 per cent have 
past reference.  However, almost all these occur in narrative contexts 
where the verb by definition must have past reference, so these 
WAYYIQTOLs simply cannot have anything but past reference.  Thus, the 
least likely place to find the true nature of WAYYIQTOLs is in narrative 
texts.  What we ought to do is to make a quality study of the 998 
WAYYIQTOLs with non-past reference.

Having done this quality study, together with an analysis of all the 
89,574 finite verbs of the Tanakh, the DSS, Ben Sira, and the 
Inscriptions, my conclusion is that tense is absent from classical 
Hebrew, and that all finite verbs represent either the imperfective or 
the perfective aspect (though defined differently from the English 
aspects): YIQTOL, WAYYIQTOL, and WEYIQTOL represent the imperfective 
aspect, and QATAL and WEQATAL represent the perfective one.

(I have expressed this several times on the list, but I mention it once 
more, because this discussion of Hebrew verbs comes up again.)

Best regards

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo


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