[b-hebrew] Verbs

David Kummerow farmerjoeblo at hotmail.com
Sat Aug 6 02:44:29 EDT 2005

Hi George,

I've done a little thinking the last few days concerning your proposal
of a "spatial" understanding of the BH verbal system. At least in theory
it must be admitted that it is possible, since it is indeed possible for
a language to not make tense-aspect distinctions (see Östen Dahl,
"Languages without Tense and Aspect," in _ Aktionsart and 
Aspectotemporality in Non-European Languages: Proceedings from the 
Workshop on Aspect and Aktionsart Held at the University of Zurich, June 
23-25, 2000_ [ed. Karen H. Ebert and Fernando Zúñiga; Zürich: 
Universität Zürich, 2001], 159-173 

The research that has been done on this that I can find suggests that 
languages can make a spatial distinction in their verbal system (see, 
eg, Ning Yu, "Spatial Conceptualization of Time in Chinese," in 
_Cultural, Psychological and Typological Issues in Cognitive 
Linguistics: Slected Papers of the Bi-annual ICLA Meeting in 
Albuquerque, July 1995_ [ed. Masako K. Hiraga, Chris Sinha, and Sherman 
Wilcox; ASTHLS 152; Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1999], 
69-84; George Lakoff, "The Invariance Hypothesis: Is Abstract Reason 
Based on Image Schemas?" Cognitive Linguistics 1 (1990), 39-74; idem, 
"The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor," in _Metaphor and Thought_ [2nd 
ed.; ed. Andrew Ortony; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 
202-251). But the research also seems to suggest that languages only do 
this - maybe CAN only do this - because they firstly have a 
grammaticalised tense system. In this way "future" can be thought of 
"spatially" as something you can "look forward to"; the "past" as 
something "behind"; and the "present" is at the "same location". 
(Interestingly, for some languages the future is behind and the past is 
in front!)

So what this would seem to say for BH is that if the verbal system can
be conceptualised "spatially" it can only do so because it firstly marks 


David Kummerow
Sydney, Australia.

> Harold (and others),
> While it might appear so, I think there is more in Rolf's theory than 
> merely this. I have been working (among other things) at a theory of 
> Hebrew verbal aspect over the last few years, and hope to have a grammar 
> ready in the next couple of years.
> Rolf's point that Biblical Hebrew has no tense is one with which I 
> strongly agree. The evidence strongly points in this direction. But this 
> statement needs to be nuanced. Perhaps another way to put it is that the 
> verbal conjugations do not speak so much about tense, but rather the 
> reader's distance from the action. In other words, the verbs do not work 
> on a temporal plain, but rather a spatial plain. Tense must be inferred 
> secondarily from the spatial sphere. The way I describe it to my 
> students is a bit like watching a play in a theatre. English verbs, 
> which have tense, are like watching the play from your seat in the 
> audience: you don't move, the action moves before you. Biblical Hebrew 
> verbs, though, invite you to come onto the stage and watch the play from 
> various vantage points.
> Thus, WAYYIQTOL verbs present an action which is viewed as being 
> initially 'far' from the viewer/reader, but which invites the 
> viewer/reader to come and look at it. In this way, narrative momentum is 
> produced, and the viewer/reader moves with the action. A QATAL verb, 
> though, halts such narrative momentum and presents an action up close. 
> This is not because the action of the QATAL is close in time, but 
> because the author wants the viewer/reader to see the action as 
> critically important. A YIQTOL verb presents an action which is quite 
> distant from the viewer/reader, such that the action is almost seen as 
> filling out the background or the 'set'. A WEQATAL verb is merely an 
> 'add on' verb form and sustains the focus wherever the viewer/reader is. 
> Thus, the verb forms are like stage directions, telling the 
> viewer/reader 'where' the actions are occuring on the literary 'stage', 
> rather than 'when' the actions are occuring in time.
> The choice of verb forms has primarily to do with dramatic effect. After 
> all, let's face it, Biblical Hebrew is great at telling a story or a 
> poem. Timing is of secondary importance. For example, many times a 
> YIQTOL is translated as a future tense, not because the future tense is 
> intrinsic to it, but because the author wants the viewer/reader to see 
> the future as 'far' from the current standpoint. On other occasions, a 
> YIQTOL is translated as a continuous past tense because, again, the 
> action is seen to be distant from the current standpoint. In any case, 
> the author is trying to convey that the action conveyed by the YIQTOL, 
> whether it be past, present, future, or a combination of these, should 
> be seen as filling in the background or the 'set'. Thus, it's not that 
> Hebrew verbs have no temporal connotations, but they are not intrinsic 
> to the verb form.
> Having said that, some work needs to be done on the various stages of 
> the development of Biblical Hebrew. At some stage, tense came into the 
> Hebrew language. A diachronic analysis needs to be done to see how and 
> when the language developed and gained a tense system.
> Best regards,
> Lecturer in Biblical Languages
> Southern Cross College
> Sydney, Australia

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