[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Mon Aug 15 18:25:01 EDT 2005

On 15/08/2005 20:10, Dave Washburn wrote:

> ...
>>3) For some scholars, such as Rolf and Dave as I understand their wordk,
>>this rather small number of exceptions is a problem. For they hold to
>>theoretical models according to which exceptions to semantic rules are
>>not possible. ...
>I do not hold to such a theoretical model. ...

Thank you for the clarification. Well, it sounds as if you are saying 
that there are exceptions, but that you deprecate them as "bad grammar". 
That is I suppose a logical way out of the impasse. But, if you examine 
how people actually do use language, I wonder if in practice they do 
have a tendency to follow fixed rules which can be written down and 
reject everything else as "bad grammar". Or are you reading 19th century 
prescriptive English, or Latin and Greek, grammar conventions back into 
ancient Hebrew?

I do accept that there is such a thing as native speaker intuition as to 
which sentences are correct and which are "ungrammatical". But I don't 
accept that this intuition can necessarily be codified into fixed rules 
which follow any kind of a priori structure, even your very basic a 
priori of "some sort of unifying factor". The rules can in fact be 
entirely arbitrary. Also we have no access to the native speaker 
intuition of ancient Hebrews, so we can only guess at the rules they used.

>At the same time, virtually all uses that said society considers "good 
>grammar" will have some sort of unifying factor, something that suggests WHY 
>it's acceptable to use form X in both Y way and Z way, even though on the 
>surface they might seem somewhat contradictory.  This is why the sequence 
>idea won't work for the wayyiqtol: there's no way to find a unifying factor 
>between sequence and non-sequence.  By definition, they're polar opposites.  
>Hence, the unifying factor between these two types of usage must lie 

This does not follow logically or practically.

For one thing, there are well attested cases of words being used in 
polar opposite senses distinguished only by context, such as XESED in 
Hebrew and "wicked" in the dialect of English considered acceptable by 
most young people. There is no reason why the same verb form cannot be 
used for polar opposites - especially when one form is derived from two 
different forms in an earlier stage of the language coming together.

But the real point here is not that sequentiality and non-sequentiality 
are polar opposites, but rather that this is a binary feature of uses of 
the verb which is generally signalled [+sequence] by a WAYYIQTOL form 
but is not always so signalled. I am not claiming that WAYYIQTOL ever 
signals [-sequence], just that it may leave the issue open. It is rather 
like the historic present in English, which is quite common (I wrote in 
my last posting "it is while Eli is sitting ... and Hannah's soul is 
bitter ... that Hannah prays" although of course this event took place 
thousands of years ago); the present tense normally signals [-past] but 
in some cases, when the reference is past, this constraint is relaxed, 
although a present tense can never be [+past]. So, would you search 
elsewhere for a unifying factor between present and past in English? Or 
would you write off the historic present in English as "bad grammar"? In 
that case you might have a problem with the historic present in the 
Greek New Testament, especially in Mark.

>My task is to locate that "elsewhere."  A side track of this research that I 
>haven't really pursued with any kind of vigor, is the question: given that we 
>can come up with some clue about the unifying factors of the verb system in 
>BH, are there any non-poetic examples of "bad grammar" in the Hebrew Bible?  
>My answer: I have no idea.  But it could turn out to be an interesting 
>question for someone to explore.

I don't think we have any way of telling what was "bad grammar" in a 
dead language with no native speakers, unless we have actual 
contemporary statements that the grammar was bad.

But how would you react if someone suggested that all of the examples of 
non-sequential WAYYIQTOL in your paper are "bad grammar" because they 
break the rule that WAYYIQTOL must be sequential? I wouldn't go that 
far, for I know that there are special circumstances in which WAYYIQTOL 
is non-sequential by rule, but this is certainly a possible explanation 
of a few cases which cannot be covered by even adjusted rules. But we 
end up with the same uncertainty as with the historic present, in 
deciding when a marginal usage is an acceptable alternative and when it 
is prescribe to be "bad grammar".

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

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