[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

Dave Washburn dwashbur at nyx.net
Mon Aug 15 20:40:23 EDT 2005

On Monday 15 August 2005 16:25, Peter Kirk wrote:
> 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?

Call it bad grammar, or call it by the term you use below, "ungrammatical."  
It amounts to the same thing, a construction that is outside the 
generally-accepted bounds of what the society in question considers 
"correct."  And it's hardly just a 19th century concept; submit an article to 
a journal with half of the sentences reversed and see what kinds of "grammar 
conventions" you run into.  As I already said, people have to use SOME rules 
or conventions or whatever you choose to call them, else communication is not 

> 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.

If this intuition can't be codified into rules (I never said "fixed") then how 
can anyone know what they are?  There has to be some sort of coding within 
the mind's internal grammar; if not, then why aren't we all just making 
grunts and clicks at each other instead of doing our best to form coherent 
utterances?  I really can't see what you're driving at here.

> >...
> >
> >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 elsewhere.
> 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.

You forget one thing: you and I differ on the question of separation of syntax 
and semantics.  I already mentioned changes in word meaning, and in the past 
I have mentioned the polar-opposite meanings of "bad" that have come to be 
accepted in American English.  Syntax is another matter, but since you don't 
maintain a separation of the two, we won't get very far trying to discuss it.

> 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.

I don't have a problem with the historic present, because it is a common 
feature of the grammar of both English and ancient Greek.  But in both 
languages, it is used in specific contexts and genres (as a rule) and signals 
a specific intent on the part of the speaker/writer.  As usual, context is 
the determiner of whether we're signaling present or past, and the pragmatic 
context virtually always tells us when we're dealing with the "historic 
present."  I don't think this really compares with the wayyiqtol the way you 
describe, because we haven't been able to isolate any such specific contexts 
or intentions on the part of the writers that would account for it being a 
similar phenomenon.  If you have an idea in that direction, i.e. a specific 
genre, setting, context or whatever where a writer would deliberately use a 
sequential form in a non-sequential manner, a specialized usage context like 
the historic present, I'd be very interested to hear it (I mean that, I'm not 
being sarcastic).  I confess I haven't really explored such an idea myself, 
but within the framework of a wayyiqtol = [+sequence] theory it could have 
real possibilities.

> >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.

Okay, in an old television show I saw once, a fellow was trying to memorize 
some kind of training manual.  He had gone over it so much that he could 
recite it forward and backward.  His girlfriend walked up with a basket on 
her arm.  He said, "What do you have in the basket, Jane?"  Then he grinned 
and said, "Basket the in have you do what, Jane?"  Nobody said this was bad 
grammar.  Therefore it wasn't?  Or therefore we can't know for sure?  Or 
therefore a linguist a thousand years from now when 1970's English is a dead 
language can't know for sure?  Come on.

> 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".

I would have to consider it, and in fact I have.  When you get right down to 
it, it's still a possibility.  The question is, is it the possibility that 
best and most adequately explains all the evidence at hand?  Or is there a 
better possibility?  In the reverse statement I quoted above, a big reason 
why the man's question would be considered ungrammatical (or bad grammar, or 
whatever; I won't quibble over the terminology we use) is because, taken out 
of its context, it's incomprehensible to the common English speaker.  The 
child's statement I quoted before isn't incomprehensible, but to any grownup 
native English speaker, it sounds odd, at the very least.  That's why I 
hammer away so hard at the principle of Social Convention.  Without something 
like it, you have chaos.  I don't think that's what you're claiming we have 
in language, but it seems to me that you come close to it, at least in 
theory.  So, is a non-sequential wayyiqtol a construction that is outside the 
bounds of Hebrew's social conventions of language for that time?  Once again, 
call it what you wish.  My answer is still, I don't know.  At this point, I 
believe there's a better explanation.  

Dave Washburn
"Well, if I'd wanted a safe life, I guess I wouldn't have 
married a man who studies rocks." - Betty Armstrong (Fay Masterson)

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