[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

Dave Washburn dwashbur at nyx.net
Tue Aug 16 14:49:42 EDT 2005

On Tuesday 16 August 2005 04:03, Peter Kirk wrote:
> On 16/08/2005 01:40, Dave Washburn wrote:
> > ...
> >
> >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 possible.
> Dave, you and I agree that there are rules. But you seem to think that
> they are the kind of rules which can be written down in a textbook, as
> they were in the 19th century, rules which are still insisted on by
> certain editors even when they are entirely illogical like the split
> infinitive rule. I dispute this. 

I'm not sure where you got this idea, but it ain't so.  You seem to have an 
almost knee-jerk aversion to anything that smacks of the prescriptive stuff 
of days gone by; so do I.  If you were to casually look back at things I have 
had occasion to sometimes post, it would be easy to plainly see that for me 
to occasionally split an infinitive is something to commonly see in my posts.  
Let me make this as clear as I can: what I think "can be written down in a 
textbook" are DESCRIPTIVE "rules," observations of how the language actually 
behaves in a certain synchronic setting.  I have as much use for prescriptive 
grammar as you have.  My point about editors was that we live in a world 
where there are plenty of people who hold to prescriptive rules and will 
throw them in our faces, but even in those areas that reject prescriptive 
rules, there are certain agreed-upon pattens of language usage than can be, 
and are, described.  These described patterns are usually called "rules," but 
once again, you can call them whatever you like.  If the term "rules" gives 
you such a problem, call them "observations."  Or "patterns of usage."  Or 
"Bob."  As long as we both understand what we're referring to, I don't have a 
problem with whatever terminology works best for you.

> I consider the rules of grammar to be 
> much more fluid and context-dependent than these grammarians would ever
> admit. I am sure you can find whole discourses which are considered
> entirely grammatical as a whole but whose individual sentences would be
> considered ungrammatical out of context. How do your rules allow for that?

Not sure I follow you here.  (Note the flagrantly ungrammatical construction, 
heh heh.)  Could you give me an example?  If it's from a language that I 
don't know, I'll trust your translation and description.

> ...
> >>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.
> Well, you assert that what happens with words cannot happen with verb
> forms, and you can appeal to the authority of Chomsky if you want. But
> that doesn't make it true. 

I never said that.  I said that in observed practice, to my knowledge, it 
hasn't happened.  I didn't say it can't, merely that under ordinary 
circumstances of linguistic observation, it doesn't seem to.  It's much 
easier to twiddle with the meaning of a particular word or phrase than with a 
full-blown syntactic construction, at least if the goal is incorporating it 
into the general language of the locale or group in question.  Village Inn's 
redefinition of the word "breakfast" is a fine example.

> Anyway, I thought that on your model the 
> meaning of verb forms was a matter of semantics rather than syntax. 

??? I never said that, either.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

> Are 
> you really saying that it is impossible for a single verb form to be
> used in two polar opposite ways, in terms of tense, aspect etc? 

I can see we're going to have to go back to square one and hash out exactly 
what my approach entails, because it's clear that you haven't understood it.  
That's probably my fault.

> I would 
> be very surprised if this holds up to detailed comparison with the data
> from nearly 7000 languages. Are there really no languages anywhere in
> the world which use the same verb form for past and future, but not for
> present? Anyway, that is not the point. Clearly there are some languages
> which use the same verb form for sequential and non-sequential, as they
> don't mark for sequence at all. So you really don't have an argument
> against the hypothesis that Hebrew WAYYIQTOL sometimes markes for
> sequence but not always.

You just made one of my points for me: some languages "dont mark for sequence 
at all."  My suggestion is that BH is one of these.

> >... 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.
> I don't have a theory at the moment, but you will find a lot of them in
> the literature, and in the archives of this list. 

I haven't seen anything specifically addressing that subject, but I'll do some 
poking around.  If you can suggest a starting point in the literature, I'd be 

> One is that 
> non-sequential WAYYIQTOL is used at the peak of a narrative. Another is
> that initial summaries or titles of pericopes are not always sequential,
> in that the title may be a WAYYIQTOL clause and the narrative may start
> with a WAYYIQTOL, but that does not imply that the event in the title
> (which is a summary of the whole pericope) is complete before the first
> event in the narrative - recently we had Genesis 37:21-24 as a possible
> example of this, with the first two clauses of v.21 as the title. 

This sounds similar to Andersen's wayyiqtol that begins a new thought.  I used 
this model in my Trinity Journal article about the Josiah stories lo, those 
many years ago, before I began developing my own approach.  It still has a 
lot of merit, IMNSHO.

> Also, 
> I would suggest that rather different rules apply in poetry, where there
> may also be some confusion with WEYIQTOL.

I agree wholeheartedly about poetry.  In every language I know, poetry does 
its own thing, which is why I make it a point to exclude poetry from the 
corpi that I examine.  (Note that I don't actually know whether the "proper" 
term is corpi, or corpuses, or corpuscles, or something else altogether.)

> >> ...
> >
> >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.
> Well, in the context of the show it is clearly indicated that this was
> bad grammar, even if not specifically stated. And there may be cases
> like that in the Hebrew Bible too. Are there cases of non-Israelites or
> people from remote areas speaking what looks like non-standard grammar?
> Maybe this was done deliberately as well. But my point is that we don't
> have access to native speaker intuition.

We don't have native speaker intuition, but we can try to observe patterns, 
sort out what seem to be the common denominators, and then examine the 
apparent counter-examples to determine why they happen.  So while I agree 
that we can't be 100% certain of a question like this, we can at least come 
up with some workable ideas that tend to account for the bulk of the evidence 
with the least number of problems.

> >...  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. ...
> Far from it. I accept that there are conventions in language, although I
> would call them linguistic conventions rather than social ones -
> especially as the word "social" suggests that your next step might be to
> formalise the convention and then stigmatise those who choose not to
> follow that formalisation as anti-social. 

Once again, I don't see how you got that from what I wrote.  The whole idea of 
stigmatization comes from you, not from me, and in fact it has never even 
entered into my thinking.  But as with so many other things, as long as we're 
talking about the same thing and we know it, call it what you wish.

> More importantly, I also deny 
> that they can be formalised. For one thing, they are very much dependent
> on the specific speaker and the specific audience. Private conversations
> between family members and close friends are often very far from
> following the linguistic conventions which would be needed for a public
> speech or lecture, or even for a conversation in a TV chat show which
> must be understood by the audience. For the people conversing privately
> can appeal to all kinds of shared understandings, and so can take all
> kinds of shortcuts. 

There are idiolects, sure.  But I don't see how that applies to the Hebrew 
Bible.  In my household, "beep" means "I want ice cream," "more power" means 
my electric screwdriver, "coffee creamer" means "parmesan cheese" (don't 
ask), and "standard" is a sexual innuendo.  But that doesn't mean that I'm 
going to go to my local grocery store and ask for beep.  Nobody outside my 
family of 5 is going to have a clue what I mean.  After a big meal, one of us 
might say "I'm not so hungry as I used to was."  Someone outside our 
household will likely stare at us as if we have two heads if we say that to 
them.  When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, we're not talking at the level of 
idiolects, we're talking at the level of a society's grammar; if we limit our 
examination to the so-called Deuteronomic History, we're talking primarly 
about the form of the language that was used in the various royal courts.  
That language involves certain conventions of a type that are necessary for 
communication to take place.  There is nothing wrong with looking at those 
conventions and finding descriptive ways to formalize them in order to 
understand them better.  I really don't understand why you have such a 
problem with this idea.

> The same happens but to a lesser extent among in 
> groups of people with the same interests and background. So, there is
> not one social or linguistic convention which can be formalised, but
> each communication scenario has its own conventions which can be
> negotiated. 

Fine.  But we're only talking about one general communication scenario, the 
Hebrew Bible.  The only place there that I can perhaps see some of this 
idiolectical language taking place might be some of the more obscure 
metaphors in the Song of Songs.  Beyond that, I don't see how it's relevant.

> Unfortunately we just don't have enough knowledge to work 
> out much of how this applies to Hebrew - although of course we can
> assume that the authors intended to use conventions which would be
> understood by their original audiences. We may see a bit of how it works
> if we examine reported conversations and the editorial explanations
> added to them for an audience which might not understand the original
> context.

Agreed.  We both acknowedge the existence of idiolects, but for purposes of 
understanding biblical Hebrew, it's irrelevant.

> > 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.
> I agree on this. I think we can find that better explanation with a bit
> of work.

We share a common goal.

> --
> Peter Kirk
> peter at qaya.org (personal)
> peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
> http://www.qaya.org/

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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