[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Tue Aug 16 17:11:16 EDT 2005

Dear list-members,

I see there still is a need for some clarifying words.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Peter Kirk" <peterkirk at qaya.org>
To: "Read, James C" <K0434995 at kingston.ac.uk>
Cc: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Tuesday, August 16, 2005 4:46 PM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

> On 16/08/2005 12:01, Read, James C wrote:
>> ...
>> Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't Rolf say that he had searched for
>> the parts which were
>> uncancellable, indicating that he accepts that there are both
>> cancellable and uncancellable
>> parts?
> As I understood Rolf in the past, he held that semantic distinctions are
> uncancellable, by definition, and so if a distinction is found which is
> cancelled in some contexts and is therefore cancellable, it must be a
> pragmatic i.e. non-semantic distinction. But he now seems to have
> amended his definition of "semantic" to allow that semantic rules can be
> cancelled in certain contexts. So I am left thoroughly confused.

The terms "meaning" and "semantic" are used in many different ways in the
literature discussing Semitic languages, and the rule is that the terms are
used without any definition. In the general sense "semantic" need not mean
more than "meaning," which is a very ambiguous word. Therefore, I use the
term "semantic meaning" in the technical sense of a characteristic (an
intrinsic meaning) that never can be cancelled or changed.

Typical examples are verbs that are marked for telicity, such as  BR) (to
create). The end of the action is conceptually included in telic verbs, and
these words can never loose the  notion of a conceptually included end. This
was discussed earlier, and no one has so far
shown that the telicity of verbs marked for telicity can be cancelled.

Because the certainty of an interpretarion is opposite in proportion to the
number of factors that one has to account for at the same time (minimal
pairs in one end and discourse analysis in the other), it is much easier to
deal with lexical words than with morphosyntactic words and grammatical
forms. And in the case of these units we can speak of exceptions without
denying that semantic
meaning never change.

A key word here is grammaticalization. This is a process where a linguistic
unit gradually is used less and less in different ways and meanings until it
only has one use or meaning. At that point it is fully grammaticalized. A
good example of such a process is the verbal system of Mishnaic Hebrew
compared with that of classical Hebrew. When tense is defined  as
"grammaticalization of location in time," this means for example that past
tense is a grammaticalization of a past position in relation to the deictic
center. In my terminology, the semantic (and uncancellable) meaning of past
tense is that reference time occurs before the deictic center.

In connection with tense in English and Norwegian my words about exceptions
can be illustrated. To accept exceptions does not mean an acceptance of the
cancellability of tense, but it means that verbs with past and future tense
can be used in ways that can be called special cases. An example which is
rather amusing is the Norwegian lady who visited some friends in the UK.
They had a small daughter, and the Norwegian lady said, "Oh, she was so
cute". The mother raised her eyebrows and said, "Was? Isn`t she cute?" In
Norwegian we often in polite language use past tense where English speakers
would use present reference, We often say, "This was good coffee." when
English speakers would have said, "This is good coffee." Does this show that
past tense is not fully grammacalized in Norwegian? Not at all! All grown
Norwegian speakers know that "was" is past tense, but its use in polite
speech is a special case. There are also many other special cases, such as
hypothetical conditional clauses etc.

When I analyzed Hebrew and looked for past tense, I was open for "noise" in
the material, or exceptions. For example, I used different tests to find out
whether the 998 WAYYIQTOLs with non-past references were special cases, and
therefore could not be used as evidence against a past-tense interpretation
of WAYYIQTOL. The results of these tests were that these WAYYIQTOLs occur in
normal situations and contexts. This means that I accept that exceptions
(special cases) can occur. These exceptions in no way cancel the semantic
meaning of a linguistic unit, they only appear to do so. Thus, I both claim
that semantic meaning is unceancellable, and that exceptions of the nature I
have explained, can occur.

I do not expect that people will agree with my results. I appreciate that
persons use all kinds of arguments against my conclusions, because then I am
able to test them. But in order to have a meaningful discussion, there must
be some common linguistic ground between the participants. In a discussion
of questions related to the natural sciences, after I have presented
evidence, or even proofs in favor of a particular conclusion, I occasionally
have heard my opponent say, "I do not accept what you call "proofs," because
we in the future may discover something that will cause us to change our
view of the world. Because of this possibility I do not accept your data
now." In such a case there is no common ground, and I stop the discussion.
In linguistic discussions, common ground may also be lacking. When someone
denies that the Hebrew verb BR) is marked for telicity, i.e. denies that an
intrinsic concept of a goal or an end is a part of its lexical meaning, and
that this telic concept cannot be cancelled, then I view a discussion with
that person as a waste of time. There simply is no common ground.

Best regards

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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