[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Tue Aug 16 18:12:59 EDT 2005

On 16/08/2005 19:49, Dave Washburn wrote:

> ...
>>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.
No need to go anywhere unfamiliar. Look at your sentence "Not sure I 
follow you here". As you admit, that would not be considered a 
grammatical sentence in isolation, but in the context of this 
interchange it is entirely acceptable. For better examples, try 
recording and transcribing a spontaneous conversation, especially a 
slightly heated one, with a close family member. I am sure you will find 
that most of the sentences are ungrammatical in some way, with whole 
chunks elided, sentences left unfinished, etc etc. In such a case the 
normal rules just don't apply. Of course you could try to define a new 
set of rules which do apply for a particular genre, but I don't think 
you would get very far like that because really language is used so 
flexibly in such conversations.

>... 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.

Your wording and example make it sound like you think that semantic 
change comes about by someone's deliberate policy of twiddling meanings. 
It doesn't. Mass media campaigns can of course help, but most semantic 
change comes about very gradually as new usages catch on. And new uses 
of verb forms and syntactic constructions do take place, although more 
slowly than changes of lexical meaning. An example would be the gradual 
replacement of the French past simple with the perfect. Another would be 
the change of the whole Hebrew verb system from aspect-based to 
tense-based, which I think happened around the 1st century CE, but I'm 
sure Ken can give more details.

> ...
>>... 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.
Well, my suggestion is that BH is a language which marks sequence in 
some kind of weak sense, in that WAYYIQTOL verbs have a strong tendency 
to be sequential but are not universally so, that this is a feature 
which can be cancelled in the context.


>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.
Well, these are the kinds of ideas I had in mind. You are probably more 
familiar with the literature than I am.

>>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.)
Corpora, surely? That is the Latin plural of corpus.

> ...
>>>...  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.

Well, it's my old fear of prescriptive grammar coming up again. But it 
has been evoked by the contrast you made between "bad grammar" and 
"virtually all uses that said society considers "good grammar" ", which 
is certainly a value judgment, also "a construction that is outside the 
generally-accepted bounds of what the society in question considers 
"correct." " And the implication of a statement like "Without something 
like it, you have chaos." is that someone is likely to come in and try 
to impose order. I would rather have chaos than language tyranny.

>>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. ...

I didn't mean idiolects of this kind, although they are perhaps 
examples, but the way in which so much intimate conversation is highly 
abbreviated, often carried on with one word sentences and grunts like 

>... 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.

Well, nothing wrong with trying to formalise them, but in the case of 
informal conversational language, with such a limited corpus I don't 
think there will be much success.

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

I'm not talking about idiolects in the sense of unusual lexical uses, 
but about conversation which can be greatly abbreviated, in breach of 
the normal rules of grammar, because shared assumptions can be made.

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

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