[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Wed Aug 17 07:05:47 EDT 2005

On 17/08/2005 05:54, Dave Washburn wrote:

> ...
>>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. 
>That's somewhat debatable, of course; it's quite possible that some readers 
>might have been put off, and it's also possible that some readers for whom 
>American (I often have trouble calling it English :-) isn't a first language 
>might have had difficulty understanding it because of the grammatical 
>anomalies in it.  Now, just between you and me, it might be "acceptable" but 
>in the broader sense of language, I would argue that this doesn't necessarily 
>make it "grammatical."
Well, if you prefer that narrower definition of "grammatical", I would 
suggest that there are utterances in the Hebrew Bible, especially in 
conversation, which are not "grammatical" in this sense. We can't be 
sure which they are because we don't know the precise rules. But there 
are sentences which appear to break the normal rules e.g. by omitting 
implicit verbs, subjects etc. We were looking at Genesis 18, and there 
is an example there, in v.9, a sentence which is simply HINNEH BA'OHEL - 
no subject, no verb, just the kind of abbreviated form typical of an 
answer in conversation. Is this sentence "grammatical"? Not in isolation 
at least. But there it is in the Bible, in the first place I looked. And 
this is precisely the kind of abbreviated conversational language which 
I had in mind. Note that Abraham is speaking to strangers, so he can't 
be using an idiolect or breaking general linguistic conventions.


>We're actually closer than either of us realizes.  I maintain that it's the 
>construction of choice for simple sequential narrative precisely because it 
>doesn't have any particular "baggage" that restricts it to this or that type 
>of discourse.  So it's the natural choice for sequence, but said sequence 
>isn't necessarily encoded in the form.  As you say, sequence is a feature 
>that can be cancelled in context, because it's the context that determines 
>sequentiality, not necessarily the verb form.  So I don't think we're really 
>that far apart in our views.

True enough, on this issue.

>Possibly.  I can't claim to have kept up, especially in the last couple of 
>years.  The absence of a good library nearby has been...painful.

I share your pain.

> ...
>>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.
>Okay, let me define "correct" as I'm using it then.  Within my hypothesis of 
>grammar with a component of social (or perhaps sociological) convention, 
>"good grammar" means grammar and structure that is easily comprehensible to 
>just about anyone with a moderate grasp of the language in a particular 
>synchronic context.  The famous example of the dangling participle may 
>provide a workable example: "I saw the sunset walking up the hill."  Someone 
>just learning English, and perhaps even children who are growing up with the 
>language, could easily be confused by the idea of a sunset walking up a hill.  
>My other example, "I'm not so hungry as I used to was" might engender similar 
>confusion because it's so anomalous.  I would call both "ungrammatical" in 
>the broad sense of a mixed English-speaking population.  I tend to avoid the 
>term "correct" for the same reasons you do, and my use of the expression "bad 
>grammar" was probably a case of laziness on my part.

Thanks for the clarification.

>One other comment on this paragraph: I did not intend to imply that there 
>might be "someone...to come in and try to impose order."  What I meant to 
>imply was that there could easily be communication breakdown leading to 
>breakdown of the society, perhaps even war.  Loss of communication, 
>misunderstanding and potential enmity are, for me, the big dangers of 
>linguistic chaos.

Well, I see your point, but I would see imposition of linguistic 
uniformity as a graver danger to society, because it breeds great 

>>>>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
>There are always subcultural dialects.  The famous Shibboleth story is a BH 
>example.  But once again, I think we have gotten fairly far afield of Hebrew, 
>unless we can come up with some reasonably certain examples of the sort of 
>thing you're describing within the corpus of the Hebrew Bible.  

See the example above. Abraham's reply is not a grunt, but it is not a 
fully formed sentence either.

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

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