[b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL]

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Thu Aug 18 11:34:51 EDT 2005

Dear James,

I am happy to respond to your questions. I changed the place of your paragraph 2 and 3 below, because the answer to 3 helps understand my answer to 2.

  -------- Original Message -------- Subject:  RE: [b-hebrew] Basic observations on WAYYIQTOL 
        Date:  Tue, 16 Aug 2005 22:18:28 +0100 
        From:  Read, James C <K0434995 at kingston.ac.uk> 
        To:  Rolf Furuli <furuli at online.no> 
        CC:  <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org> 

  Thanx for that Rolf. It seems that the root of the major misunderstanding between Rolf
  and Peter is a lack of commonly defined terminology. I think you have clearly defined
  your use of the term 'semantic meaning with this post.

  What is your view on the sequentiality of wayyiqtols? Is sequentiality the uncancellable
  semantic meaning of wayyiqtols or is this a pragamtic feature which is best left to context?

  What is your view on the sequentiality of wayyiqtols? Is sequentiality the uncancellable
  semantic meaning of wayyiqtols or is this a pragamtic feature which is best left to context?


  The sequentiality of WAYYIQTOLs illustrates in an excellent way the fallacy of stressing quantity rather than quality, or in other words, to fail to distinguish between semantics and pragmatics.  There is no question that most WAYYIQTOLs are sequential, but the important question (which seldom is asked) is Why? And the answer is very simple: These WAYYIQTOLs occur in narrative contexts, and narrative is by definition sequential; one event follow the previous event. This means that *any* verb form that is used in narrative contexts must be sequential, not because sequentiality is an intrinsic property, but because of the nature of narrative accounts. For example, in Phonician, the infinitive absolute is the form used in narratives, but noone would say that sequentiality or past tense is a property of the verb form itself.

  In his book  "Tense" (1985) Bernard Comrie discusses the fallacy mentioned above in connection with relative tense (but the principle is valid for absolute tense as well):

  "In looking for examples of relative time reference, it is essential to ensure that the relative time reference interpretation is part of the meaning of the form in question, rather than an implicature derived from, in part, the context. One area which is particularly confusing in this respect is narrative, where one gains the impression of a sequence of events which are located temporally one almost immediately after the other, the chronological sequence mirrored in the linear order of clauses. Thus one might be tempted to think that this sequencing is part of the meaning of the verb forms used, thus introducing a meaning of 'immediate past' or 'immediate future' relative time reference (depending on whether one defined the time reference of the preceding verb in terms of the following verb, or vice versa). However, as was shown in section 1.8, this sequencing of events is a property of narrative itself, quite independent of verb forms used to encode narrative, so that the mere fact that verb forms receive this interpretation in narrative is not sufficient evidence for assigning this meaning to those verb forms. Indeed, crucially one would need to look for examples outside of narrative, where the context does not force the immediate succession interpretation, to demonstrate that this is actually part of the meaning of the form in question."

  One thing I did not understand though is your view of the 998 wayiqtols that do not
  express past action. Are you saying these are exceptions to the norm? Are you saying
  they do or do not have an uncancellable semantic meaning?


  Comrie suggested that to find the true properties of verbs used in narrative contexts on has to look at the same verbs outside narratives. In my study I have analysed all the WAYYIQTOLs in the Tanakh, and the 998 WAYYIQTOLs with non-past reference occur outside narratives. Regarding the about 13,000 WAYYIQTOLs occurring in narrative contexts we can know nothing regarding tense or aspect, because these are covered by the strict form of the narratives. But that is not the case with those occurring outside narratives. Thus, the 998 mentioned WAYYIQTOLs can tell us the true nature of this verb form.  My analysis shows that these verbs represent past, present, and future, and completed, and uncompleted actions. Therefore, the WAYYIQTOL form neiter has tense nor aspect (in the tranditional definition of the verb).

  In my view, all WAYYIQTOLs have the same meaning, including the 998 with non-past reference, and they represent the impeerfective aspect (defined differently compared with the usual definition). When I found these 998 WAYYIQTOLs, it would have been be just as fallacious to use them as evidence as it is to use the narrative WAYYIQTOLs as evidence, without testing them. So, I had to test them and see whether they occurred in special contexts, such as hypothetical conditional sentences etc., thus. being exceptions. I found that almost all of these verbs occur in normal contexts, and therefore I could use them as evidence. So, the 998 WAYYIQTOLs are not exceptions, but their non-past references show that the WAYYIQTOL form is not a preterit, and the fact that they express both incomplete and uncompleted actions shows that they do not represent any aspect in the traditional sense of the word.

  Best regards

  Rolf Furuli
  University of Oslo

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