[b-hebrew] Verbs

George Athas gathas at hotkey.net.au
Sun Jul 31 08:09:30 EDT 2005


  Dear Rolf,

  You know what it looks like? It looks as though you're saying, "It 
  creates a lot of theoretical difficulties trying to unravel how these 
  various verb forms function in their contexts, so let's just throw 
  them all out and make up the meanings that seem logical to us."

Harold (and others),

While it might appear so, I think there is more in Rolf's theory than merely this. I have been working (among other things) at a theory of Hebrew verbal aspect over the last few years, and hope to have a grammar ready in the next couple of years.

Rolf's point that Biblical Hebrew has no tense is one with which I strongly agree. The evidence strongly points in this direction. But this statement needs to be nuanced. Perhaps another way to put it is that the verbal conjugations do not speak so much about tense, but rather the reader's distance from the action. In other words, the verbs do not work on a temporal plain, but rather a spatial plain. Tense must be inferred secondarily from the spatial sphere. The way I describe it to my students is a bit like watching a play in a theatre. English verbs, which have tense, are like watching the play from your seat in the audience: you don't move, the action moves before you. Biblical Hebrew verbs, though, invite you to come onto the stage and watch the play from various vantage points.

Thus, WAYYIQTOL verbs present an action which is viewed as being initially 'far' from the viewer/reader, but which invites the viewer/reader to come and look at it. In this way, narrative momentum is produced, and the viewer/reader moves with the action. A QATAL verb, though, halts such narrative momentum and presents an action up close. This is not because the action of the QATAL is close in time, but because the author wants the viewer/reader to see the action as critically important. A YIQTOL verb presents an action which is quite distant from the viewer/reader, such that the action is almost seen as filling out the background or the 'set'. A WEQATAL verb is merely an 'add on' verb form and sustains the focus wherever the viewer/reader is. Thus, the verb forms are like stage directions, telling the viewer/reader 'where' the actions are occuring on the literary 'stage', rather than 'when' the actions are occuring in time.

The choice of verb forms has primarily to do with dramatic effect. After all, let's face it, Biblical Hebrew is great at telling a story or a poem. Timing is of secondary importance. For example, many times a YIQTOL is translated as a future tense, not because the future tense is intrinsic to it, but because the author wants the viewer/reader to see the future as 'far' from the current standpoint. On other occasions, a YIQTOL is translated as a continuous past tense because, again, the action is seen to be distant from the current standpoint. In any case, the author is trying to convey that the action conveyed by the YIQTOL, whether it be past, present, future, or a combination of these, should be seen as filling in the background or the 'set'. Thus, it's not that Hebrew verbs have no temporal connotations, but they are not intrinsic to the verb form.

Having said that, some work needs to be done on the various stages of the development of Biblical Hebrew. At some stage, tense came into the Hebrew language. A diachronic analysis needs to be done to see how and when the language developed and gained a tense system.


Best regards,

GEORGE ATHAS
Lecturer in Biblical Languages
Southern Cross College
Sydney, Australia


BTW - On a personal note, as of next year I will be leaving Southern Cross College and joining the faculty at Moore College in Sydney.




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