[b-hebrew] Verb Inflection & Tense

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Mon Oct 3 03:07:20 EDT 2005

Dear Kevin,

Your points below regarding  Polynesian and Austronesian are informative. 
But there is one problem, which I comment on below.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Kevin Riley" <klriley at alphalink.com.au>
To: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Monday, October 03, 2005 5:01 AM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Verb Inflection & Tense

> I have been away, and I prefer not to reply to posts from which the group
> has moved on, but I'll make an exception for this one.
> -------Original Message-------
> From: Vadim Cherny
> Date: 09/18/05 15:58:44
> Jack,
> You well may be right, I don't have a clue about Tagalog.
> It could be, however, that the same bias affected its study, as was for
> Hebrew.
> I guess, Polynesians don't have a large body of written literature, and 
> are
> generally moderately educated (a guess, not an assertion), and cannot very
> well relay to scholars and translators subtle semantical differences, such
> as between tenses and the completion aspects.
> ********************
> Your guesses are badly off on all of the above.  There are quite a number 
> of
> Polynesians who are very well educated, including in the field of
> linguistics.  It's been said many times that one of the problems with
> Biblical Hebrew is that we don't have living speakers to ask - that is not 
> a
> problem with almost all the Polynesian languages.  Some of them have even
> written accounts of their studies - usually in English for the benefit of
> those who don't speak a Polynesian language so you should have no trouble
> finding them and reading them before making assertions about Polynesian
> languages and their speakers.  I would suggest Bruce Biggs' [not a
> Polynesian] "Let's Learn Maori" and Winifred Bauer's "Maori" for Maori, 
> and
> Samuel Elbert and Mary Pukui's "Hawai'ian Grammar" for Hawai'ian as good
> places to start.  I think they may convince you that it is aspect, not 
> tense
> that is gramaticalised.  Or maybe you will just come up with your own
> theory to prove you are right and they are wrong.
> ********************
> Myself, I don't see major difference between completed aspect ('having
> studied') and the past tense. I cannot imagine how scholars could 
> establish
> that Polynesians mean aspect, not tense in this case. For example, 
> consider
> a hypothetical Polynesian who studied but did not graduate. If Tagalog has
> aspects, that Polynesian should use imperfect in describing his studies. 
> My
> guess, he would use perfect - which would therefore be not perfective
> aspect, but past tense.

I agree that scholars would have great problems in distinguishing between 
"completed aspect" and "past tense" in the situation you mention. But the 
reason for the problem is not that this distinction cannot be made in a 
living or a dead language, but rather that assumptions that need not be 
correct are used. Thus, the problem may be theoretical rather than 

A colleague of mine who has spent many years among native speakers on 
islands in the Pacific ocean, and who is an expert of the native languages, 
said to me two weeks ago: "It is high time that we abandon the tranditional 
definitions of aspects with their Slavic origin in the study of the Pacific 
languages. These definitions simply prevent progress in the language 

It is very important to realize that while tense is a universal term, which 
means that its nature can be understood even in languages that do not have 
grammticalized tenses, aspectual definitions are not universal. So the 
problem of distinguishing between "completed aspect" and "tense," as 
mentioned above, is the application of the English aspectual model to the 
languages of the Polynesians.

There is a simple model by which tense and aspect can be distinguished in 
any language without looking at the foreign lnguage in the light of one`s 
own language:

1) Use a corpus with a huge number of verbs (more than ten thousand verbs is 
2) Find out whether verbs with the same morphology systematically refer to 
the future or to the past (smaller explainable exceptions are accepted). If 
not, tense is not grammticalized in that language.
3) Find out whether verbs with the same morphology systematically refer to 
completed or uncompleted events (smaller explainable exceptions are 
accepted). If not, aspects in the traditional sense is not grammaticalized 
in that language.

I have made these tests for classical Hebrew (my corpus had 79,574 verbs), 
and my finds are negative. Neither tense nor aspect (with the definitions 
completed/incomplete or complete/incomplete) are grammacalized in classical 
Hebrew. This is the falsification part of the approach based on the 
hypothetic deductive method. But there is a positive part as well.

4) Use the parameters "event time," "reference time" and "deictic center". 
Find out whether reference time intersects event time in a systematically 
different way in verbs with one morphology in contrast with verbs with 
another morphology. If that is the case, the language probably has aspects, 
and their nature must be defined on the basis of the nature of this 
intersection of event time by reference time *in that language*.

In a living language this model is easy to  apply, because we have 
informants. In a dead language, the situation is more difficult, and only in 
a few clear-cut cases (hundreds rather than thousands) can the test of the 
intersection of event time by reference time be applied. In the other cases 
we can only use the cruder test of the relationship between event time and 
the deictic center.

The basic problem in studies of Hebrew verbs is that we apply an aspectual 
model construed on the basis of aspects in English, Russian, or nother 
languages, instead of testing the possible aspects in Hebrew in their own 
right. For example, many students of Hebrew use as a premise in their study 
that WAYYIQTOL, which, for the most part portray past, completed actions, 
either MUST be past tense or express the perfective aspect. Any claim that 
WAYYIQTOL  is imperfective is unacceptable and will be rejected.  However, 
in the Phoenician Karatepe inscriptions, the infinitive absolue plays the 
same role as WAYYIQTOL in Hebrew. There are 16 infinitive absoluts with 
prefixed WAW and 5 without prefixed WAW that describe past, completed 
events. No one would claim that the infinitive absolute has an intrinsic 
past tense or perfectivity. Yet, it functions as if that was the case! The 
lesson we can learn is that we cannot know the intrinsic meaning of verb 
forms by looking at them from the outside, i.e., by looking at their 
functions. The reason is that the functions of verbs in most cases are 
pragmatically conditioned, i.e., the reason for the choice of verb is the 
context.  We therefore need to look for clauses that are so clear-cut that 
the particular functions of the verb with a great deal of certainty can be 
said to come from the nature of the verb alone.  I have done this test in 
classical Hebrew, and my conclusion is that WAYYIQTOL, WEYIQTOL, and YIQTOL 
are imperfective, i.e., the intersection of event time by reference time in 
a few hundred clear-cut cases is systematically different (and qualifes for 
the definition "imperfective") from the intersection in QATAL and WEQATAL.

But please note: In order to test these conclusions one has to get rid of 
the straightjacked of the traditional aspectual definitions. One must start 
afresh with the fundamental parameters "reference time," "event time," and 
"deictic center" and try hard to conduct the study with as little prejudice 
as possible.

> *******************
> Then, of course, he [or she, Polynesian females also aspire to studying] 
> may
> not see the need to indicate either perfection or imperfection.  There are
> languages that allow for a verb to be marked merely as a verb, without
> indicating tense or aspect.  The Maori 'ka' indicates that what follows is 
> a
> verbal phrase, without any reference to time.  It is sometimes referred to
> as 'inceptive', as it is always used when a new action is beginning, but 
> is
> not restricted to that context.  Or the perfect 'kua' could be used, as 
> the
> studying is finished [one need not graduate to finish studying].  'kua' 
> can
> also be used with adjectives to say what they are now [present tense, no?]
> if their present state is the result of a process - 'old' is a good 
> example.
> The imperfective 'e ... ana' could be used if the studying is viewed as
> ongoing [as in 'while I was studying...'].  Whether or not the student
> graduated is irrelevant, as it would be in most languages.  That most of 
> the
> verbal particles can be used with words like 'yesterday', 'today', 
> 'tomorrow
> and in contexts that are obviously past, present, or future, would 
> indicate
> tthey are not tenses, but aspects.
> And, while the Tagalog and Polynesians are all speakers of Austronesian
> languages, the Tagalog are not Polynesians, but Malayan [Indonesian??].
> Your assertions might be better listened to if you demonstrated you know
> something about the subject.
> Kevin Riley
> **********************
> Vadim Cherny

Best regards

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo 

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