[b-hebrew] Tense and aspect, was "The use ..."

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Wed Apr 22 05:37:17 EDT 2009

Dear George,

Your illustration with nouns helps me to understand what you mean by 
using "definite action" and "indefinite action" in relation to verbs. 
When you say that the distinction "seems to work in most past 
action," you imply that you are not using the terms in a strict 
semantic sense (uncancellable meaning).

I would take another approach than you. I have a list of 1.027 
YIQTOLs with past reference. The WAYYIQTOL is in most cases clause 
initial. My observation is that in a great part of the 1.027 
examples, the author wanted to have a particular element before the 
verb in the clause (for stress or another reason), and that is the 
reason why he used YIQTOLs. If the word order was changed and the 
verb occurred first, WAYYIQTOLS would be used with exactly the same 
meaning as the YIQTOLs. Let us look at some examples with verbs of 

1) Exodus 20:1 And God spoke (WAYYIQTOL)  all these words.

2) Exodus 19:19 Moses spoke (YIQTOL) and God answered (YIQTOL) him 
with a voice.

3) Judges 9.38 And Zebul said (WAYYIQTOL) to him. "Where is your big 
talk now, you who said (YIQTOL)...

4) 1 Kings 21:6 And he said (WAYYIQTOL) to her. "Because I spoke 
(YIQTOL) to Naboth the Jezreelite, and I said (WAYYIQTOL) to him.

5) Hosea 1:10 Where it was said (YIQTOL) to them... it will be said 
(YIQTOL) to them.

6) Lamentations 2:15 Is this the city of which they said (YIQTOL)...

Is there any semantic difference between the WAYYIQTOLs and YIQTOLs 
with past reference in these texts? If the word order was changed, 
the YIQTOLs could have been expressed as WAYYIQTOLs. (Please note 
that in Hosea 1:1 the same verb is used both with past and present 

On the basis of my studies I have drawn the following conclusions:

A) Classical Hebrew has no tenses but two aspects. YIQTOL, WAYYIQTOL, 
and WEYIQTOL represent the imperfective aspect, and QATAL AND WQATAL 
represent the perfective aspect.

B) The perfective and imperfective aspects are not mutually exclusive 
in every respect, but they have some traits in common and some traits 
that are different.

C) The use of the aspects rests on two basic factors, namely, 
linguistic convention and the requirement of precision.

The last point can be illustrated by the difference between phonemic 
and phonetic transcription. 1a) is a phonetic transcription where 
more details regarding the pronunciation are necessary. 2b) is a 
phonemic transcription of the same word, where the requirement of 
precision regarding pronunciation is not high, and therefore the 
phonemic transcription is simpler. In one context a phonetic 
transcription is required and in another context a phonemic 
transcription. Similarly in Hebrew, when great precision is not 
necessary, any form can be used for past, present and future and for 
other distinctions - but there are of course some conventional 
restrictions. When greater precision is required, one particular form 
may be used

1a)  [tha1p, he:th]
2b)  /ta1p:t/

A good example where  the requirement of precision is low, is 
Proverbs 31:9-21. Here we find 18 QATALs, 5 YIQTOLs, 9 WAYYIQTOLs, 2 
passive and 1 active participles and 1 Niphal participle with the 
same temporal reference and without any clear semantic difference.

Another excellent example is Psalm 18 compared with 2 Samuel 22, 
because both places we find exactly the same account. There are:

5 examples of YIQTOL in Psalm 18 where 2 Sam 22 has WAYYIQTOL
3 examples of WAYYIQTOL in P 18 where 2 S has YIQTOL
1 example of WEYIQTOL in P 18 wehere 2 S has WAYYIQTOL
1 example of WAYYIQTOL in P 18 where 2 S has QATAL
1 example of WAYYIQTOL in P18 where 2 S has a participle.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>I'm with Rolf on this one: tense is not grammaticalised in Biblical 
>Hebrew. Rather, tense has to be inferred from deictic markers 
>elsewhere in the clause.
>The distinction I work with, and it does seem to work, is that Qatal 
>represents 'definite action', and Yiqtol represents 'indefinite 
>action'. The distinction between these is similar to that of nouns: 
>a definite noun is specific and particular, while an indefinite noun 
>is less so. Both a definite noun and an indefinite noun can refer to 
>one person (e.g. 'the king' and 'a king'), but the definite is quite 
>specific, while the indefinite is less so. Wayyiqtol looks at an 
>action as though it were happening 'live'.
>This distinction seems to work in that most past action, which can 
>be referred to specifically, is referred to in the Qatal-definite 
>conjugation. However, future actions, which have not particularised, 
>or potential actions, which may or may not particularise but 
>nonetheless have not particularised yet, and generic actions, which 
>have no particular instance on view, are conveyed by Yiqtol. That's 
>why future, modal, and proverbial actions are generally in the 
>Rolf raises some good counter-examples from Neh 3.14-15 which, on 
>first glance, seem problematic to the view I'm putting forward. 
>However, I'd argue in a preliminary way that the yiqtol actions are 
>still indefinite, referring to what the individuals in questions 
>were generally doing (like a job description), while the Qatal 
>refers to their specific achievement (as if looking back on it). 
>Nevertheless, these do deserve extra attention, so thanks Rolf for 
>raising them. The other thing I'd say is that two verses in Nehemiah 
>might not overthrow the entire system of Biblical Hebrew, with the 
>distinction between Early/Standard Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical 
>Hebrew; they could be exceptions. But it does deserve further 
>Moore Theological College (Sydney, Australia)
>b-hebrew mailing list
>b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list