[b-hebrew] Tense and aspect; was: "The use of "

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Thu Apr 23 10:16:06 EDT 2009

Dear George,

You have made a logical observation and posed a good question.

When we start our study of a dead language, we do not know anything 
about it, and it may be different from languages that we know. In 
modern languages narratives are expressed by past -tense verbs, or in 
aspectual languages, by the perfective aspect. When I analyze the 
(narrative) WAYYIQTOL as imperfective, this has no parallel in modern 
languages. This indicates that I at the outset cannot know the nature 
of narrative verbs in Classical Hebrew on the basis of modern 

In discussions on this list I have used terms that are familiar to 
the list-members, such as "past tense" (although many do not have a 
clear understanding of what tense is). However, in my own studies I 
start with a different set of parameters, to the effect that I avoid 
both the concept "tense" and the concept "aspect" in the first stages 
of my study. This means that when I on a later stage introduce 
"tense" and "aspect," the understanding of these concepts are based 
on the relationship between the other parameters. Therefore, I avoid 
the problem you portray.  I did not assume that Hebrew narratives are 
expressed by verbs with past reference.

In posts to the list I try to express myself as clear as possible, 
avoiding expressions that are difficult to understand. Therefore I 
used "tense" rather than mentioning my basic parameters. But let us 
give them a try:

I define tense as the relationship between the deictic center (C) and 
reference time (RT), and I define aspect as the relationship between 
reference time and event time (ET). Tense expresses deictic time and 
aspect expresses non-deictic time. Without doubting the knowledge and 
experience of the list-members, I do not think that this is readily 
grasped by most, simply because the terms and their meaning are 

The mentioned parameters are extremely important in my view. For 
example, the following definitions of  "aspect" can be found in the 

linear perfect

Aktionsart terms and other linguistic terms are mingled to a very 
strange soup! Several of the terms are elusive, and those using them 
are hard pressed when they are challenged to define them.
By using the relationship between E and RT as parameters I did not 
need to use any of these definitions or other aspectual definitions 
when I started; I simply used E and RT. On the basis of the 
relationship between E and RT it is possible to create three other 
parameters that can be used to compare the properties of aspects in 
different languages. And because there are two aspects, the languages 
can be compared in six different ways. Having applied this to English 
and Classical Hebrew, I found that in three areas the aspects are 
similar and in three areas they are different. But because the two 
languages are different in the most important areas, the nature of 
the aspects in Hebrew and English are very different. So my 
definition of Hebrew aspects comes as a result of applying E and RT 
on Hebrew verbs (but my definition of tense is the standard 
linguistic definition). Because of this I have been able to avoid the 
most important error in the studies of Hebrew verbs, namely, that one 
starts with a modern aspectual definition and then applies it to 
Classical Hebrew.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>I wonder whether you are accepting an assumption about Hebrew 
>without subjecting it to scrutiny. Please correct me if I'm wrong in 
>how I'm reading you:
>You ask whether WAYYIQTOL represents past tense. However, in asking 
>this, are you importing the standard convention of Indo-European 
>languages, which tell stories in past tense? That is, how do you 
>know that Hebrew tells stories with a basic past reference? How do 
>you know that Hebrew doesn't tell stories in present tense, such 
>that WAYYIQTOL is effectively a present tense?
>Feel free either to answer, question, or go to town on me.
>Moore Theological College (Sydney, Australia)

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list