[b-hebrew] b-hebrew Uncancellable meaning and Hebrew verbs

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Tue Jul 7 03:19:02 EDT 2009

Dear James,

I will first give a sketch of my theory of meaning and communication. 
( I started to work on this theory when I many years ago studied 
applied linguistics and psycholinguistics). In everyday speech we 
usually need not qualify the word "meaning," but in scholarly 
discussions we should tell whether we speak of lexical, grammatical, 
syntactical, pragmatic or semantic meaning. But that is rarely done.

As for communication, my view is that in the words of a language 
there is a potential for many different meanings, and communication 
means that particular parts of this potential is made visible for the 
listener or reader and the rest of the potential is kept invisible. 
Various tools are used to signal this.

Lexical meaning is not found in lexicons or Word books but in the 
minds of the native speakers of a particular language. In lexicons we 
only find glosses, i.e., the words in the target languages that are 
used to translate particular word in the source language. A word 
exists in the mind as a concept with a rather clear nucleus but the 
concept is fuzzy towards the edges. (Sometimes a word signals two or 
more concepts.) When a particular word, say a substantive, is used in 
a clause, the other words of that clause, or the wider context will 
help to see which  part of the concept signalled by the words that is 
made visible and which parts are kept invisible. So the context does 
not generate new lexical meaning, but it makes visible what already 
is there, Here we should think of Ogden's "triangle of signification" 
with  word, concept, and reference at the corners- the lexical 
meaning of a word is one thing, is reference is another. We may use 
the word NP$ as an example. The core of the concept signalled is a 
living creature (in BH never a spirit or a ghost). The same is true 
in Akkadian, but in Ge'ez, modern Hebrew, and Arabic the root may 
also refer to an invisible spirit. In different contexts NP$ can 
refer to living animals, living humans, to life, to the right to 
live, and even to a carcass (a dead soul that once was living). All 
these different *references* are allowed by the concept in the Hebrew 
mind and they do not represent new lexical meanings.

Verbs are used to signal actions and states, and in order to make 
visible all the subtleties of a particular action, more complex 
signals must be used. Each verb also signals a concept in the mind, 
and apart from verbs where two original roots have fused, the verb 
concept is sometimes "smaller" than the "noun concept. Each verb has 
a particular Aktionsart (or state): some are uncancellable and others 
are not. Different factors, such a 
singularity/plurality/definitenness/indefiniteness of the verbal 
arguments (subject and object) and adverbials can be used to signal a 
modification of the Aktionsart. A verb clause may refer to this world 
or to other possible worlds (being modal), and in Hebrew, this can be 
signalled by morphological means, by word order, and by the context. 
There are also other subtleties that can be made visible, such as the 
functions of subject and object relative to the action -active, 
passive, reflexive, causative etc. these are expressed by the stems. 
The native speakers of BH were interested in the time of the actions 
relative to the present moment, and this they could construe on the 
basis of the context, while most modern languages have tenses that 
are morphologically expressed.

Then we come to the aspects. My view is that the imperfective and the 
perfective aspect can be compared to peepholes through which 
different parts of the action are made visible. This means that 
aspects do not generate any new meaning, but they make visible 
something that already is there, and keep the rest invisible. Thus, 
the other words of the clause made visible a part of the concept 
signalled by a substantive, and the aspect made visible a particular 
part of the verb action. In my presentation these "peepholes" 
function on three planes:

1) The angle of the focus. This depends on whether reference time 
intersects event time, a) before its beginning (conative) action), b) 
including the beginning and a small part of the action (ingressive), 
c) progressive (action viewed after the beginning and before the 
end), d) egressive ( a part of the action and the end implied), and 
e) resultative (the focus is on the resulting state).

2) The breadth of the focus. This depends on the area of E that is 
intersected (and made visible) by R (a small part, a bigger part, or 
the whole of E).

3) The quality of the focus. This depends whether the details of a 
part of E is made visible or not.

It is obvious that most of the lexical meaning and the meaning of 
verb clauses is pragmatic, i.e., the meaning can be construed on the 
basis of the context. The minds of the native BH speakers could 
ascertain these different meanings, but it is much more difficult for 
us who try to ascertain the BH meaning on the basis of induction.

On the basis of the nature of meaning in BH, most of my dissertation 
deals with conversational pragmatic implicature. However, in order to 
communicate in an understandable way, there ought to be some fixed 
points that do not change. Otherwise we would have linguistic 
anarchy. Therefore, in my work with my dissertation I was looking for 
semantic meaning (uncancellable meaning). Such a meaning was not 
found in the temporal references of the verbs. I found no tense in 
the system, while a claim of WAYYIQTOL representing past tense, is 
tantamount to saying that it has a semantic meaning. In connection 
with the three different planes of the aspects I was also looking for 
semantic meaning; I was looking for characteristics of the 
imperfective aspect that was not found in the perfective one. I found 
two basic similarities and four differences. And in my analysis these 
differences constitute semantic meaning.

Above I have outlined my view of meaning, and let us continue.  As 
you said in one post, meaning has changed and will change over time. 
But that is not necessary for all kinds of meaning. When I speak of 
"semantic meaning," this is a synchronic property. On the basis of my 
study of the texts of BH, I see some characteristics that I view to 
be early and later. But I see no evolution in the meaning of the 
verbal system. So, after a careful diachronic study I have a basis 
for treating the BH verbs as if they were synchronic.

Broman Olsen has refined the definitions of event time, reference 
time and deictic center compared with Reichenbach and Comrie, and I 
find that her discussion of tense and aspect in the English verbal 
system is superb- better than anything else I have seen. However, she 
assumes that the aspectual properties found in English, namely 
"incomplete" and "completed" are universal, and here I disagree with 

Therefore, the understanding of the principles and definitions is 
language dependent, and your understanding seen below is related to 
Hebrew. Let us start with English. I take the participle as the 
imperfective aspect and the perfect as the perfective one. In my 
view, the aspects represent semantic meaning, i.e., uncancellable 
meaning. The uniform interpretation of the participle used as a verb 
is ongoing action (the end is not reached) and the perfect signals 
completed actions (the actions are terminated). Examples of 
participles expressing completed action and perfects expressing 
ongoing action are rare and almost nonexistent, and as long as such 
can be explained as special cases, that does not blot out the uniform 

I define tense as a "grammaticalization of location in time," which 
means that simple past  in English has a uniform interpretation. 
There are exceptions to this, and these are more numerous than in the 
case of the aspects, but these exceptions can be explained as special 
cases as well.

In Hebrew there are no tenses, so a great part of what is semantic 
meaning in English is lacking. The Hebrew aspects can not  be defined 
as uncompleted and completed. Thus, the semantic meaning of English 
is lacking in the aspectual realm as well. So, what basically remains 
of semantic meaning in BH  are verbs with an uncancellable 
Aktionsart, durativity, dynamicity, and telicity, and a few 
differences between the perfective and imperfective aspect. 
Everything else represents pragmatics. I have advocated that temporal 
reference can change but not "tense" in the technical sense of the 
word. the uses of the BH aspects are very diverse, but there are some 
properties that do not change.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>as far as I understand Rolf's work he claims that both tense and 
>aspect are cancellable. That was the whole point of his providing
>refined definitions of imperfect and perfect aspects.
>James Christian

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