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

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Tue Jul 7 11:18:28 EDT 2009

>As I argued in my review, the examples of wayyiqtol you present as
>demonstrating that wayyiqtol is imperfective are better taken as
>non-prototypical rather than demonstrating what the uncancellable
>semantics of the form are. You have yet to counter this argument and
>demonstrate why such minority of examples are wholly diagnostic of the
>majority use of wayyiqtol. That you refuse to show how common examples
>like wayyo'mer in Gen 12:1 can be taken as instantiating imperfective
>aspect shows to me that the theory is upside down: better to take
>majority of function as prototypical, which then allows for
>non-prototypical examples like some present tense use or imperfective
>use etc.
>David Kummerow.

It is possible to approach the BH verbal system 
in many ways, by the prototypical method, by 
discourse analysis, by a grammaticalization 
approach, and by a method that distinguishes 
between semantics and pragmatics.  Every method 
has of course its advantages and disadvantages. 
My personal concerns relate to the lack of 
controls of most methods, to the point where 
almost everything goes. One can simply say 
without any particular data (if I understand the 
method correctly) that "this form is 
non-prototypical" because it is different from 
the majority of similar forms.  I would like to 
refer to some examples.

The so-called "prophetic perfect" is a good 
example. In the 19th century (and in many cases 
also today) scholars viewed QATAL as the 
perfective aspect with the meaning "completed 
action". In the 19th century scholars  ( for 
example A. B. Davidson) realized that many QATALs 
had future reference.   When this was the case (I 
list 965 examples of QATAL with future 
meaning-not including future perfect), the action 
still *had to be* completed. So when it factually 
was not completed, it was postulated that it was 
completed in the mind of the prophet!  This is an 
ad hoc-explanation in order to save the 
definition of QATAL.  I go in the very opposite 
direction by arguing that prophetic perfect is a 
fiction, and that the 965 QATALs do have  real 
future reference.

Other interesting examples of how far scholars go 
in order to save their theory, are the writings 
of H. Birkeland and F. R. Blake.  For 40 years 
until the mid-1960s Harris Birkeland was 
professor of Semitics at the University of Oslo. 
He believed that WAYYIQTOL  represented past 
tense, and I was taught that when I started my 
Hebrew studies. Another outstanding Semitic 
scholar in the 40s and 50s was F. R. Blake, who 
just as strongly as Birkeland defended the past 
tense meaning of WAYYIQTOL. In their writings 
(Birkeland (1935) "Ist das hebräische Imperfektum 
consecutiv ein Präteritum?" Acta Orient VIII; F. 
R. Blake (1951) "A Resurvey of the Hebrew Tenses 
With and Appendix") they both discussed the same 
about 125 particular WAYYIQTOLs seemingly with 
non-past reference, and both concluded that these 
were not counterexamples against the view that 
WAYYIQTOL represented past tense. What is 
interesting, however, are their arguments. Blake 
argued that most of the examples really had 
non-past reference, but they were wrongly pointed 
by the Masoretes and were actually copulative 
imperfects. Birkeland accepted that they were 
correctly pointed and by  the help of some 
linguistic acrobatics, he took them to have past 
reference. Both *knew* that WAYYIQTOL represented 
past tense, and this had to be defended with all 

>Then this just means that you read back the meaning of the minority of
>uses into the majority of uses. But how do we know that the semantic
>meaning of the majority of uses wasn't in part cancelled to allow for
>the minority of uses? How do we know that the meaning found in the
>minority of uses is also by default to be attributed to the majority of
>uses. Here work on frequency in linguistics would tell against your
position as I argued in my review.

If we are concerned with temporal reference, the 
situation is very clear, because the deictic 
center and reference time is visible in most 
verbs. The only possible candidate for tense is 
WAYYIQTOL, and because the almost one thousand 
examples with non-past reference occur in normal 
contexts and by no means can be viewed as special 
cases, they strongly argue against a past tense 
interpretation. The reason for the great number 
of WAYYIQTOLs with past reference, is the big 
place of narrative texts in the BH, and here the 
verbs must have past reference.

If we are concerned with aspect, it is absolutely 
wrong to speak of "the majority of uses" and "the 
minority of uses". This is so because in most 
verbs we simply cannot see the relationship 
between event time and reference time, so we 
cannot know their aspect (one needs clairvoyance 
to do so). Therefore we must analyze the verbs 
where this relationship can be seen. And in these 
cases we see that both WAYYIQTOL and YIQTOL have 
imperfective characteristics and QATAL and 
WEQATAL have perfective characteristics. Here 
there is no majority and minority!

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli

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