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

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Tue Jul 7 17:11:20 EDT 2009

On Tue, Jul 7, 2009 at 11:49 AM, Rolf Furuli wrote:
> Dear Yitzhak,
> Communication is not always easy, and either I have not expressed my
> points clearly enough, or you have misunderstood something.
> The points I tried to convey were:
> 1. Verbs in real narratives must per definition have past reference
> (not past tense). David Crystal (2001) "Dictionary of Linguistics and
> Phonetics" has the following definition: "A narrative is seen as a
> recapitulation of past experience in which language is used to
> structure a sequence of (real of fictitious ) events". So Crystal
> agrees that narrative verbs have past reference.

Dear Rolf,

While I accept Crystal's definition, I think one has to separate between
past experience and past reference.  David Crystal himself knows
about "past reference" but he does not use the term here.  Therefore,
it is inaccurate to attribute to Crystal agreement that the narrative
has past reference.  Also, in the sentence you quote above, verbs are
not discussed at all.  So it is also inaccurate to attribute to the verbs
past reference.

Specifically, Comrie explicitly says (Tense, on p. 62-63 that I provided
in the earlier message) that a narrative may make use of relative
present time reference: "...[We] have claimed that the meaning of
of the English present participle is relative present time reference ...
thus the present participle in narrative sequence is interpreted as
simultaneous with the current reference point defined by the next
verb/event in the narrative sequence."

> 2. There may be properties of the narrative sequence itself that can
> not be ascribed to the verbs. The consequence of this is that while a
> narrative verb has past reference, it need not have an intrinsic past
> tense.

Comrie could have taken the easy way out and said that because
the present participle is used here in a narrative, we cannot tell its
meaning and we must look for other examples.  But he did not.  He
evidently believes the meaning can be discerned even though we
have a narrative before us.  Anyway, Comrie does not say that a
narrative verb has past reference, but rather that a narrative verb
may have non-past reference.

> No one would for example say that the infinitive absolutes
> that are the narrative verbs in Phoenician have an intrinsic past
> tense. I would say that in BH it is basically the prefixed
> conjunction WAW to the prefix verbs that signal the past reference
> and not the verb form itself; "She did that, and she did that, and
> she did that.

> Both points above accords with Comrie's views.

I don't see that.  Comrie says that normally non-past reference verbs
maintain their time reference even in narratives.  You seem to suggest
that somehow they must gain past reference because they are in

The link from before:

>>So in the following:
>>>  Comrie does not discuss WAYYIQTOL but the relative time reference in
>>>  narrative. But an important point is that he shows that a verb form
>>>  may be given a particular meaning in a narrative. But this meaning
>>>  need not be an intrinsic part of the verb form but rather an
>>>  implicature from the narrative itself (the context), Comrie's words
>>>  in an excellent way illustrate my distinction between semantics and
>>>  pragmatics. And they also imply that the verb forms used in narrative
>>>  contexts can have different meanings. For example, any verb form used
>>  > in narratives *must* per definition have past reference.

Again, Comrie does not say that any verb form in narratives "*must*"
per definition have past reference.  I don't know where you are getting
this because Comrie seems to say quite the opposite.

>>The above, specifically the last two sentences, appears to misread into
>>Comrie the exact position that he argues against -- that verb tenses in
>>narrative receive a different tense due to their use in a narrative context.
> No you are wrong

Could you elaborate?  Could you give an example of where Comrie does
say a verb must have past reference if it is used in narrative?  Why does
Comrie go to this whole explanation of justifying his belief in a pure
relative present reference of the participle in a narrative context if he
thinks that the verb has past reference in a narrative context regardless
of its intrinsic verb form?

>>So while many linguists probably would agree with Comrie, I doubt most
>>linguists would accept that an imperfective verb form can be used in
>>narrative contexts.  In any case, without a cross-linguistic analysis like
>>Comrie's, and without having examples of the use of imperfective
>>aspects in narrative contexts in living languages which have perfective/
>>imperfective distinctions, it is very hard to see how an argument could
>>be made for Biblical Hebrew to have such uses.
> The arguments above are very dangerous linguistically speaking. Each
> language must be analyzed in its own right, and it is fallacious to
> analyze dead languages in the light of living ones. There are more
> than 20 different analyses of perfective and imperfective aspects, so
> which one should we choose?

Actually, I think it is fallacious and dangerous to do otherwise.  You can
suggest particular meanings for Hebrew verb forms but without native
speakers you have no way to know if that is indeed what they intend.
If a certain use of the verb in a hypothetical unattested case is acceptable
or not.  At least, if you have a cross linguistic comparison from another
living language you can go ahead and show that it is possible to have
had such an interpretation.  Knowing that something is possible but not
knowing if it is right is slightly better than not knowing whether it is
possible or right.  Furthermore, if there are no cross linguistic
comparisons with living languages you have essentially a large ad-hoc
assumption regarding Hebrew.  It is all very unsound.

> As for a cross-linguistic analysis, we have exactly the same
> phenomena in Aramaic, Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Akkadian as in
> Hebrew, the same verb form can be used with past, present, and future
> meaning.

And if you have such widespread attestation, it is all the more important
to show these phenomena in Arabic, Neo-Aramaic and Ethiopic.  Otherwise,
it suggests that you are reading into the dead languages things that are
not there -- that whereas in the living languages speakers exist to tell
you when you're wrong, in the dead languages, without speakers, there
is simply no one alive to tell you you're wrong.

I note that some of the same concepts were raised by Peter Kirk 10 years

I am retracting my issue with the use of imperfective in narrative.  But I
see no place where Comrie suggests that verbs lose their tense/aspect
in a narrative.  Everything I read in Comrie goes against this assertion.

Yitzhak Sapir

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