[b-hebrew] Michel on the Verb in the Psalms

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Thu Oct 1 08:48:31 EDT 2009

Dear Joseph,

The work of Michel is a "must" for students of the verbal system of 
Classical Hebrew. He is one of the few scholars who have managed to 
break  the straightjacket of the traditional approach to Hebrew verbs.

One strength of Michel's works is that he challenged the long-held 
axiom that the nature of Hebrew verbs could only be found by 
narrative texts. The fact is that the real nature of the verbs, for 
example the WAYYIQTOLs, can NOT be found in narrative sequences, 
because such sequences are molded after a strict form that hides the 
nature of the verbs. Verbs in a typical narrative has past reference 
and one action follows  the previous action. Because of the strict 
form, we cannot know whether the past references are semantic (being 
an intrinsic part of the verb form) or pragmatic (being caused by the 
context). By definition a narrative verb form has past reference 
regardless of which verb form is used. In Phoenician, for example, 
infinitive absolutes are used as the narrative verb, but they have no 
intrinsic past tense. Michel chose the Psalms as his corpus, and that 
is a very good choice.

Michel's assumption was that a study of the use of YIQTOL and QATAL, 
that is, the polar opposition between these forms, could help him 
determine their meaning. His conclusion is that there is no semantic 
difference between YIQTOL and WAYYIQTL, both denote consequence or 
dependence. And similarly, there is no difference between QATAL and 
WEQATAL, but Perfect " reports an event which stands in no dependent 
relationship but which is important in itself." (p. 143)

Michel's arguments against the traditional four-component model, and 
his examples are very fine. A basic weakness of almost all studies of 
Semitic verbs is that they start with a particular definition of the 
aspects, and this definition is forced upon the Hebrew verbal system, 
so to speak. Michel has avoided this trap, and his definition of the 
verb forms is a result of his studies of his corpus. However, his 
definitions are difficult to test, and in my view they are too 
general to be really meaningful.

Aspects are different in different languages, and only a cursory 
comparison of Hebrew and English verbs, shows that English aspects 
are very different from Hebrew aspects. A very fine approach, 
therefore would be to use parameters that are universal, and on this 
basis study the Hebrew verbal system without any preconceived 
conditions. A set of such universal parameters do exist, namely, 
event time, reference time, and the deictic center. Tense 
(grammaticalization of location in time) is the relationship between 
the deictic center and reference time, and aspect is the relationship 
between event time and reference time. Thus, tense represents deictic 
time, and aspect represents non-deictic time. A study of any verbal 
system by the help of these parameters may give good results. and the 
advantage is that we need not use any preconceived definitions.

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

PS. While I was preparing to send my post, I got Randall's post. And 
I would like to make some  comments: Michel does not only deal with 
syntax but also with verb meaning. Contrary to Randall I am not aware 
of the existence of the strange breed of animals called "poetic 
verbs". I am not aware of any other language where the *meaning* of a 
verb form is different in poetry and prose (What about English, for 
example?) It is true that in poetry different devices are used that 
normally lack in prose. These may influence the word order. But they 
do not change the verb meaning! We should remember that not only the 
so-called poetic books in the Tanakh are written as poetry, but also 
a great part of the prophets and other books. We cannot approach 40% 
of the Tanakh with the view that the verbs here have a different 
meaning than the verbs in the other  60%. But all these books can be 
read on the basis of exactly the same lexical and semantic approach. 
I would also add that in my opinion Michel's conclusions regarding 
the two-component model of Hebrew can be applied to the whole Tanakh.


>Has anyone read Diethelm Michel's work on tense and syntax in the 
>Psalms? If so, what are your assessments of his conclusions about 
>the function of the verb forms.
>Joseph Justiss

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