[b-hebrew] Opinions on J. Wash Watts "A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament"

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Wed Nov 30 13:35:30 EST 2011

Dear Kevin,

 From the beginning of my Hebrew studies I had problems with 
understanding and accepting the explanations of Hebrew verbs. But I 
had no alternative to what I was taught. It was refreshing to read 
the grammar of Washington Watts and later the treatises of Alexander 
Sperber from 1937/38, and 1939; and his grammar from 1964.  These 
works showed that the traditional view of Hebrew verbs had great 
weaknesses. It was after reading Washington Watts that I decided to 
make a thorough study of the issues myself. After my MA, I used ten 
years to study all the 80.000 finite and infinite verbs of the 
Tanakh, the DSS, Ben Sira, and the old Inscriptions. The result was a 
dissertation suggesting a completely new understanding of the verbal 
system of Classical Hebrew.

I agree with George that it is important to distinguish Aktionsart 
from aspect. A part of this distinction is to have a clear definition 
of aspect. I have seen more than 20 different definition of aspect, 
so which one should we use? This is a weakness of many studies of 
Hebrew verbs: A particular aspect definition is chosen, and the verbs 
are seen through the glasses of this definition. It is obvious that 
different aspect definitions will lead to different interpretations 
and conclusions. Moreover, it seems that most students of Hebrew 
assume that aspect is a universal property, which means that aspect 
in English is the same as aspect in Hebrew. This is definitely not 
the case!

Is it possible to study Hebrew verbs without the straightjacket of a 
particular definition of aspect? Yes, it is! In linguistics there are 
parameters that are more fundamental than aspect, and these 
parameters are not language-dependent, but they are universal. These 
parameters were first described by H. Reichenbach in 1947, and they 
have been extensively used in linguistic studies since then. The 
parameters are "deictic center," "event time," and reference time." 
If we analyze Hebrew verbs on the basis of these three parameters, we 
will see particular patterns, and a definition of Hebrew aspects will 
be the result of such analyses. The parameters works for both aspect 
and tense, because aspect is the function of reference time and event 
time, and tense is the function of the deictic center and reference 

A word of caution regarding tense: It is of paramount importance to 
distinguish between temporal reference (the time being construed on 
the basis of the context) and tense (the time that is an inherent 
property of the verb form). I am not aware of any Hebrew grammatical 
work that systematically has distinguished temporal reference from 

In my view, Hebrew is not more difficult than other languages. What 
makes it look difficult are the explanations of modern grammatical 
books. A student need not read many pages of Hebrew text before he or 
she observes verbs that contradict the explanations. What will be 
seen is that  all verb forms can have past, present, and future 
reference. This is exactly what you and Karl have observed. Without 
going into detail, I will say that the Classical Hebrew verbs 
represent two aspects, YIQTOL, WEYIQTOL, and WAYYIQTOL represent the 
imperfective aspect, and QATAL, and WEQATAL represent the perfective 
aspect.  There are two reasons why all these forms can be used with 
past, present, and future reference, and that all of them can portray 
completed and incomplete situations:

1. The aspects have some properties that are similar and some 
properties that are mutually exclusive.

2. In some situations where a clear picture (details) of a situation 
need to be given, only one of the aspects can be used. In situations 
without a requirement of precision, both aspects can be used.

The last point can be illustrated by the difference between a 
specific phonetic transcription and a phonemic transcription.  A 
specific phonetic transcription can both give the sounds and details 
about the articulation, whereas the phonemic transcription only may 
indicate the pronunciation, as far as the pronunciation distinguish 
between meanings. Several different phonetic transcriptions can be 
subsumed under a phonemic transcription.  Let us assume that we have 
three different phonetic transcriptions of the same word, A1, A2, and 
A3, All three can be subsumed under the phonemic transcription AA of 
the word, which means that AA can represent each of the three 
phonetic transcriptions. But let us say that A3 in addition to 
expressing the broad pronunciation, also expresses the place in the 
mouth where the sounds are articulated, and a different pronunciation 
of one letter (e.g. clear "l" in contrast to dark "l"). If the writer 
wants to make these details visible, only A3 can be used. But if he 
only wants to make the pronunciation without details visible, AA can 
be used both for A1, A2, and A3. The reason for this situation is 
that AA and A3 have some common properties, but A3 has some 
properties that cannot be expressed by AA. Similarly, the aspects 
have some common properties, and each aspect has some properties that 
the other does not have. The choice of aspect, therefore, can depend 
on the requirement for precision in the verbal expression.
(For definitions, see 

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli

>Thank you for sharing your comments.
>You wrote:
>It?s been a long time since I last looked at his work. I was taught
>in class that the Qatal refers to past, the Yiqtal to future, and
>participle to present. In Biblical Hebrew, that is clearly wrong. Is this
>what you learned?
>What I learned in class is that both perfects and imperfects can have a
>past, present and future tense. That has troubled me ever since to the
>extent that I wrote my own rule that perfects are almost always past and
>imperfects are almost always future. That results in a few novel
>translations compared to published English translations, especially when it
>comes to prophetic or potentially prophetic statements. Watts' book
>suggests the aspect notion over time/tense. He says perfects are completed
>action and imperfects are continuous action. That seems to be what is
>nominal teaching regarding tense in Greek. However, I learned Greek from
>James Voelz and in his textbook/teaching he emphasizes aspect in an
>entirely different way (present tense is actual focus on action, imperfect
>tense is focus on connection, etc.). Watts seems to put the full time/tense
>fully in control of context. That is unsatisfying to me. It seems to make
>the language even less user friendly for native speakers and writers (of
>old). In my beliefs regarding the origin of the text, it does not fit well
>either. So, I don't really like the perfects and imperfects can be
>past/present/future that I learned in class and read from Watts. Of course,
>I'm an engineer in profession so I like things to be precise. I have to
>laugh at my Hebrew teacher who said Hebrew was easy for engineers and
>scientists to learn because it is so systematic and methodical. Without
>specific tense and without vowels it seems to be more in the realm of
>abstract art (that's a joke).
>- Kevin Buchs
>b-hebrew mailing list
>b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org

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