[b-hebrew] Alleged "prophetic tense"

Dr. Frank Matheus post at matheus.de
Thu Dec 6 12:55:19 EST 2012

Dear Karl, dear Rolf & all,



1 Tense is a deictic phenomenon as it concerns the communicational activity of a deictic center resp. deictic community

2 Aspects are a non-deictic phenomenon as they concern the internal temporal structure of an uttered text.


Karl: Are you saying that in a language that grammaticalizes tense that that grammaticalization is “aspect”? 


My Answer: 

“Aspects” are the unchangeable time relations between events, processes or situations in uttered texts. In my example of Santa the relation between “tomorrow” and “coming into town” will never change (the Deixis might shift when the sentence is uttered under different circumstances, e.g. when I quote it 25 years later); the aspect is prospective. Some languages do grammaticalize aspects, e.g the English with its continuous forms. But again, these aspects unfold its force within texts. “She was reading, when John entered the room”: In this sentence the relation between the two simultaneous actions (which indicates imperfectivity) will never be altered.


Karl: As I am writing this response (present tense, because I haven’t finished yet), I thought of three exceptions: the present tense can be used to indicate intent—present plans for future accomplishment (future perfective)—, subjunctive and optative moods require the use of the present tense grammaticalization even for future actions, and idiomatic phrases that use the present tense. As far as I know, all other uses of the present tense for other than present actions is considered incorrect use of the language.


My answer:

But this is exactly the point. Comrie and others define tense as the information about the “when”. If I don’t get the answer from the finite verbal form – as it can be used in such different ways – it does not comply with the definition. And here is the point that Rolf makes:


Rolf: I argue that because English present can have past, present, and future reference, it is not a tense. In other words, English has a past and a future tense, but no present tense.


My answer: This might be right. But I would argue that our definition of “tense” is too narrow: It does not need to point to a specific time to be called a tense.


Rolf: What do you mean by "the deictic character of verbal forms in Biblical Hebrew? How can you be certain that what you call "deictic character" is semantic and not pragmatic?


My answer: I would differentiate between time relations in a text (non-deictic) and the deictic process of communication. As communication always has a pragmatic purpose (else no one would communicate), the text as the output of a communication implicates an illocutional force. This force can be sensed in a different way, depending on the role of the recipient and emitter. The sentence אֲנִ֣י אֶמְלֹ֑ךְ (1Ki 1:5 WTT) can be understood in several ways: I will be king (assertion), I want to be king (expressive), It’s me who will be king [so I have to do something in order to become king:]  (commissive), It’s me who will be king [so YOU have to do something so that I can become king:]  (directive), but it cannot be understood as declarative. Please note: Though it might differ in its pragmatic orientation, the sentence is always pointing to the future. In this case the deictic force of the finite verb has tense character; along comes the imperfective aspect, because a part of the future and “being king” happen at the same time.


All the best,






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