[b-hebrew] Alleged "prophetic tense"

Dr. Frank Matheus post at matheus.de
Sat Dec 8 06:42:25 EST 2012

Dear Rolf & Karl & all,


quote Karl: I’m not a great scholar in linguistics, but this doesn’t sound like anything that I learned in class, nor read up on line such as at  <http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/> http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/ . In those sources, aspect has specific references to time, and tense a different set of references to time. I’m having trouble understanding what you are saying.


FM: The definition of SIL is not bad; they define aspect as follows: “ Aspect is a grammatical category associated with  <http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsAVerbLinguistics.htm> verbs that expresses a temporal view of the event or state expressed by the verb.”


Note that this definition says that the verb expresses a state or an event and that the aspect is associated with the verb. But it doesn’t say that the verbal form expresses the aspect, or refers to a specific time. I just would complement the definition: Aspects regulate the temporal relations within texts; they are independent from speaker and recipient (and, Rolf, therefore do not have communicational functions) – whereas tenses regulate the triangle of speaker-text-recipient (they are communicational).


To understand the problem better, we can refer back to the British philosopher John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (yes, that’s his name), a colleague of Bertrand Russell, who wrote a famous article in which he wanted to prove that time does not exist. He might have failed in this regard, but he has elaborated a very prudential system to describe time, which is widely acknowledged. He assumes three series. In the A-series we meet the well-known time-line, from the dark foretime to a bright future. As my present tense is different from the present tense of, say, Ronald Reagan or of my present tense yesterday, we always have to pinpoint “moments” (as McT calls them) on the time line to make clear of what time we are talking. That means, the flow of time is connected to the viewer.  The B-series comprises of events, processes, and situations. We can compare them and say that event E is earlier than event F and that F is later than D. These relations never change, they have always been and will ever be without any alteration. When I say that Ronald Reagan died before my daughter was born, this temporal relation will always be the same till the end of days. The relations of the events are totally independent of the viewer: I just can take note of them. In the C-series then we find simple rows which are not time-related, e.g. the numbers 1 to 10. They can be reversed, but not changed (8 and 9 cannot switch places). The Unreality of Time. In: Mind. A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 17,1908, pp 457-474.


This view can easily be “grammaticalized”. Our awareness of time is reflected in our languages. So language expresses our experience with time. In real life, ergo in texts, the A- and B-series (occasionally the C-series too) mingle. What I want to make clear is that though aspects and tenses are likewise components of texts, they differ in their function, and I can distinguish them functionally. Both, tense (which domain is in the A-series) and aspect (which rules the B-series) are connected to the verb, and the finite verb may or may not express one of them or both – that always depends on the temporal structure of the text they get into. So only the text as a whole makes clear aspectual and tense relations. A text must comprise of at least one word, and it has to be uttered and received (here we have the triangle). So, by this definition, I always use tense when I create a text (cf. Comrie, Tense, 1985, p.122f), but the finite verbal form must not necessarily refer to a specific point in time – as we have seen, it very often does not. This is not deficient, as there are periphrastic signals.


When we apply these differentiations to Biblical Hebrew, we can describe the function of the verb, e.g.: Gen 2:19

וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ 


In this text it is very hard to believe  that the finite verbal form וַיָּבֵא֙ is not tense. Just by receiving the word I know that in the A-series I am advised to look at the past. The second verb  יִּקְרָא is in the past too – but its form does not tell me that. Instead it describes the future of the first verb. As it connects the two events („bring to see“ and „call“) inextricably, it represents aspect. The “bringing to see” is earlier than “call”, and this relation will never change. Besides the prospective aspect there is iterativity too. As god brings along a lot of animals, Adam has a hard job to carry out, which takes its time. But the verbal forms do not provide us with information about durativity or frequentness; these we sense by analyzing the temporal structure of the text as a whole.



Rolf, regarding 1 Kgs 1:5 I might have used the wrong terms. What I meant were the classes of the speech act theory, and in English I should have used “declaration” instead of “declarative”. To my mind declarations are connected to the suffix conjugations, but not to the prefix conjugation. There’s a chapter in my book about declarations, so we can talk this over when you have got hand on it.


Best regards,

Frank Matheus, University of Münster


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